This week's portion: relationship, work, self

Going to Heaven

Being on vacation, for me, means luxuriating in taking time to read books: lounging in a hotel room or on a porch, sitting in the woods, on rocks by the beach, at a bar or restaurant, in the car. True to form, I read several excellent books on our trip to Maine. One of the ones I was most excited to read -- and, it turns out, deservedly so -- is Elizabeth Adams' Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson.

I've been savoring Beth's work for some years now: she writes The Cassandra Pages, one of my favorite blogs. She writes beautifully about the ordinary moments that make up a luminous life. (For examples, read Fromagerie, or Shriven, or Reflections in a scalloped mirror.) So I had an inkling that this book would probably be well-written and well-thought-out.

But the book exceeded my expectations. If you have an interest in the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson (his life, his theology, his election as bishop) or in the Episcopal church (its history, its roots, its changes) or simply in the powerful story of a faithful man living his calling in our times, this is a must-read.


Adams opens the book's prologue with the story of her own confirmation in the Episcopal church at the age of twelve. It's a surprisingly gripping way to begin, and it sets the stage in subtle ways. Adams recounts her lifelong circling, into and then out of and then more deeply into active church membership, and this serves as a kind of introduction to the woman who will be telling us the extraordinary story which follows.

I can't summarize Going to Heaven in any meaningful way: all I can do is offer the barest of outlines, and a sense for why it moved me as it did. On the most basic level, this is a book about Gene Robinson: his Kentucky childhood, his entry into the Episcopal church, his seminary days, his ministry, his election as bishop of New Hampshire. On another level, it's a book about the Episcopal Church in recent years: the fierce battle over the ordination of women a few short decades ago, and the equally fierce battle over the ordination of gays and lesbians today, grounded in understanding of how the American Episcopal church differs from the Anglican Church and how those differences reverberate.

In one of the book's most poignant chapters, the Bishop-elect shares with Adams a passage from his battered and much-underlined copy of John Fortunato's Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys for Gay Christians, written in 1982. He reads a few pivotal paragraphs aloud, and adds, "That unlocked the rest of my life. Pure and simple. Literally, my life changed upon reading that book." Adams continues,

Up until that point, Gene had wanted to believe the Good News -- that he was actually loved by God, just as he was -- but after reading the book, he actually did believe it. He finally had the courage and faith necessary to accept his orientation, to reconcile it with his spirituality, and move forward with those two truths at the center of his identity.

The passage gives me shivers even now. As does the conclusion of the chapter, a quotation from the Bishop-elect:

I thought my ordained life in the church might be over. But I knew that my integrity was worth that risk. What I learned in the dark days following my separation was that if you've got your integrity and you've got God, it's just enough. It's nice to have more. But if you've only got that much, it's enough. And nobody can take that way from you. I've never feared losing God since then... It makes all the difference in the world.

Adams is an excellent guide to the sometimes-labyrinthine workings of the Episcopal church. (Now I think I actually understand terms like "canon to the ordinary.") She weaves Gene's story into the larger story of the church and how it has changed -- and also how it has resisted change.

She doesn't shy away from the dark parts of this story: the death threats, the accusations, the acrimony. And she doesn't shy away from the awareness that schism seems increasingly likely, and that this is deeply painful for many on both sides of the divide. Reading this, I came to understand the happenings at the 2003 General Convention, and its aftermath, in a more nuanced way. The Windsor Report, the response to Bishop Robinson's election in the global South, and the outpouring of support and interest from people across the religious spectrum all make deeper sense to me having read this book.

Elizabeth Adams knew Gene Robinson when he was elected Bishop; as an active member of a New Hampshire congregation, she had worked with him when he was assistant to then-Bishop Doug Theuner, and was impressed with his patience, his wisdom, and his "insistence that we take responsibility for our own issues and patterns rather than expecting the bishop to come in ahd 'fix' parish problems with a wave of his crook." Her admiration and support for the man and his work are clear throughout. She shows us the Bishop as she sees him, and manages to explore the viewpoints of his opponents without demonizing them; she follows his lead in extending compassion to those who are troubled or confused by his election.

At its heart, this is a story about the Bishop's journey toward God, and into service of his community. What has stayed with me the most, in the days since I finished reading the book, is the way the book  showcases Bishop Robinson's theology, and his passion for his work and his community and his God, in his own words. (If you want to actually hear him, you can -- here's an mp3 of a sermon he delivered, which is unsurprisingly excellent.) I'll close this post with some of his words, cited by Adams in Going to Heaven:

It seems to me that the God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings is a God who wants us to move the fence ever broader and broader, to include all of God's children. It certainly seems to me that this is what Jesus did. Jesus was always hanging out, not with the churchy types, but with those on the fringes, on the margins. And if we as Christians are really trying to be Christ-like, it seems to me that we need to be always moving the fence, moving the fence, so as to include all of God's children. It seems to me that this is what God is up to in this, and we haven't seen the end of it yet.

May it be so -- and may the story of Bishop Robinson's journey reverberate for those of us on parallel paths in other traditions, and act as a beacon lighting our way.

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