Gene Robinson and the overhaul of the West

Posted: Nov 04, 2003 12:00 AM

The consecration of Gene Robinson as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire went off about as expected -- fervent cheers for the new gay bishop, forceful warnings about ecclesiastical divisions to come. Finally, the consecration itself: one more convincing signal of what a wacky world it's gotten to be since the Kennedy assassination or thereabouts.

A conflict we never anticipated 40 years ago -- I don't meant Iraq -- has unhinged and reordered old allegiances, and not just in religion. Pretty much everywhere, so far as I can discern.

Forty years ago, a Texas Episcopalian and a New Hampshire Episcopalian were cut from much the same cloth. Today, that same Texas Episcopalian likely has a larger community of interest with a Nigerian Anglican -- reverent of the Holy Scriptures, loath to rewrite the moral law -- whose great-grandfather ran around in breechclout or whatever the well-dressed tribesman was wearing back when George V was king.

Nor is it just Episcopalians. It's pretty much everybody. Color and birthplace probably never had less to do with affinity than they do today. Belief, especially about human destiny and duty, is the point that matters.

That's not what we anticipated way back then, but it's what we got.

I thought of all this the other day after watching CBS' 75th anniversary special, noting the old familiar faces. Those faces -- no surprise in their eyes as to what they saw around them. Would you have thought it, Paladin -- the divisions and incongruities of today? What about you, Steve McQueen? When we watched you, an eternity ago, it was as members of a somewhat -- generally -- more often than not united community, with interests viewed -- generally -- as those of the community at large.

This state is at an end. We are out of sync with each other and have been so for some years. Take the Episcopalians. Excuse me -- take us Episcopalians.

The Episcopalians who wanted, and got, Gene Robinson as a bishop took a familiar modern tack in asserting his fitness for the episcopacy. They said we know more than we used to. One thing we supposedly know is that gayness, so long misunderstood by society, so unfairly punished and stigmatized, is just fine. We have figured this out for ourselves.

The other side inquired: We have? When was this? When did the monogamous union of man and woman become just one more lifestyle option for Christians: no worse than gayness and, by inference, no better?

If you look around, you see the larger society divided just so. Consider how the Supreme Court operates. For "liberal Episcopalians," think David Souter (a real-life Episcopalian from New Hampshire) and such like who see the Constitution as an ever-evolving document. For "conservative Episcopalians," think defenders of the document as historically interpreted, the likes of Clarence Thomas (a real-life conservative Episcopalian until he went to Rome).

Authority is the problem our society has in spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. If. you're white, black or brown, and you say eternal truths aren't subject to referendum, you have a different view of life, obviously, than those who are white, black or brown and ask, what's so "eternal" about some old truth?

The realignment of Anglicanism, now commenced under Gene Robinson's inadvertent patronage, forges an alliance of whites, blacks and browns -- who, as it seems to them, put heavenly standards beyond the reproach of earthly ones. What they believe matters more than the place they were born or the way they talk and dress.

This thing -- this realignment -- is inestimably large, with inestimable consequences. Anglicans are its central actors at the moment. The cast will likely expand as differences deepen and new affinities present themselves. The West isn't going to be the same at the end as at the start; it may actually end up better.