Souls on Ice
The lights dimmed and the scoreboard went blank as the ceremony began. Despite all attempts at changing the atmosphere of the arena, however, there was no disguising the peculiarity of the site that had been chosen for one of the more divisive events in recent Christian history. With NCAA conference banners hanging from a ceiling higher than the rising incense could reach; with the penalty box covered for the day in silky royal blue fabric; with only an inch or so of temporary floorboard keeping the procession of bishops and priests from slipping on the University of New Hampshire Wildcats logo painted on the ice below, some four thousand souls sat packed around a college hockey rink, braced for a theological face-off.
As the first openly gay man to be elevated to the office of bishop in the Episcopal Church USA, the Reverend Gene Robinson got a much bigger party than he might have otherwise. The procession began at just past four in the afternoon on All Saints Sunday and continued for a solid twenty minutes. When Robinson finally came into view through the zamboni entrance beneath the stands, the applause from the crowd could have been for Wayne Gretsky skating in to retire his jersey.
Yet for all the pomp and joy of the event, an awareness of what was at stake was never far from the proceedings. There was some hubbub in the crowd about the particularly flamboyant vestments that had been chosen for the celebration, but it was no joke that due to the multiple death threats he had received, Robinson is said to have worn a bulletproof vest through the weeks leading up to the consecration. An FBI bodyguard was assigned to watch over his home around the clock.
As the procession continued, the entering clergy fanned out through the arena in their various clerical attire: the priests in white and red; the bishops in green, blue, and yellow, with matching pointed hats; all walking with the illusory grace of feet hidden by floor-length robes. When the voices of a hundred-member choir rose behind them, “Alleluia, sing to Jesus! His the scepter, His the throne,” they moved to their positions as if hovering — or, better, as if gliding on sharpened metal edges across a frozen pond. “Alleluia!” the choir sang, in awe of the costumes and choreography of this high-church hockey-rink spectacular.
Outside, television trucks idled with their satellite dishes pointed to the sky. Around them, demonstrators for and against Robinson’s consecration lined opposite sides of a walkway leading to the arena. In the no man’s land between, state troopers and campus cops in bright orange rain slickers for the drizzle that had been hanging in the sky most of the day stood stone still while a score of reporters bounced from one side to the other, collecting opposing points of view.
The supporters seemed to be made up entirely of UNH students — young-looking men and women, many with t-shirts that read, “Gay? Fine by me.” They clapped and whistled and hooted for everyone walking into the arena, just glad to be part of the festivities, and happy most of all, it seemed, to have something to do for the evening in an otherwise sleepy college town.
On the other side of the walkway a small crowd of protestors stared silently across the divide. There were two dozen or so, men mostly, all looking a little bored, perhaps disappointed that their opposite numbers were just kids — and, t-shirts aside, not even visibly gay kids. There were no public displays of affection for the protestors to gawk at; no flaming queens, no biker dykes, no chants of “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” to shout down. The anti-consecration contingent looked dejected, like they’d come here to bring down Sodom and ended up protesting a Dave Matthews concert. Where was the fun in that?
One man in a hood and sunglasses glowered below a banner proclaiming 9-11 “God’s Rod”; another grinned beneath a cardboard-on-a-broomstick sign showing two crude figures — the kind more often seen at crosswalk signals — engaged in a decidedly unpedestrian embrace, one bent over at the waist, the other standing close behind, stick-figure crotch to stick-figure ass. That was the message of the sign in its entirety. The man who held it nodded knowingly when I looked his way, as if his sexual hieroglyph said all he cared to say about the subject.
Inside the arena, as the ceremony continued, the naysayers had quite a bit more on their minds. Much like a wedding, during the consecration of an Episcopal bishop, the assembled faithful were asked if anyone had any reason to object to the ordination. It was a moment many had been dreading.
A thin man in a charcoal gray suit and a black clerical shirt with a white collar waved his hand in the air as he strode to a waiting microphone.
“I’m sorry I must be here to say these things,” the Reverend Earl Fox said, and then he began a litany: “Ninety-nine percent of active homosexual males,” he intoned, “engage in oral sex.”
The crowd of church-goers sat at attention — Did he just say what I think he said?
He continued, “Eighty-six percent of active homosexual males engage in anal sex.” He paused. Though he must have heard the collective intake of breath from the stands, no one stopped him, so he went on. “Eighty-one percent of active homosexual males engage in rimming,” he said, “which is a practice by which a man touches with his tongue the anus of another man.”
“Father Fox I think you can spare us this level of detail,” the ceremony’s leader, Bishop Frank Griswold, said.
“But you see what I mean?” he asked.
“We do, and if you could just get to the substance of your objection.”
Father Fox scanned his statement for a moment, as if searching for a place at which he could seamlessly pick up his line of argument. He turned the first page and looked over another. Finally he came to a conclusion — “I believe we who are made in God’s loving image should not engage in or bless or consecrate such behavior” — and walked off the floor.
Two more objections followed, but the substance was the same. The problem was not, each dissenter insisted, who gays are, but what they do. “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” the tired mantra goes. Amazing that in a faith so concerned with transcendence the issue again and again is so basic as sex, and not even the spiritual and emotional elements of sex, but the plain old fact of it — the act of it, the who-puts-what-part-where-and-why. Or maybe it’s not so amazing: It was sex, after all, that started this church in the first place — sex and the divorce it inspired when Rome tried to prevent Henry VIII from taking a new wife. The question then is the question now: Does God care where and why, with whom and how we have sex? A reasonable theological inquiry, perhaps, but maybe it’s all in how you phrase it. Once you’ve said “rimming” to four thousand Episcopalians, it becomes difficult for anyone to hear or remember anything else.
“We thank our brothers and sisters in Christ for bringing their concerns before us,” Bishop Griswold said after the objectors had made their statements and hurried away. “The bases of their objections put forward are well-known and I think have been considered.”
The ceremony proceeded with more singing, and then the moment of actual consecration, the laying on of hands.
Finally the man of the hour (three hours by now) had a chance to speak: “I just want you all to know how much this means to me,” Bishop Robinson said. “But really, it’s not about me. It’s about so many other people who find themselves at the margins.” Turning a circle to take in the crowd that surrounded him, he continued, “Your presence here is a welcome sign for those people to be brought into the center. And that is what the mission of our Lord was about.”
He shoots, he scores. From every corner of the arena, cheers flooded in.
Back outside, the silent protestors were gone by the time the ceremony ended. Now only a small group of more vocal dissenters remained. Loudest of all was a man in a dark suit positioned on the stairway overlooking the arena’s exit.
“JEE-SUS!” he moaned. “JEE-SUS! JEE-SUS!” He paused and started up again, “JEE-SUS! JEE-SUS!” and then paused again, apparently having reached the limits of his evangelical repertoire.
A gang of priests ambled by, women in vestments with close-cropped hair, men with neatly trimmed beards over their clerical collars. It wasn’t so long ago that the ordination of women, too, was deemed a sacrilege, a change in church practice that many complained was “theologically unsound.” Now, though, with Barbara Harris, the first female Episcopal Bishop, a fixture in the church; with a black woman sitting among the white-haired men at the focal point of the ceremony, the margins brought to the center, these male and female priests walked with the knowledge that they were equal in all ways but their accessories.
“JEE-SUS! JEE-SUS!” the man in the dark suit called.
As they passed through his one-man gauntlet, the priests shook their heads and looked at him quizzically. “Jesus?” their expressions seemed to say. “Hey, buddy, tell us something we don’t know.”
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.