(RNS) Openly gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, whose 2003 election caused a major schism within the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion, announced on Saturday (Nov. 6) that he will retire in early 2013.
Robinson, 63, asked delegates from the Diocese of New Hampshire, meeting in Concord, to elect a coadjutor bishop, or designated successor, in 2012 to take over when he officially retires on Jan. 5, 2013.
Robinson, who was forced to wear bullet-proof vests under his robes during his 2003 consecration, said the international furor of his election has taken a “toll on me, my family and you.’’
“Death threats, and the now-worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop, have been a constant strain, not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark … and in some ways, you.’’
Robinson’s announcement had been rumored for months since most Episcopal bishops typically retire around age 65; he said he does not intend to be a “lame duck’’ bishop.
Starting with his election in 2003, Robinson’s tenure has overshadowed life within the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church and strained relationships with its sister Anglican churches overseas.
Conservative Anglicans, especially in Africa and Asia, cut ties with the Episcopal Church after Robinson’s election; one prominent African archbishop called it a “Satanic attack upon God’s church.’’
The charismatic Robinson used his notoriety as a roving ambassador for gay rights in the church and beyond, particularly as a bridge between unaffiliated or former Christians and a denomination that ordains women and gay bishops.
“I have had the privilege of bringing many people into the church for the first time, or convincing them that the church is becoming a safe place to which they can return with a reasonable expectation of welcome,’’ he told his convention. “This is evangelism for me, pure and simple.’’
His election also deeply strained the ties between the Episcopal Church and the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Last May, the U.S. church went one step further and consecrated its first openly lesbian bishop, the Right Rev. Mary Glasspool, in Los Angeles.
Even though his election caused the secession of four U.S. dioceses and the birth of a rival Anglican Church of North America for disgruntled conservatives, Robinson remained unapologetic and said there was no going back.
“I believe that you elected me because you believed me to be the right person to lead you at this time,’’ Robinson told delegates on Saturday. “The world has sometimes questioned that, but I hope you never did.’’
His election touched off a dramatic realignment of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. Saying the U.S. church is “out of step’’ with other Anglican churches, Williams has sidelined Episcopalians in Anglican decision-making bodies, and proposed pushing the U.S. church into second-tier membership.
Episcopalians, meanwhile, have largely rejected the pressure and plotted their own course by electing Glasspool and taking steps to approve rites to bless same-sex unions and marriages.
Robinson said he is in good health and remains sober five years after seeking treatment for alcohol dependency, and has lost the “25 pounds put on over the last seven years in part by eating all your good food.’’