Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson knows he is inviting death threats by entering into a civil union with his gay partner on the eve of his church’s biggest ecclesiastical conference. And he says it is worth it, because he is doing what God asks of him.
“When your life is at stake, you learn that there are things in life that are much worse than death,” Bishop Robinson told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Thursday in New York. “That’s the great reward of being a Christian. Not living your life — that’s worse than death. And if something were to happen to me, I would know that I am doing what I discern God is calling me to do.”
In 2003, Robinson became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church when he was elected by the congregations of New Hampshire. Dubbed “the most controversial Christian in the world,” he faced death threats then and wore a bulletproof vest during his consecration. Now, he has announced that he will “marry” Mark Andrew, his partner of some 20 years, a move sure to outrage conservatives in his religion.
He said he is entering the civil union because he wants his partner as well as his two daughters from a previous marriage to have the same legal protections afforded heterosexual couples.
“I am simply not going to put my life in jeopardy without putting into place the protections for my beloved partner and my children and my grandchildren that are offered to me in a civil union,” Robinson said. “I think any husband or wife would want to do that.”
Banned from conference
The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Church of England, or Anglican Church. Once every 10 years, Anglican bishops from around the world gather in England to pray and discuss church policy and doctrine at what is known as the Lambeth Conference. Robinson has been told he cannot attend the conference this July as a full participant because of protests from conservative congregations, mainly in Africa and Latin America. But he is going anyway, to stand outside the meetings and testify for others like him.
“The table that God invites us to includes everyone, and the church is going to get it wrong sometimes,” Robinson said. “I think the Archbishop of Canterbury has gotten this wrong by not inviting everyone. I’m going to go and offer myself and talk with anyone who wants to talk to someone who is unashamedly gay and unashamedly Christian.”
He knows that some people will not accept that.
“My life is under threat again for my attending the Lambeth Conference this summer, but we’re told in Scripture that it will always be costly to follow in God’s way,” Robinson said, his tone full of calm conviction. “When you try to love the world the way God loves the world, you’re going to get in trouble. The prophets of Judaism got in trouble. Jesus got in trouble.”
Conflict within the church
When he became a bishop in June 2003, he had appeared on TODAY and told Lauer that he would consider stepping down if his presence created a rift in the church. Since then, about 100 of the 8,000 Episcopal parishes in the United States have split with the American church and aligned themselves with the conservative Anglicans in Africa. Robinson pointed out that it is a very small number as a percentage of all congregations.
“It’s important to keep that in proportion,” he said. “But conflict is no surprise to the church; it’s been there from the very beginning.”
In any event, he no longer sees that he has a choice in whether to remain as bishop or not. “I’ve come to understand that this is a particular historic role that God is calling me to play at this moment,” Robinson told Lauer. “God has seemed so palpably close in this, there’s no way I could regret this. My job as a bishop of the church is to exhibit God’s love for all of God’s people, especially my enemies.”
He has written a book, “In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God,” published Thursday. In it, he writes, “It's time that progressive Christians rescue the Bible from the Religious Right, which has held it hostage and claimed it as its own private territory for too long.”
Robinson feels that people who use the Bible to condemn homosexuals fail to understand Scripture. It is called an abomination for a man to lie with another man as with a woman, but, he writes, the Bible also says it is an abomination to eat pork or shellfish, to wear clothing made of two different fibers, or to sow two different types of seed in the same field.
“We’ve often misinterpreted Scripture,” Robinson told Lauer. “We’ve used Scripture to justify slavery; the subjugation of women. And now we’re realizing that what the Bible initially seems to say about same-sex relationships is not actually what we’re talking about today — faithful, monogamous, lifelong-intentioned relationships between people of the same sex.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints