Gene Robinson has seen marriage from more vantage points than most. As a son, he watched his parents thrive in a 65-year marriage that was still going strong even when they were not. As an Episcopal priest and then bishop, he has presided over untold numbers of nuptials. As a young man, he married a woman he loved, and who loved him even knowing he had feelings for men. And now he is married to the man he has been with for nearly a quarter century – a man Robinson met after his first marriage ended in divorce.
Robinson, of course, already knows what the first line of his obituary will say: He was the first openly gay bishop in a Christian denomination that believes in apostolic succession, and his election as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire set off a controversy that continues to roil the global Anglican Communion nearly a decade later. But he is clearly not done: Even as he prepares to retire in January, he has written a new book, “God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage,’’ in which he seeks systematically to dismantle the religious, political, and cultural arguments against same-sex marriage.
His short book is conversational and essayistic, covering ground that will be largely familiar to those who have followed the debates over marriage in state houses and ballot boxes around the nation. Robinson offers glimpses into his own marriages and that of his parents in the introduction and conclusion, but this is not a memoir. It is more akin to a series of op-ed pieces, methodically argued, cogently and brightly written, structured as a chapter-length responses to commonly voiced questions about, and objections to, same-sex marriage.
“God Believes in Love” reveals Robinson to be a strikingly traditional defender of the institution of marriage. “Society has a stake in stable familial relationships,’’ he writes. “Generally stable relationships tend to support a generally stable society.’’
His voice is consistently Christian — “As a faithful Christian and a priest of the Church, I could not and would not merely brush Scripture aside,” he writes — but also pervasively liberal. He avoids gendered pronouns when referring to God, periodically mentions the cause of transgender rights, and, at one point, refers to the founder of Islam as “the Prophet Muhammad, blessed be He.”
Throughout the book, Robinson articulates arguments for the case progressive believers have been making for some time: the Bible’s condemnations of homosexual sex were written at a time when loving same-sex relationships were unknown; marriage has evolved repeatedly over the centuries; even the most fundamentalist Christians have a preference for some Biblical injunctions over others; the contemporary institution of marriage faces challenges far more serious than same-sex marriage. Robinson acknowledges that all references to homosexuality in the Bible are negative, but also notes that the Bible condoned slavery and polygamy, and reaches the bold conclusion that “nothing in Scripture or orthodox theology precludes our opening the institution of marriage to same-gender couples.” He goes even further, turning one popular argument against same-sex marriage on its head, by writing, “I believe that religious opposition to same-gender marriage is an example of violation of the separation of church and state.’’
A few lines in his book are likely to raise some eyebrows, given Robinson’s stature. He compares those who cite Leviticus as an argument against gay rights to those who would cling to belief in a flat earth or demon possession. He directly addresses societal discomfort with gay sex, suggesting that heterosexuals engage in many of the same practices that make some squeamish about men who have sex with men.
And, most provocatively, he mines Jesus’s personal life as evidence for his conclusion that “it is hard to imagine Jesus joining in the wholesale discrimination against LGBT people.’’ He writes that Jesus, “as far as we know,’’ never married, was not sexually intimate with anyone, spent “his most personal moments’’ with the disciples Peter, James and John, and that “four times, the disciple John is referred to as ‘the one whom Jesus loved.’ ”
“I am not saying that Jesus was gay, nor that he had a physically intimate relationship with ‘John, the Beloved Disciple,’ ’’ Robinson writes. However, he adds, “It is clear to me that Jesus would not be shocked by nor opposed to alternative notions of family.’’
Robinson — a small-state priest whose openness about his own sexuality improbably fueled a global debate, and a near-schism — has during his occasionally bumpy years on the world stage been condemned, protested, and threatened over and over. His new book is aimed not at those critics, but at those in the middle — people interested in how a deep Christian faith and a contemporary but controversial cause might be reconciled.
Michael Paulson, the former religion reporter for the Boston Globe, now edits politics and religion stories for the metro section of The New York Times.
He can be reached at michael.