Openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson looks to inspire others to the faith

Lexington native V. Gene Robinson says he never considered stepping down during the furor over his selection eight years ago as the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop.

"All during that period, I took everything to God in prayer and said, 'If I'm not meant to do this thing, you need to let me know,'" Robinson said Tuesday. "And what I got from God was encouragement and support and love."

Robinson, 64, will make his first public appearance in Lexington in several years Saturday night, when he's scheduled to speak at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael the Archangel. He will preach at the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Louisville on Sunday morning.

Robinson was raised in the Disciples of Christ denomination, attended Bethany Christian Church in Jessamine County and graduated from Lafayette High School, where he was valedictorian. He began attending the Episcopal Church while a student at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. As an Episcopal clergyman, he has served in New Jersey and New Hampshire. His parents, Charles Victor and Imogene Robinson, and family still live in Central Kentucky.

The election of Robinson as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 set off widespread protests within the Episcopal Church and its international parent organization, the Anglican Communion. Divisions erupted among congregations in many areas, including Kentucky, with some leaving the Episcopal Church to affiliate with more conservative Anglican churches.

At the time, Robinson already had spent more than two decades in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, directing a retreat center and later assisting the bishop. Robinson said he expected some negative reaction when he became bishop, but he admits he was surprised by the depth of opposition.

"I had been in the diocese 28 years; people here knew me and for some reason they thought I might make a pretty good bishop," he said. "No one here thought they were making some kind of political statement.

"We thought it would be controversial ... for perhaps three to six months, and then we'd just settle down to be bishop of New Hampshire. But when it went not only national but international, it took the diocese and me by surprise."

Robinson said he received negative calls and letters from church leaders and from people on the street. Prayer carried him through, he said.

"I think that if I'd ever discerned that God didn't want me to go through with this, I wouldn't have," he said. "But the message I received from God was always, 'Keep walking forward and trust in me.'

"God seemed palpably close during this whole time. I could not have done it without him being close like that."

Robinson continues to serve as bishop of New Hampshire, but he plans to retire in January 2013. When he announced his intentions last fall, he cited the toll that the past few years had taken on him and his family.

Robinson insists, however, that he won't slip quietly into the background when he retires. He says he plans to be active and visible, talking to people about God, particularly young people.

"Many of them have been turned off by institutional religion or have found it to be narrow-minded and not all that helpful to them," he said. "But I want to make the case for them giving God another chance, and giving the church another chance.

"They know I've been given a petty hard time by the church, and yet I'm still devoted to it. I think they're intrigued at how I could stay in a church that hasn't always treated me nicely. I love to tell them why, and I hope to be doing a lot of that on college campuses."

Controversies over the role of gays and lesbians in the church continue. But Robinson says he thinks many Episcopal churches have moved beyond the storm that swirled around him in 2003. He noted that the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles named a lesbian as assistant bishop more than a year ago with relatively moderate opposition.

"I think that shows you the change that's come about over the past eight years," he said. "We're not all of one mind about this, ... but I think the Episcopal Church has made clear that sexual orientation will not be a factor in choosing our clergy or choosing some of them to be bishops."

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