Five years ago, New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson made headlines by becoming the first openly gay bishop elected in the Episcopal Church or in the wider Anglican Communion.
Robinson is making headlines again-this time for his upcoming civil union ceremony with his partner of 20 years, Mark Andrew. The ceremony was supposed to be a public affair on the Capitol steps in Concord, N.H., but security concerns have moved the event behind closed doors with a tightly guarded guest list, time and location.
Robinson talked about the upcoming ceremony, and what message it will send to Anglican bishops gathered later this summer at the Lambeth Conference in England. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How are the ceremony plans coming together?
A: We’re very, very much looking forward to it. The first part will be a civil ceremony that will be presided over by our lawyer, and then we’ll proceed with the service of Holy Communion in which we give thanks to God for showing up in our relationship.
Q: You came under fire not too long ago for saying you always wanted to be a “June bride.” Do you now wish you had chosen different words?
A: Yeah, yes and no. On the one hand, it’s just a sign of how little humor there is in this whole debate. What I was trying to say is that all of us grow up wanting our relationships to be affirmed by our friends, and gay and lesbian people are no different.
Q: Are you calling this a wedding, or a civil union, or a commitment ceremony or something else?
A: One of the things that drives me nuts is that everyone in the press calls it a wedding, and they say we’re honeymooning in Lambeth. Of all the places I’d want to go on a honeymoon, Lambeth is the last place I’d think of.
It’s very clearly a civil ceremony, and that’s what we’re availing ourselves of.
Q: How is this different-or is it?-in your mind from the wedding ceremony you had those many years ago with your wife?
A: Probably the simplest thing I could say is that if the state of New Hampshire had passed a law for people of the same gender to get married, that’s what we’d be doing. But that’s simply not possible.
We’ve never called this a marriage because that’s not what this is. But in intent and depth of commitment, it’s every bit as serious as what we did in marriage.
Q: In your new book, “In the Eye of the Storm,” you talk about the fact that Britney Spears could go off to Las Vegas in the middle of the night and get married, but you and your partner are told you cannot get married. Is that frustrating to you?
A: It’s frustrating not only to me but to faithful gay and lesbian couples everywhere. At a time when some heterosexual couples are taking that commitment very lightly, it seems ironic to deny the right to marriage to those who are deeply and profoundly serious about that commitment.
Q: What does a bishop wear to his civil union ceremony?
A: I will not be wearing my collar and (bishop’s) purple shirt because I’m not the bishop that day. I’ll be one of the grooms, one of the participants. It will just be tuxedos-very boring and unflamboyant.
Q: Tell me about the church blessing service. What’s it going to look like?
A: We’re now less than three weeks away and I still haven’t put the liturgy together. It’s really a service of Holy Communion with special prayers for us. It’s not meant to mimic a heterosexual wedding.
Q: What readings and music have you chosen?
A: I’ve still not chosen the Scriptures, and the preacher is breathing down my neck for that. That’s on my list of things to do.
Q: Is there going to be a wedding cake?
A: No wedding cake. No, none.
Q: So no tiers of buttercream with two little grooms on top?
A: That’s exactly right.
Q: The Lambeth Conference is coming up this summer, and you said in the book that if you did your ceremony before Lambeth, it would be seen as offensive, and if you did it after Lambeth, people would think you didn’t care what Lambeth had just decided. So does it matter when you do it?
A: It does. The real reason we’re doing it now is that death threats have already started coming in from England and at our home answering machine. I am simply not willing to travel to the Lambeth Conference this summer and put my life in danger without putting into place the protections for my beloved partner and my daughter and granddaughters that a civil union affords us. It’s simply that simple.
Q: So you’re getting death threats and you weren’t officially invited to Lambeth anyway. Why go? Wouldn’t it be safer to just stay home?
A: It almost always would be easier not to follow what you discern to be God’s call. Even if it is dangerous, the Anglican Communion should not be allowed to meet without the reminder that bishops are meant to serve all of God’s people, including gay and lesbian people. Our voices will be there to remind them of that.
Q: Obviously this is a personal ceremony between you and your partner. But you’re doing it in a public way. What’s the message for the wider church, or the nation?
A: First of all, I do this because I love my partner and I’m committed to him for life. Mark and I have been together for 20 years, and this service will be in thanksgiving for God showing up during those 20 years, as well as in the future. We could have sneaked off to the town clerk’s office and solemnized our union and it would be legal, but that’s not how we’re built.
I’m keenly aware that what I’m about to do was absolutely unthinkable when I was growing up. Gay and lesbian kids today need to know that their relationships can have the kind of affirmation from the culture and the church that they deserve.
Q: Any plans for a honeymoon?
A: We get an entire two days, and then it’s back to my day job.