Seeing as how I am a new Episcopalian and still learning about my church, I attended a public address given a couple weeks back by Bishop Gene Robinson at General Theological Seminary , in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. There was a pleasant reception before his remarks, supplied nicely with wine and hors d’oeuvres platters and attended by a quietly chattering crowd of 60-year-olds outfitted by L.L. Bean. Sad to say, I did not know a soul there, and mostly stood off to one side, listening to people talk about things like the new art galleries over in Williamsburg. One gentleman politely asked me if I was there because of my "orientation," to which I responded that I was in fact simply there out of curiosity. Later on I reflected that my response could have been taken several ways, but, as it happened, there was not much time for reflection, and I along with the L.L. Bean folks soon went inside the chapel for the evening’s talk.
The chapel of course is a beautiful structure, built one hundred and twenty years ago in the English Gothic Revival mode with donations from the Morgans, Pierponts, and Vanderbilts, and featuring a magnificent reredos behind the altar that tastefully reflects the gender equality that subsists among the saints in glory. It did not take long for the nave to fill up, although, unfortunately, it took longer for the event to get started, which gave me ample time to flip through the pewbooks. (The African-American hymnal looked to be quite good; the feminist hymnal , however, seemed filled with titles like "In Praise of Hildegard We Sing.") I had nearly gotten to the point of thumbing through the BCP church calendar when the Very Rev. Ward B. Ewing, dean of the seminary, rose to give the welcome, which of course was quite warm. Following him was Christine Quinn, the first openly gay speaker of New York’s city council, who reminded us all that "If you believe in yourself, if you define yourself, if you love yourself, you can overcome any odds that anybody puts in front of you." This met with loud applause, after which we all sat quietly in our seats to consider how the glorious company of the saints had believed in themselves.
The bishop himself was next. He began by thanking Ms. Quinn for her wise words and reminded us that most places in America¯like Iowa, Georgia, or New Mexico¯were not like the Chelsea district of Manhattan. Indeed, I thought. But that should not deter us, he said, from going out into the rest of the country to take back religion. For years, he said, the Church had been the world’s greatest oppressor, until finally, in the 1960s, people began to wake up and set things straight. People started to realize that what the Church had taught all along about lots of things just wasn’t true, and so they started acting prophetically as a voice for change. That, he said, is the true mission of today’s Church: To find out where God is already at work outside the Church and to join God there. Because I did not grow up in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, this required a bit of sorting out in my mind, but eventually it all seemed to fit. "The Church is the world’s greatest oppressor," I reasoned, "but God is at work outside the Church, so our mission as Christians is to work to change the Church until it becomes like, you know, those places outside the Church." It still seemed like I was missing something, but I figured I could think about it later.
Bishop Robinson’s talk was, on its surface, all about LGBT inclusion, but he said it actually was about much more than that. At its most basic level, it was about the end of patriarchy, which to him explained why he met with such opposition. The audience nodded approvingly¯civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and the sexual revolution were all part of a single struggle for liberation, from the Man, or something like that. Freedom, justice, and sex were all the same thing! I liked this idea. Being an Episcopalian, I thought, was going to be fun.
But if that was the good news, then what came next was the bad news. Many people, he warned, will be hurt and confused by our prophetic struggle against patriarchy. Some of them will probably even leave the Church. And, what’s more, we won’t even have the same relationship to something called the "Anglican Communion" anymore. This all sounded worrying. But, the bishop said, that was just the price we would have to pay for doing the right thing. If people were hurt and confused, or if they left the Church, then we would just have to deal with it later. He reminded us that Jesus was the ultimate example of someone who did the right thing and paid a price for it. He told us how, when he was made bishop, he had to wear a bulletproof vest and have an armed guard standing by, and how they had made special plans if he had been shot to take him into another room and make him a bishop before he died. He was being modest, of course, but we all thought he had been very brave. And although I had been worried at first, I started to feel sort of tough and rebellious. Maybe, I thought, I could be as brave as Gene Robinson some day. I stopped thinking about those people who would be hurt or confused. They would just have to get with the program.
Next, it was time for the question-and-answer session, and I was lucky enough to ask the bishop about something that had been bothering me. "Do you think," I asked, "that conservatives from places like South Carolina and progressives from places like New Hampshire should stay together in the same church?" Bishop Robinson gave a surprising answer¯yes, he said, they should stay together, because part of the genius of Anglicanism is keeping everybody together no matter what. The audience members puzzled over this. On the one hand, being tolerant and inclusive people, we didn’t want to tell people what to do or push anybody away. But on the other hand, wasn’t taking back religion from the conservatives the whole point of all this? Aren’t the conservatives in the Church the world’s greatest oppressors¯just the people we’re fighting against? This seemed strange to me, but I supposed that maybe it would be all right so long as the conservatives stayed in far-off places like South Carolina, where they belonged. Although, I didn’t think that everyone in the audience liked the bishop’s answer, and I wasn’t sure that I did, either.
Finally, it was time for one last question. A gentleman in the back stood up and asked, "What do you think we need to do to save General Theological Seminary ?" This came as quite a surprise to me¯how could such a nice seminary need to be saved? But apparently it was true. Bishop Robinson, who was on the board of the seminary, said that the building plans would have to go forward if the seminary were to be saved. I wasn’t quite sure what that all meant, but later on I found out that the seminary was almost bankrupt and wanted to knock down its library and put an apartment building there instead. It seemed to make sense, although it was very sad¯it explained why there was so much old scaffolding on the buildings (sort of like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine up on Morningside Heights), and why there were plastic sheets on the library books to keep them from getting wet when the roof leaked. But that wasn’t even the saddest part. It turned out that the seminary’s neighbors in Chelsea weren’t letting them put up the apartment building. They thought it would be too noisy and ugly, and they wanted things to stay just the way they were . The neighbors, it turned out, didn’t much like the seminary at all . They had even organized petition drives and protests to tell the seminary so.
I didn’t understand any of this. Before I had felt all tough and cool, fired up and ready to take religion back from the conservatives, but now it seemed like even our friends in the Chelsea district of Manhattan didn’t want us anymore. "How could they do this?" I thought. Many of them were gay, and we were sticking up for them! We were doing the right thing! Acting prophetically, no matter what! It was all very sad, and I started to wonder if anyone cared about the Episcopal Church anymore. People had started to file out of the chapel by this point, and I started to follow them. As I did, I overheard a young man about my age say to his friend, "You know, I agree with his politics and everything, but I’m not religious, so this wasn’t all that interesting to me. I bet my dad would have liked it, though."
I was pretty depressed, and I started walking glumly back to my apartment. On my way home, I passed by an old Episcopal church that seemed sort of different from normal churches¯it didn’t say anything about services, but there was a back door open, with loud music playing inside and a bunch of kids standing out front. I looked closer, and realized what had happened. Why, it had been turned into a nightclub! Loud and exciting music thrummed from inside the sanctuary, where young people like me were dancing and drinking and having a good time. I thought back to what I had learned earlier that night, about how freedom and justice and sex were all the same thing, and how being the Church meant joining the world in the struggle against patriarchy. Finally, I started to feel good again. It was going to be a tough fight, but there would be lots of fun along the way. I smiled, looking up at the nightclub-church, and thought that maybe we were starting to get it right after all.
Jordan Hylden is a junior fellow at First Things .