There is a truly shocking journalistic development in the Los Angeles Times report about the sudden and surprising early retirement of one of the world's most famous bishops -- Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the leader of the tiny Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. He was, of course, the first openly gay and noncelibate bishop enthroned in the worldwide Anglican Communion. More on that shocking Los Angeles Times story in a moment. Hang in there with me.
The story at the Boston Globe, offers precisely what one would expect from this story. Here's the top of the piece:
New Hampshire's Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop whose consecration sparked a global religious controversy, announced yesterday that he would take early retirement, citing stress from the years at the center of the firestorm.
Robinson, who has been bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire since 2003, will be 65 when he steps down in January 2013, seven years below the mandatory retirement age for Episcopal bishops. He announced his plans at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in Concord. ... Robinson made it clear that the stress of being the focal point of an often bitter debate over whether an openly gay man should lead a church that disapproves of homosexuality has been very difficult for him and his family.
"The fact is, the last seven years have taken their toll on me, my family, and you," he said. "Death threats, and the now-worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop, have been a constant strain, not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark, who has faithfully stood with me every minute of the last seven years."
The story, as you would expect, includes some of the painful personal details -- including Robinson's battle with alcoholism. He reported that he has been sober for five years. The bishop also said that he planned to remain active as a public point person on gay-rights issues. The first official MSNBC chaplain?
In terms of background, the Globe offered these essential facts:
In 1998, the Anglican church passed a resolution declaring homosexual acts as "incompatible with Scripture." But the church also said it condemned homophobia and declared "homosexual persons ... are loved by God."
Robinson's consecration in 2003 caused some conservatives to turn away from the Episcopal Church and affiliate with more conservative Anglican churches based in Africa and South America. In 2007, the Rev. William L. Murdoch split from the Episcopal Church to become a bishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya. In doing so, his flock walked away from All Saints Episcopal Church in West Newbury and a $1 million endowment, purchasing a closed Catholic church in Amesbury, which is now called All Saints Anglican parish.
The key, as always, is that this is a highly complicated story with local, regional, national and global angles. It would have been better, for example, to say that the global Anglican Communion passed the controversial 1998 resolution affirming centuries of Christian moral theology on marriage and family. It helps to know what actions have been taken at what level of the local-regional-national-global Anglican chain of command (or lack thereof). That's complicated. The local reference to West Newbury, for example, is a solid local example of the global conflict hitting home.
The report in the New York Times is very similar to the one in the Globe. However, it does add this helpful background material:
... (Those) who know Bishop Robinson say he has no intention of retiring from public life. His status as a symbol in the international gay rights movement means that after he steps down, he will have no shortage of platforms from which to preach his message that God blesses gay relationships too. (Through a spokesman, he declined interview requests.)
Bishop Robinson has become a national figure. In 2009, he gave the invocation for the opening event of the inauguration of President Obama. He also sees himself as an evangelist to people alienated from Christianity.
The election of Bishop Robinson in a church in Concord, N. H., in 2003 was the shot heard round the Christian world. It cracked open a longstanding divide between theological liberals and conservatives in both the Episcopal Church and its parent body, the Anglican Communion -- those churches affiliated with the Church of England in more than 160 countries.
That's helpful. Readers are given a glimpse of the larger context.
However, these Globe and the Times articles share one other major similarity. Neither one contains any quoted material from an Anglican or an Episcopalian critical of Robison's election and his approach to doctrine, a subject that is much broader than sexuality issues (see this classic Peter Boyer piece in The New Yorker). There are appropriate and logical voices in these stories that defend the bishop. However, their presence implies that critics exist.
OK, so it's clear that Robinson is loved in his diocese. Things get more complicated at the national and global levels. Where are these voices on the other side? How are they responding to his sudden retirement?
This brings us to the following shocking passage in the Los Angeles Times report. It covers all the basics and then there is this:
Robinson's election as bishop in 2003 was a seismic event in the worldwide Anglican Communion, whose U.S. branch is the Episcopal Church. It prompted dozens of U.S. congregations and several dioceses to leave the church and affiliate with more conservative Anglican churches overseas.
Christopher Sugden, a British Anglican who is executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream, a group that promotes orthodox teachings, said the communion remained divided by the decision to consecrate gay bishops.
"His retirement doesn't change anything," Sugden said. "The issue is the refusal of the Episcopal Church to adhere to the agreed doctrinal standards of the communion, and their leadership's determination to promote, and in North America to enforce, ethical and doctrinal standards that are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture as received by the universal church. They have chosen to walk apart."
To Robinson's supporters, that break is a badge of courage.
Yes, we have a spotting of a real, life traditional Anglican (apparently with a telephone, no less) who is quoted -- on the record and by name. This solitary voice is still outnumbered by progressive American voices, but the Los Angeles Times is to be praised for actually quoting a human being on the other side of the national and global Robinson story. This is a much needed nod to multiculturalism, diversity and, well, journalism.