“No tears for queers.”
That was the first sign I saw at General Convention 2003. I was walking down the sidewalk leading to the Minneapolis Convention Center and saw a cluster of people standing across the street from the entrance with placards waving in the air. Next to “No tears for queers” was “Fags die. God laughs.” In front of a dozen protestors was a skinny white man in a black suit and a tan cowboy hat. A large bullhorn hid his face.
As I neared the Center I heard him. “What happened to Sodom and Gomorrah will happen to the Episcopal Church. God sees your sin and God hates the sinful.”
I followed the crowd. We veered to the right to get away from the bullhorn. The man shouted, “You can avoid me, but you cannot avoid the Judgment Day. God sees what you are doing.”
I quickened my pace, stared at the ground, and wondered what I had gotten myself into. The woman next to me was almost jogging. Taking my longest strides, I asked her, “Who are these people?”
“That’s Fred Phelps. He drives all over the country to spread his bile.”
“He’s an Episcopalian?”
“Oh no. But you know this year, all the crazies will turn out.”
Above the doorway was a blue sign with white letters: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”
Every three years The Episcopal Church assembles for The General Convention to do the business of the Church. Each of the 109 dioceses elects four clergy and four lay people as deputies to vote on resolutions ranging from authorizing new hymns to taking a position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There are an additional hundred-plus bishops representing each diocese. It’s said to be the largest religious convention in the country and lasts for ten days.
When I ran for election to be a deputy from the Diocese of Atlanta in November 2002, I wasn’t thinking about resolutions; I was thinking about amazing worship, incredible preaching, and famous people—a kind of ecclesial Woodstock. I had wanted to go to General Convention ever since as a child I saw a certificate in my grandmother’s house congratulating Martha S. Flud, my great aunt, for contributing to the Children’s Lenten Offering for the 1889 General Convention in New York City. I imagined it to be like Disneyland. As a teenager I thought of it like the United Nations. In my adult years, I thought of it as a kind of festival. I’d get to see all the people I had read and heard about: Frank Griswold, the head of the Church; Barbara Harris, the first woman to be ordained a bishop; Verna Dozier, a champion for the ministry of the laity.
Then history intruded on my ten-day church festival. In June of 2003, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected the Rev. Gene Robinson as their next bishop. Because of a quirk of the by-laws, he had to be confirmed by both a majority of the Bishops and a majority of the laity and priests attending the General Convention. He wasn’t the only bishop-elect to be voted on here; there were six others. But he was the only openly gay bishop-elect—anywhere, anytime.
Once Gene Robinson hit the news, people were calling and emailing me to ask about my position. I started getting propaganda in the mail from organizations with four word names that began with Episcopalians for: Episcopalians for Biblical Orthodoxy, Episcopalians for Church Inclusiveness, Episcopalians for Gay Rights.
Fred Phelps and my mail were clues that this was not going to be fun; it was going to be history.
It was Wednesday, July 30, the first of the ten days. Every day of convention had two parts: worship and business. The day started with the Holy Eucharist (The Lord’s Supper) followed by legislative sessions until evening. I walked into the hall for the Eucharist: a huge space with small circular tables surrounding a raised dais. A bronze cross was suspended over the altar. Behind the stage stood a screen with rotating images of people of all races and ages and a banner that read “Engage God’s Mission: The 74th General Convention.” All conversation was drowned out by the choir who sang “I Come with Joy” from the back of the room.
Table 102 had several other people. I sat next to a middle-aged woman from Central Florida. Her nametag said “Patricia Bartlett.” She had dirt-brown hair that flipped up at her shoulders and reminded me of the Donna Reed of my childhood. She wore a dark blue dress and looked like a flight attendant. Next to her was Anne Brown from Upper South Carolina—thin and tall with sharp features and close-cropped blond hair. If I were using John King’s CNN election map, these women definitely represented bright red states. Also there was Allan Sandlin, a priest from the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. Next to him was a white-haired man in a blue seersucker suit and a red bow tie who turned out to be Peter Lee, the bishop from Virginia.
The procession came in—red and blue robes, incense, banners, a handful of bishops. “This is what I came for,” I thought. We prayed, heard the scriptures read, sang hymns.
The Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, came to the pulpit for the sermon in his glossy white robes and with a large gold cross centered on his chest. He spoke with a patrician Philadelphia accent.
The longer he talked, the more my mind wandered—too abstract; too refined. I was more interested in the people around me. It was vegetable soup: a man one table over in a tailored khaki suit; next to him was a teenage boy in shorts and a green T-shirt with “Engage” on his chest. A few tables away a woman with a long blond ponytail to her waist, dressed in a green wrap-around skirt and a pink sweater, sat next to a woman in a severe black pantsuit who looked like an FBI agent. The only norm was the prayer book we held in our hands.
Finally the Presiding Bishop’s cadence changed. “This is the prayer of a Russian bishop in the 19th Century.”
How esoteric could he get? But then the prayer made me ashamed of that thought.
Lord, grant me grace to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely on your holy will.
We all said, “Amen,” hoping that would make it so.
After the sermon, we were to have table discussions for thirty minutes. Patricia from Central Florida spoke first. “If we approve Gene Robinson, my diocese will leave the Church. I have been an Episcopalian all my life. I feel like my Church is being hijacked.”
Long silence. Upper South Carolina spoke. “Me too. I don’t know what the rush is. Why can’t we just think about this for another three years? Why now?”
Peter Lee said in a professorial tone, “It’s not about sexuality. It’s about the right of a diocese to choose its own bishop. I don’t agree with it, but I can’t see why we should stop it.”
I found myself torn between head and heart—as always. I had long ago resolved any theological or scriptural reservations about full inclusion of gays and lesbians into the Church. The Bible wasn’t the last word; it was the living word. We are called to bring the sacred word into conversation with the contemporary world. Otherwise, we’d believe all kinds of odd notions—like males being the only real factor in reproduction, or like polygamy for that matter. There are seven passages of scripture against homosexuality and I had worked through all of them to insure that there was no biblical prohibition.
I would vote for Gene Robinson. Yes, we as the Church had done all this backwards; we were acting before we got our theology fully articulated. But that’s the way Episcopalians do most things. The rightness of including gays and lesbians in all orders of the Church outweighed the mess.
My problems weren’t in my head but my heart. St. Teresa of Avila said, “I have no defense against affection. I could be bribed with a sardine.” Me too. I had no defense against pain either. I absorbed it; I carried it. I ate it and hoped my body would somehow transmute it. Others’ hurt became my responsibility, and it didn’t matter how many books on codependency I read, my skin didn’t get any thicker. In my head, I knew that change by definition is disruptive and tumultuous. Intellectually I understood that all movements require shaking the foundations. But my heart could not steel itself from opening up to the suffering that comes with that shaking.
My first Sunday at my Church in Athens, Georgia, a young woman stood in the adult forum and said, “I am a lesbian. I have been with my partner for five years. Is there a place in this church for me?”
I said, “Of course. There’s a place for everyone. I hope you and your partner come so we can learn from each other what it means to be church.”
I felt so proud of myself for saying the right answer. But when a maintenance man for the University came to my office Monday afternoon in his green jumpsuit and said, “I think I have to quit the Church if you’re inviting homosexuals,” my heart fell. “Ron, a place for everyone means you, too.” I grabbed his arm. “We need your voice here.” But what I thought is, “Don’t let me be the one who divides this Church my first week.” I lost sleep for a week wondering if Ron would be in church next Sunday.
For me, Gene Robinson was not a theological problem but a spiritual problem. It was about letting go. Could I rely on God’s holy will? Could I let God be God and be content to tend to my small corner of the world? Did I believe God was working God’s purpose out even when it made people’s lives a mess?
I said to the others at the table, “We are in a crazy place because we haven’t done our homework. We don’t have a liturgy to bless relationships; we haven’t warned the rest of the Anglican world; we haven’t even voted to say gays and lesbians can be bishops. But here we are. We are going to approve a person and do our theology later. The truth is we’ve always been upside down.” I looked at Patricia Bartlett. “I know the ground underneath our feet is going to shake.”
“God have mercy on us,” she said.
“Hey, Porter, what are you doing here?”
Finally I saw a familiar face. I was wading through the thousand other people jammed into a cavernous, windowless convention hall. Deputies were streaming in from worship. Already people had started using their name badges to advertise their causes with metal pins. I saw many rainbows, the symbol of Integrity, the primary organization supporting gay and lesbian issues. The meeting had not started, so people filled the aisles between the long rows of tables. I was looking for Atlanta’s table, marked H-2, but I couldn’t see any of the signs.
“Bam, don’t you remember me?”
“Oh, hey Susie. I’m sorry. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Susie Gaumer and I had gone to seminary together. She had a Church in New Orleans and, like me, was a deputy. She looked like one of Disney's fairy godmothers—short, plump, and fun. She wore her black clergy shirt with white collar and bright silver cross. A large square name badge told me she was Susan from Louisiana. “You know I am going to take a beating voting for Gene Robinson,” she said.
“I think we are all going to take a beating.”
Finally I saw the Diocese of Atlanta’s table, sandwiched between Navajoland and Michigan. We were about three rows from the main dais on the right edge of the hall.
As I walked through the rows and rows of rectangular tables, I kept seeing men and women with 3-inch buttons that said, “Ask me about Gene.” So I asked a tall man dressed in a clergy shirt and blue jeans, “Where is he?”
“Table F-7. Back left corner.”
I knew it was him because he wore a big blue button that said “I’m Gene.” Gene Robinson turned out to be short and slim with delicate small hands. Balding, he wore rimless glasses. What you felt first was his energy. He was laughing and talking and nodding all at once to the person next to him. I reached over to shake his hand and noticed a large bulky man move to position himself between me and the Reverend Robinson.
“It’s okay,” the bishop elect said, turning to the protector. “Once we are in this room, you can relax.”
“You have a bodyguard? Sorry. I’m Porter Taylor. From Atlanta. I just wanted to meet you.”
“Great to see you, Porter,” he said with a laugh. “Yes, well, interesting times.”
Then the gavel banged.
“Good luck, Reverend Robinson.”
“Gene. Call me Gene, and thanks.”
The session left me unengaged. We talked about the budget, argued about whether to defund the National Defense Department, said “thank you” to everyone who lived in Minneapolis, and declared we were against trafficking of women, girls and boys. We voted by pressing a remote control that was more complicated than the one I had at home from Charter Communications.
My mind wasn’t there. I kept thinking about the bodyguard. It felt like Thomas à Becket. Have we as a Church not learned anything? Is this really the institution I want to represent? It’s one thing for me and the woman from Central Florida to worry about the Church dividing, but bodyguards?
When I told my seatmate, Claiborne Jones, about it, she said, “Did you look at his chest?”
“His chest? You mean to see his cross or nametag?”
“He’s wearing a bulletproof vest.”
“I thought we were the Church.”
“Porter, welcome behind the curtain. This is the Church in all its glory and disgrace.”
On the evening of Day Three, Friday, August 1, a hearing was held concerning the whole question of consenting to a gay bishop. The Episcopal Church is anything if not orderly. Each speaker had two minutes and the speakers alternated between pro and con. They had to sign up hours before the event. There were enough speakers to speak until breakfast but thank God, only two hours were allotted.
The first speaker was Bishop Robert Duncan from Pittsburgh. Short, dark suit two sizes too big, fuzzy black hair and long wild eyelashes that stuck out like fins from his face. He spoke in a soft sort of Garrison Keillor voice, but that belied the content. “This is heresy. It’s against the Bible; it’s against God’s design; it’s immoral. I warn you,” he said. “This is the end of the Church.”
Sam Candler, a priest from Atlanta, spoke for the other side. His white linen suit reminded me of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. “Scripture interprets scripture. That’s what Jesus did. ‘You have heard it said, but I say to you.’ Consecrating Gene Robinson isn’t heresy. It’s the Good News. In Christ there is no male or female and no straight or gay.”
And so it went. The low point of the evening was a priest from Springfield, Illinois, who described in detail anal sex and the diseases that could be caught during male-on-male sex. When he finished, there was a dead silence. Enough.
My hotel room in the Hilton, a few blocks from the Convention Center, was small: a bed, a chair, a table, a TV and a bath. All I could see from my window was other hotels or office buildings. In three days I had developed a sharp pain down my right arm. I had tried putting a tennis ball between my shoulder blade and the wall as a do-it-yourself massage, but it didn’t help. That morning I had gone down to the whirlpool but the relief didn’t last.
The pain took my sleep. I fell asleep quickly, but then woke around two or three o’clock with a stinging sensation that followed the nerve down my arm. I tried hot showers; I tried my tennis ball against the wall; I tried listening to the BBC; I tried reading Donna Leon’s mysteries. One morning I tried walking in the still Minneapolis streets, but nothing worked.
The morning of the fourth day I called my doctor in Athens, Georgia, and asked for some painkillers. After I described the symptoms to his nurse, she said, “Find a Walgreens and we’ll call in an order.” There was a Walgreens across the street. I was confident I would sleep that night. But that wasn’t to be. The Deputies were to vote on Gene Robinson on Sunday, Day Five.
The preacher Sunday morning was Josiah Idowu Fearon, Bishop of the Kaduna Province in Nigeria. I was afraid he would condemn The Episcopal Church because I knew he was very conservative, but he was filled with proper Anglican restraint. At the end of his sermon, he said: “Our church family takes the Episcopal Church very seriously. When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. America, don’t sneeze too much.”
Because we didn’t gather at our tables this day for discussion, I had no idea what Phyllis Bartle was going through.
We assembled in the Convention Hall at 2:30. At 2:50 we began debating whether to approve Gene Robinson as the next bishop of New Hampshire. Each speaker was given two minutes. Speakers stood on platforms scattered amid the deputies’ tables. When their time was up, a light above their heads began to blink. The line to speak snaked to the back of the Deputies’ section. This session was to go on for thirty minutes.
I wore my gray suit and black clergy shirt and collar with my seminary silver cross hanging above my heart. I held my small hand-size Book of Common Prayer with both hands. I was only half listening to the speakers. Instead I was repeating over and over in my head, “Show us the way.”
I could hear a priest from Central Florida crying as she asked the hall from one of the platforms, “What will I tell my children after this about what is moral and what isn’t? Do we as a Church not stand for anything?”
I could hear The Rev. Susan Russell, President of Integrity, proclaim, “We have journeyed a long way and we are almost on the mountain top. The path of history is long but bends towards justice.”
I could hear Bonnie Anderson, lay person from Michigan, say, “My grandmother always told me fear is the absence of faith. You may be afraid of schism. Do not be afraid.”
“Show us the way.”
“This is what change looks like,” I told myself. “I am here to do what I think is right and to let go of the results. It’s God’s church and I am one vote.” But that was my head talking. My heart felt this Church ripping apart. It was like waiting to see if a tsunami comes, knowing high ground is too far away.
The debate was extended another fifteen minutes. Then the President of the Deputies called on the Chaplain. “Come Holy Spirit,” he prayed.
Before the vote, we had ten minutes of silence. Nine hundred people completely still. In the back of the hall the reporters were all roped off. CNN, ABC, they were all there. Somehow they were still as well.
In that silence I prayed, “Help me remember this silent moment. Let me remember the sense of Christ holding us all in his arms when the splintering begins.”
Then we voted “by orders,” which means the clergy voted separately from the lay people but both “orders” had to affirm. Each of us was handed a ballot and were to check YES or NO and then sign our name beside our vote. There was a deep pause in the hall, a moment before our world might change forever.
The vote was overwhelming. Out of the 109 dioceses, the Clergy voted in favor 65 to 31 and the Laity voted in favor 63 to 32 (to be counted, three of the four deputies had to agree; otherwise if it was a 2 to 2 vote, the ballot was “divided” and didn’t count).
That silent peace was broken by the movement that fear or anger or despair can bring. Deputies from the Diocese of South Carolina, Pittsburg, Springfield, and Fort Worth, stood up and walked out of the hall in a silent procession. As they departed, those from Fort Worth were reported to have poured salt on the floor to ward off evil.
Loud noises came from the rear of the room as the reporters blurted their questions. “What will happen to the Church now?” “Will you be kicked out of the Anglican Communion?” “Bishop Duncan says you are heretics. What do you say to that?”
The Chaplain came to the microphone and restored order. “Come Holy Spirit,” he prayed. “Where there is sorrow assist us to help; where there is confusion, assist us to find clarity.” The gavel banged.
Chaos. Cheers. Pairs wept as they held one another. A large crowd formed around the New Hampshire table. People were singing and laughing and crying and shouting and staring into space. Amid the swirl some deputies simply were sitting—caught in the turn of history.
The cacophony of the press and the bright lights of the television cameras reminded me that my parishioners were hearing this news, and I had no real idea of what they were thinking. I left the hall to write an email to my parish explaining my vote.
My email ended with, “There are cries of schism and moral chaos. I do not believe them. The Church will change as she has always changed, but the election of Gene Robinson is a tremor, not an earthquake. God will work God’s purpose out in God’s good time and in God’s good way. Our task is not to be afraid, but to listen to what God is calling us to do, and then have the grace and the courage to respond.”
I wrote these words to convince myself.
The bishops were to vote on Monday.
The bishops didn’t vote on Monday. One of the very conservative Episcopal organizations, The American Anglican Council, presented two charges to the Presiding Bishop to discredit Gene Robinson. One claimed that a website “associated” with the Rev. Robinson had a link to a pornographic site. The second was a claim by a man that Gene had touched him in an inappropriate way during two encounters at church meetings far in the past.
I tried to stay on the high road, but I kept thinking that Satan is the Prince of Lies. Bodyguards, bulletproof vests, and now flimsy outrageous accusations at the last minute. The Presiding Bishop appointed Gordon Scruton, the Bishop of Western Massachusetts, to investigate and report back to the bishops.
Monday went on as if nothing had happened. I noticed empty tables here and there. The business chugged along.
Monday afternoon I let an alternate deputy take my place on the Convention floor and walked to the Minneapolis Museum of Art. I gazed at Van Gogh’s “Olive Trees.” Twisted trunks and branches framed a blue mountain and bright yellow sun. The ground under the trees was swirling. The life force seemed so benign on canvas.
At the Eucharist on Tuesday, August 5, the woman from Central Florida sat wringing her hands. Her face was red and puffy; her hair no longer flipped up but was tied in a knot. She looked at the table as she spoke. “My bishop says if Gene Robinson is approved, our whole diocese is leaving the Church. Half of our deputation has already left Convention. I keep getting emails and phone calls from people asking me to do something, but what can I do?”
“Patricia,” I said. “You are one person. You can’t be responsible for all this. Let’s see what happens this afternoon.” I was also talking to myself. My arm pain had gotten worse. I walked to the Convention Center looking as if my collarbone was broken. I hadn’t slept the night before.
The charges against Gene Robinson were dismissed in the morning business session. The bishops were to vote late in the afternoon. Their meeting was closed to the public for an hour before they voted. Later, I learned that they prayed and anointed one another as they laid hands on one another’s heads. When the doors opened and the public came in, the room was quickly mobbed. I watched from one of the television monitors in the hallway, away from the crowd.
The bishops sat at round tables. The roll was called alphabetically, and each said his or her vote.
Fifty-five votes were required for passing; sixty-two bishops voted yes. The Episcopal Church took a step beyond what was safe into a land of discord, which was also that of faithfulness. I did not watch the aftermath of the afternoon. I heard later that immediately a dozen bishops read a statement rejecting the action.
I took a walk around the streets of Minneapolis. I kept thinking of lines from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “Easter 1916”:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
A terrible beauty was born on this day in our church; it was painful and wonderful all at once.
That night I fell asleep and stayed asleep. For a moment I felt the peace the world can’t give or take away.
Early in the morning I had a dream that my son, Arthur, then nineteen, was driving in Athens late at night. It was raining. His white Volvo 240, the car his mother and I had bought to keep him safe, started fishtailing to the left. He kept turning the wheel back, but he could not stop the skid. The car slid off the road. The front fender hit a tree, and Arthur’s head hit the windshield. The front door was jarred open and his body flopped sideways halfway out of the car. Blood poured down his face and hair into the wet earth. He lay unmoving with his arms outstretched as if in surrender.
I woke screaming, “Arthur.” I wiped my face. Tears streamed down my cheeks. The red letters of the hotel clock said, 3:00. I was petrified. My son was dead. I called Jo. The phone rang and rang.
Finally, a groggy “Hello.”
“Is Arthur home? Is he alright?”
“Porter? What is going on? It’s three in the morning.”
“Is he alright?”
“Of course he’s alright. What is wrong with you?”
“How do you know? Go into his bedroom and see. Wake him up.”
A long pause. “Porter? Are you okay?”
“I know how it sounds, but please do it. Please.”
For a few minutes I listened to my heart pound in my chest. I stared at the hotel wall. I was holding my chest with a throbbing arm. “Please,” I prayed. “Please.”
“He’s fine. He’s wondering if his father has gone off the deep end, but he’s fine.”
“It’s so confusing up here. I’ll call you in the morning. Just a bad dream.”
As I neared the Convention Center, no one greeted me or accosted me or cared about me. Fred Phelps and CNN had left. The sign said that the Episcopal Church still welcomed me, but everyone else had moved on.
Many seats were empty in the worship hall. Table 102 was half empty. The priest from Europe and the bishop from Virginia were there. To my surprise, Patricia Bartlett from Central Florida was also there.
“I’m so glad you are here, Patricia,” I said, sitting beside her.
“I almost didn’t come, but it’s still my Church too.”
“Patricia, I am guessing you feel our Church has died, and maybe it has. But last night I thought my son had died, and I had a small glimpse of your loss.”
I told her about my dream.
She said, “We are supposed to believe in resurrection, but I can’t see it. All I see is loss and pain. You woke up and it’s all okay, but what about me?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But let’s believe in resurrection anyway. Let’s pray for life on the other side of all our losses.”
She didn’t reply. She looked down at the table.
“Patricia, I hope we see each other at the next Convention in 2006.”
She looked up. Her voice was soft as if it came from a place far from this hall. “Porter, that’s too much to hope for. Let’s hope there’s still an Episcopal Church in 2006.”
In his sermon, the Presiding Bishop quoted the Sufi poet Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
I prayed for that field and I prayed God would bring us all there.