When Bishop William White of Philadelphia became a bishop in 1787, he was No. 2 in the Episcopal Church’s chain of apostolic succession.

When Bishop V. Gene Robinson was consecrated in 2003 ”“ the first openly gay, noncelibate Episcopal bishop ”“ he was No. 993. This fact was more than a trivia-game answer during a recent sermon that represented a triumphant moment both for Robinson and his church’s liberal establishment.

Standing on White’s grave before the altar of historic Christ Church, the former New Hampshire bishop quipped that he did “feel a little rumble” when he referenced the recent Episcopal votes to approve same-sex marriage rites. But Robinson was convinced White was not rolling over in his grave.

“I’d like to think that he who took the really astounding events of his day and turned them into a prophetic ministry would be joining us here today if he could,” said the 68-year-old bishop, in an interfaith service marking the 50th anniversary of the July 4th Independence Hall demonstrations that opened America’s gay-rights movement.

After a “week of blessings” ”“ the Supreme Court win for same-sex marriage, as well as the long-awaited shift by Episcopalians ”“ Robinson said it was now time to seek global change. It’s crucial to prove there is more to this cause than “white gay men” struggling to decide “where to have brunch on Sunday,” he said.

Robinson had a very personal reason to celebrate. During General Convention meetings in Salt Lake City, Episcopal bishops, clergy and lay leaders approved rites for same-sex couples seeking to be married in church. The convention also edited gender-neutral language into its marriage laws, substituting “couple” for “man and woman.”

The canon changes passed in the House of Bishops with 129 in favor, 26 against and five abstaining.

At the time of Robinson’s consecration, 48 diocesan bishops backed a statement defending traditional doctrines on marriage and sex. After the Utah votes, only 20 bishops signed a public statement of dissent.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, however, expressed concern that these changes could cause new cracks in the 80 million-member Anglican Communion. The evangelical Reform network in the Church of England went further, claiming Episcopal Church leaders had rejected the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew stating that God “made them male and female” and “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” America’s bishops, said the Reform statement, “have denied the faith they profess to teach, forfeiting any right to be regarded as true bishops of the church of Jesus Christ.”

Primates from the Global South, including the giant churches of Africa, called this redefinition of marriage “another example of … unilateral decisions that are taken without giving the least consideration to the possible consequences on other provinces and the Anglican Communion as a whole, the ecumenical partnerships, the mission of the church worldwide and interfaith relations.”

Days later, Robinson stressed that he grew up in rural Kentucky hearing conservatives quote the Bible in ways that left him confused and hurt. Today, this kind of oppression threatens people around the world, he said. But pain can become power.

Gay people know what it’s like to be told they have “an affliction” and, thus, cannot go inside sanctuary doors, he said. They know what it means to be told “our sin makes us unworthy to be inside of the temple, that we are never going to be worthy in God’s eyes.”

Now America has entered an age in which Pandora’s box has been opened, he said, revealing that “we’re coming to the place where there are as many sexualities ”“ plural ”“ as there are human beings, because no two of us have the same experience.”

Americans need to see this as a kind of spiritual journey toward new revelations, the bishop said. Gay believers have already been there and done that.

“You can’t survive being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender unless you ask spiritual questions. ”˜Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? And does God love me?’ Those are the ultimate questions, and we’ve got some experience asking and answering them. We might even be able to help some of you straight people.”

— Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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