What Happened With Gay Bishop's Invocation?

Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, talks about delivering the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama's kickoff inaugural event at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. The invocation wasn't carried on the broadcast of the event and many on the Mall couldn't hear it.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Yesterday afternoon, a star-studded event at the Lincoln Memorial called We Are One kicked off the inaugural celebrations. There were performances by Stevie Wonder, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pete Seeger and many others. The event began with an invocation by Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, but his prayer was not included in the HBO TV coverage and was not heard on the public-address system speakers on the National Mall. Since very few got to hear it, here's an excerpt.

(Soundbite of speech, We Are One, January 18, 2009)

Bishop GENE ROBINSON (Episcopal Bishop, New Hampshire): Oh, God of our many understandings, we pray that you will bless us with tears; tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than $1 a day, where young women in many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria and AIDS. Bless this nation with anger; anger and discrimination at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Bless us with discomfort at the easy, simplistic answers we've preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future. Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed any time soon and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

CONAN: The Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, the Right Reverend Gene Robinson. After his invocation was not transmitted on TV or to the crowd, there were explanations of scheduling snafus and technical glitches received by many with skepticism. Reverend Robinson is no stranger to controversy. He is the only openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. His election to that post in 2003 sparked a debate that's divided the Anglican community in this country and around the world. He joins us in a moment.

Later in the program we suspend our month - our usual Monday Opinion Page segment to listen to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in a new context. But first, if you have questions about what happened yesterday or about the future of the Episcopal Church, give us a call. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org; just click on Talk of the Nation. Bishop Gene Robinson joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Bp. ROBINSON: I'm delighted to be here. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And what's your understanding of what happened yesterday?

Bp. ROBINSON: Actually, I know very little about it. I arrived very early in the morning for a sound check and so on, and I had a delightful day, meeting all the other participants in the program.

CONAN: Well, that must have been fun.

Bp. ROBINSON: It was, it was a great fun, and yet as star-studded as it was, I think everyone there yesterday did not think of themselves as stars but as American citizens and - deeply honored to be a part of this opening inaugural event. It was a little later in the morning that I happened to see a schedule which showed that my invocation was scheduled for 2:25 and at 2:30 HBO would go live. So, that's what - that's how I found out.

CONAN: And the reason it wasn't even broadcast on the public-address system?

Bp. ROBINSON: I have no idea. I mean, you would have to ask HBO about that. I just - I have no idea. You know, the fact of the matter is HBO is an entertainment station and perhaps an executive at HBO thought, well, who would possibly be interested in a prayer? People are turning in to see Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen. I have no idea.

CONAN: You're aware of the controversy that's erupted since.

Bp. ROBINSON: Actually, I've been in interviews all morning, and I'm not terribly aware. So, you're getting me fresh on the spot.

CONAN: OK. Well, I'm sure that there will be more to be said about this by HBO officials. And well, the Obama campaign saw that schedule, too. So, they may have had something to do with it. That remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the controversy over rescheduling and the public-address system seems to have deflected attention away from what you said to, you know, how it was handled.

Bp. ROBINSON: Well, I - what I can say is that the president-elect and his wife, the vice president-elect and his whole family, expressed their appreciation for what I said, and it means a lot to me that they heard it, and after all, it was a prayer to God. God heard it, and that's what prayer is about. I was just incredibly honored to be included and to have an opportunity to pray for some things that probably most Americans were surprised to hear or perhaps read now.

CONAN: There was a perception, on whether that's accurate or not, but a perception that your invitation to deliver the invocation on Sunday was in some respects to balance the invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation tomorrow during the inauguration ceremonies. Is that perception, is that your belief?

Bp. ROBINSON: Well, I was highly critical and public about that criticism about the selection of Rick Warren.

CONAN: You said it was a slap in the face.

Bp. ROBINSON: Yeah. Well, a slap in the face to gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. You know, this was only six weeks after the success of Proposition 8 in California, and...

CONAN: Which barred same-sex marriages.

Bp. ROBINSON: That's exactly right, and that was a wound not just to gay and lesbian people in California, but to all of us across the United States. And Pastor Warren had not only been in favor of Proposition 8, but in fact, had been quite active in that campaign. And his views, as expressed on BeliefNet and other places are some pretty troublesome things to hear about homosexual people and our relationships. And I felt this was just a very problematic choice. I think if - in the best of all possible worlds, the Obama team would have announced all of the people who were being invited to speak at the inauguration and in doing so, people would have seen the big tent, the entire spectrum of speakers that this administration wanted upfront during these inaugural activities.

CONAN: Well, if your invitation to speak at the invocation yesterday, to deliver the invocation yesterday, was - if it was intended to balance Reverend Warren, do you believe that balance has been achieved?

Bp. ROBINSON: I have no idea. It's difficult to know. What I do know is that the Obama team hoped that, indeed, this would be a measure of healing for those who felt excluded by the Rick Warren invitation. And what I can tell you is that gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who have been in touch with me have been very much encouraged by my inclusion.

CONAN: Our guest is the Reverend - the Bishop Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. If you'd like to join the conversation, our phone number was 800-989-8255; email is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Wynn, and Wynn calling us from Manchester, Tennessee.

WYNN (Caller): Hello. I was listening to NPR Music's live broadcast yesterday, and I was really looking forward to hearing Bishop Robinson's invocation. And instead, during the invocation, they were playing excerpts of President-elect Obama's top 10 favorite songs. And I was really disappointed. I'm a married, heterosexual Episcopalian for some 30 years, but I greatly admire Bishop Robinson and his work. And I thought that it was very inappropriate for NPR to either sensor him or drop the ball on the invocation. That's my comment.

CONAN: And Wynn, I wish I had an answer for you. I don't - my belief is we were getting the feed from HBO, which began at 2:30, therefore, did not have the opportunity. However, there were, as you might suspect, other ways to have gotten that audio from there had we known that this was going to be an issue. But in any case, dropping the ball might be a fair calculation in any case.

WYNN: I hope it wasn't intentional and I don't believe it was, but I thought it was unfortunate.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Wynn. Appreciate it.

WYNN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Anna, Anna with us from Wilmington, Delaware.

ANNA (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call. I agree with all the comments that were made at the presentation. It's a shame that it wasn't aired. However, I do think that it was - ended being up very divisive. I think that it was very exploitive of what the event was, which was basically an event to - the fact that so much change has been made and there's hope going forward. And I think this brought everybody back, yes, to the realities, but I just think it was the wrong place and I just felt it was truly inappropriate.

CONAN: It was inappropriate for the bishop to speak it all or what he had to say was inappropriate?

ANNA: What he had to say.

CONAN: In particular?

ANNA: Well, I think, basically, the comments - just the way that it was start talking about the tears and the anger. I mean, I understand, and again, I do agree with your philosophy, absolutely. However, I just think this event was not the place to bring that up. I think it's - it was - quite clearly, there is change, considering who our next president is going to be. And I thought it was getting into very controversial topics, which was really detracting from the events of that day.

CONAN: Bishop Robinson.

Bp. ROBINSON: Yeah. As you might imagine, I labored long and hard and prayed long and hard about what to do in the prayer. I think it would've been a very typical thing to have done nice-sounding, shallow, shall we say, prayers, and I thought it might be helpful to pray for some things that are a bit of a surprise, not the typical things. And I must say, I took my inspiration from something called a four-fold Franciscan prayer, and I use it often in our churches around New Hampshire because it catches people by surprise. It's not just a flowery, shallow address to God, but really looks at how tough it is to live a life of integrity and honor. And so - and I also thought that, you know, the nation faces such a difficult time right now with the economy, with the extricating ourselves from two wars with trouble in the Middle East and Darfur, that we need to pay attention to what we are all going to be called to do.

CONAN: Anna, thanks very much for the call.

ANNA: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll have more with Gene Robinson in just a moment. We'll talk more about the turmoil his election sparked in his church. If you'd like to talk with him about yesterday's pre-inaugural prayer or the future of the Episcopal Church, 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Yesterday, Bishop Gene Robinson prayed for God to, quote, "bless us with anger at discrimination, including against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people," a deeply personal statement. When he was consecrated as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in 2003, it split the Church. Some congregations threatened a schism. Gene Robinson is our guest this hour. He's the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. If you'd like to talk with him about the future of the Episcopal Church or the pre-inaugural invocation he gave yesterday, give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org; just click on Talk of the Nation.

Here's an email from Iris in Edmond, Oklahoma: Bishop Robinson was so opposed to President-elect Obama's choice of Pastor Warren for the inauguration, yet he did not refuse the opportunity to participate at the ceremony even out of protest. Would the bishop explain his choice to attend? Does he feel there even needs to be a prayer at the service?

Bp. ROBINSON: Two different questions there. One, yes, I did not hesitate. I have believed all along that Barack Obama was genuine in saying that he wanted for his administration to be a big tent under which all Americans could come. And I happen to like the notion of big tents; I think Jesus had the biggest tent of all. And so, I wanted to assist him in demonstrating that he was going to be open to all kinds of Americans. And so, it was a great honor to accept his invitation to be there.

I think the issue of whether there should be prayer at all is a very interesting one. And I can - I sort of have an argument on both sides of that. On the one hand, I am absolutely supportive of the separation of church and state and in every way believe that we need to hold to that. On the other hand, this is a big-tent event and many people in the United State are people of faith. And so, people of faith and expressions of faith should not be excluded either. And so, I think one can argue both sides of that honorably. In the end, this was President-elect Obama's decision to make and invitation to offer, and I was honored to accept it.

CONAN: Let's go to Jean, Jean with us from Greensboro, North Carolina.

JEAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

JEAN: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please. You're on the air.

JEAN: OK. I just heard the prayer for the first time, and I thought it was brilliant. I know the caller before said she thought it was wrong place, wrong time. But as I listened to it, and as I hear about give us tears for things that we're conscious of, there are some people who can't cry. And the business about give us anger for things that are wrong, injustice, we should be angry about injustices in this world. So, as I listened to the bishop's prayer, I thought to myself, this is brilliant. We really should get very angry about certain things; we really should weep and mourn about certain things. And you know, Jesus himself in the beatitude had said, blessed are they that mourn, you know. We really should mourn for sadness; mourn for the terrible things that happen to people all over the world. And yes, I thought it was brilliant, and I really, really appreciated you guys playing it so I could hear it.

CONAN: Well, to be fair, we played about half of it. But I'm sure Bishop Robinson would have something to say.

Bp. ROBINSON: Yes. I appreciate your kind words, Jean. You also may be interested to know I made the decision also to pray for Barack's safety.

JEAN: Yes.

Bp. ROBINSON: You know, I think it's an issue that we all worry about. We don't speak about it. I don't know if that's because we're afraid we'll bring it to pass if we...

JEAN: Yes.

Bp. ROBINSON: If we name it. But I knew that it's on the hearts of everyone that I know and who have such high hopes for this administration. And being a person who's been subject to death threats and violence, I know what that's like. And in fact, then Senator Obama and I had a chance to talk about that early on in the presidential primary in New Hampshire, and so, I feel very close to him in that. And I must say, so many people have spoken to me in less than 24 hours since this happened about how much they appreciated that, that I just named it and prayed that God would hold him in the palm of his hand.

JEAN: Oh, definitely.

Bp. ROBINSON: And as the families came through to thank us afterwards, the families of the Obamas and the Bidens seemed especially appreciative of that.

CONAN: Jean...

JEAN: I really - we, all of us Americans, now, there's a wonderful special energy in our country right now, and the time is right. And you know, there are flipsides of every coin, and we all as Americans must pray for this man for what's going on in our country right now. And I thank you.

CONAN: Jean, thanks for the call.

JEAN: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we go now to Chicago, and Claire is on the line with us from Chicago.

CLAIRE (Caller): Hi. I wanted to talk a little bit about my family in the fact that we have been very intimately affected by Reverend Robinson's appointment and election. And my father is an Episcopalian priest. My cousin Amanda is a priest in your diocese, Bishop Robinson. And I have just a comment about the fact that we've been affected so much by the schism within my family which has great roots in the Anglican Church and the greater Anglican community.

And I'm curious about how you feel that community is going to be affected by the controversy, and I feel like a lot of people are seeing it as divisive that you've been elected and that you're holding your ground. I personally am blessed by it. But how are you bringing people into this, the big tent of Christ's love, you know, the big idea of the Christian community, by having this division amongst the leaders of the church? How is this pulling people together? And how can we turn this conversation - which I feel is very important to have happened, and I feel like your prayer was wonderful because we do need to be angry and we need to express our upset and our grief over the divisiveness. But how are we ending it? How are we working ecumenically to turn this around?

CONAN: Go ahead.

Bp. ROBINSON: Claire, I'm sorry for whatever pain your family has experienced as a result of this. But let me just say a couple of things about that. You know, I think we often think of the church as a peaceful place and a place that is devoid of conflict. And yet, Jesus was very clear that a life lived according to God's will would always encounter conflicts along the way and sometimes derision and persecution. And so, even the early church experienced so much conflict. Saint Paul wouldn't have written all those letters to all of those early churches if there hadn't been conflict. He wasn't writing them to say, great job, guys; keep up the good work. He was writing to talk to them about conflicts. So, conflict is nothing new in the church.

This particular conflict is very difficult, and this seems to be the issue that we're facing in our time. But let me say that no one on the side of full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life and ministry and leadership of the church are asking anyone to leave. The tent is, indeed, big. The problem that I have and so many of us is I don't know what you do when people insist that they're going to leave. You tell them that you don't want them to leave, that there's no need to leave, that we can all be in this church while we disagree. But if they're intent on leaving anyway, then I don't know how you compel them to stay.

You know, you gather a bunch of Episcopalians together, and they will disagree. They will represent the entire spectrum, whether you're talking about abortion or stem-cell research or who should be president or whether or not we should be in Iraq. And somehow, we find our way, humbly as we can, to the altar rail and receive the body and blood of Christ at communion. And then we go back to the pews and argue about abortion and stem-cell research and who should be president. That is, I believe, the Anglican Church's great gift to the worldwide ecumenical community. And those who say they just simply will not stay in a church with people who welcome gay and lesbian people, it breaks my heart that they feel that they have to leave.

CONAN: It's not so much gay and lesbian people, but gay and lesbian clergy, isn't it?

CLAIRE: Right.

Bp. ROBINSON: Well, by extension, it's all gay and lesbian people. I mean, we have gay and lesbian people who serve on vestries and in prominent leadership positions in our church and in our congregations, and you can't separate it that way. You know, it's amazing how comfortable we were, knowing that there were many, many gay and lesbian clergy, and then all of a sudden, we have a gay bishop, and now all of sudden, it's a new issue. You can't so easily separate it.

CONAN: And this issue may have been inevitable; this argument in the church and this division in the church may have happened anyway. Do you regret in any way being the focus of this? You talked about death threats and other things.

Bp. ROBINSON: No, I have never regretted it but for one specific reason. As best I have been able to determine, this has been God's will for me, that I say yes to whatever that next step is. You know, I've had calls to step down from all around the world, and I always take that to God in prayer. And if I ever discerned that that's what God wanted me to do, then I would do my best to do it. But I have to tell you with as much integrity as I can muster, that has never been the message that I have received by God. Am I doing the right thing? I don't know. Perhaps I'll never know until I get to Heaven, where I think we're all going to wind up. But until then, I will just keep doing this as faithfully as I can, while acknowledging that my detractors are doing this as faithfully as they can. I'm absolutely willing to say that they are following their path back home toward God as faithfully as I am. I just wish they could acknowledge that that's what I'm doing.

CONAN: Claire, thanks very much for the call.

CLAIRE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Eunice, Eunice with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

EUNICE (Caller): Thank you. Thank you so much for taking my call. Just being on hold, I kind of want to ask the bishop a different question. I'm so sorry that you've been receiving death threats. I don't think that is appropriate for anyone to have to endure. But let me say that I am a Bible-believing, God-fearing Christian, and I do read my Bible, and he says homosexuality - God says, not he - God says homosexuality is a sin. So is adultery, lying, cheating, stealing. We just, for me, cannot just look at one sin and say, you know what? We're going to let that one go just because people want to live this particular lifestyle. Clearly, the Book of Romans states how God feels; the Book of Jude, God says let Sodom and Gomorrah be a reminder. And my question to you would be, why did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if he, you know, didn't think that that was an abomination to him?

Bp. ROBINSON: That's about a two-day discussion, Eunice, and I wish we had two days to talk about it. I, too, am a Bible-believing Christian. I'm not sure I'm a God-fearing Christian; I'm a God-loved Christian. And I do believe that the Bible - we have to first talk about how we regard that book, and I think that those only seven passages, in all of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, are even remotely related to this topic. And indeed, upon real study and study of the context in which they were said, that is to say, what did those words mean to the people who wrote them and what do they mean to the people for whom they were written, upon that closer look, they turn out not to be saying what we have been traditionally taught that they say.

CONAN: Eunice, I know this is an argument that could, as the bishop suggests, last for quite some time, but I wanted to thank you very much for the call. I suspect you've not been persuaded, but neither is he.

EUNICE: OK, well, and the difference I would say is that God-fearing, God said the beginning of wisdom is to fear him but he is also a God of love. But I do thank you for your time.

CONAN: Eunice, thanks so much for your call. Bye-bye.

Bp. ROBINSON: Thank you, Eunice.

CONAN: We're talking with Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And just to clarify something that came up earlier, indeed, NPR News has made it clear NPR only had the rights to the HBO feed of the event yesterday, which began at 2:30 and therefore came after the invocation, so did not have the opportunity to broadcast the invocation in any sense. So, we're sorry for the confusion over that. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Steve, Steve with us from Phoenix.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

STEVE: I just wanted to talk a little a bit and ask a question. I'm gay, and I grew up in a Baptist church, and I struggled a lot with internalized homophobia. And understanding Christianity as an adult, I kind of see this event as a slap in the face, as a setback, for other gays who are trying to find Christ. And I was just wondering what the bishop's thoughts were on how this will continue to affect Christianity, our country, moving forward with accepting gays as Christians.

CONAN: And Steve, what event are you talking about?

STEVE: Yesterday's broadcast, not being...

CONAN: OK, all right. Bishop Robinson?

Bp. ROBINSON: Steve, let me ask you, you mean, about the invocation not being included in the broadcast?

STEVE: Exactly.

Bp. ROBINSON: Yeah. I mean, I think this was a wonderful opportunity. I have no idea how it all happened, but Steve, you point to something that I think is so true, that for all of us who grew up gay and lesbian, and certainly those of us, myself included, who grew up in a very much more conservative Christian atmosphere, have to first overcome all that we've been told and taught. Even - I talk to young kids every day, and even those who are not brought up in a religious household of any kind tell me that they know what God thinks of them and that that is that they are an abomination, that they are detestable in the eyes of God.

Now, they couldn't find Leviticus in the Bible if their lives depended on it, but they think they know what God thinks of them. And what I intend to do in my preaching and speaking is to let them know that there they may be another way of looking at that, and indeed, that the living God that I know in my life loves me beyond my wildest imagining. And while they may not be able to agree with me or understand that, I know that to the core of my being. And I think the reason that we are at this moment in American society is that so many of us have come out. We've made that spiritual journey to understanding that God loves us, and so, we've come out to our families and our coworkers and our former classmates and our friends.

And now, when this issue comes up, a face comes up with it. And so, the things that people used to be willing to say and the thoughts that they were willing to entertain, they're not willing to do that anymore, because they know Jim and Paul or they know Sally and Sue, and they know those horrible things are not true of them. And if they are Christian, they know that God shows up in those relationships. And so, we're at this is amazing moment in our culture that my great sadness is that the culture is leading the way toward this new inclusion, not the Church, and it is my great hope that the Church could be in the forefront of that movement forward.

CONAN: Steve, thanks so much for the call.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Bishop Robinson, thank you so much for your time today.

Bp. ROBINSON: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Gene Bishop, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Tomorrow in this hour, the presidential inauguration; Ken Rudin will be with us as we get reaction to the speech, coverage of the parade and more. Up next, we'll put the Opinion Page segment on hold today to listen to Martin Luther King Jr. Stay with us. This is of Talk of the Nation, NPR News.

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