Bishop Robinson’s Triumphant Day at The Falls Church

It was an event for the ages, as they say, “of Biblical proportions.”

The hero’s welcome afforded the openly-gay Bishop Gene Robinson upon his ascension to the pulpit at the historic Falls Church Episcopal Church in downtown Falls Church last weekend.

It brought with it a veritably cosmic significance, a magnificent closure to the almost 20 year struggle by the resilient faithful at the Falls Church Episcopal to hold onto their church and their faith when both came under an historic assault by the enemies of all that Bishop Robinson stands for.

It was a titanic spiritual and physical struggle to wrest the historic church property away from those defectors who voted in 2006 to resign from the Episcopal Church denomination in opposition to Bishop Robinson’s election by the national Episcopal church as an openly gay minister, and to subsequently illegally lay claim to the church property for almost a decade.

Last weekend marked the final resolution to an arduous process by those in the congregation who remained loyal to the Episcopal denomination, becoming known as “continuing Episcopalians, clinging to their cause by worshipping across the street at the Falls Church Presbyterian, even as the illegally-occupying defectors set about aligning themselves with a virulently anti-gay Nigerian Anglican bishop,“You have been on my mind and in my heart the whole time,” the Rev. Robinson began his remarks to the congregation at the second of two services last Sunday morning. “I’ve been praying for you daily since 2006.” He preached a sermon in the church’s large new sanctuary and a second in the renovated smaller historic sanctuary that was overseen by George Washington prior to the American revolution and that served as a stable and hospital for Union troops during the Civil War. It was the perfect location for Bishop Robinson’s restorational service last weekend.

Of course, the church’s “continuing Episcopalian” congregation had not waited around until the defectors were finally ordered off of the property in 2012, six years after their vote and illegal occupation. The courts (with the Virginia Supreme Court taking the decisive action that then the U.S. Supreme Court let stand) finally handed the land decisively to Virginia’s Episcopal Diocese.

The ‘continuing Episcopalians” actively continued their ministries, and once returned to their rightful property in 2013 have engaged in a robust and active ministry to the Falls Church community and beyond. Their numbers grew from what had been a faithful “remnant” that operated offsite from 2006 on, as among the leaders among them of the Falls Church community that did not waver in the face of those years of turmoil were the highly respected former Falls Church City Public Schools Superintendent for 20 years, Dr. Warren Pace (1928-2020), former Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner and many others. The continuing Episcopalians were also buoyed by the staunch editorial support of the Falls Church News-Press and its owner, himself a gay seminarian, Nicholas Benton.

The whole time of this struggle the role of Bishop Robinson could not have been more present, even though he never visited the church until just this last weekend.

From almost the moment that the national Episcopalian denomination’s key leaders in the U.S. vote overwhelmingly to confirm Bishop Robinson’s call by his New Hampshire diocese to his role as a national church leader in 2003, the leading figures at the Falls Church Episcopal, led by the Rev. John Yates, set in motion the process that led to the congregational vote in December 2006 where a clear majority under his weekly care sided with him and voted to defect.

For as long as they occupied the historic church space after that, they never sought to reach out to their “continuing Episcopalian” brethren, nor even to allow them onto the property.

Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson (right) spoke with the News-Press’ Nicholas Benton at the Falls Church Episcopal last weekend. Benton’s newspaper staunchly supported Bishop Robinson and the “continuing Episcopalians” at the Falls Church who eventually prevailed against those who voted in 2006 to defect and leave the denomination while illegally occupying the church property in opposition to the election of Bishop Robinson as an openly gay leader. (News-Press Photo)

Since being ordered off the property, however, the congregation that voted to defect and to leave the U.S. Episcopal Church, aligning with a fiercely-anti gay Nigerian Anglican bishop, moved their weekly worship to a high school auditorium in North Arlington, while building a new church facility a few hundred yards outside the City of Falls Church on Arlington Boulevard.

Bishop Robinson insisted while speaking here last weekend that he is also continuing to pray for the defectors, even while exclaiming to the continuing Episcopalian at the Falls Church that “it is so amazing to be with you today…this parish knows resurrection.”

Speaking at a public forum Saturday morning in the historic church, he said that finally being asked to come to Falls Church after all that had happened “was not an accident, because this is the space where you were told you could not come.”

Moreover, the invitation to come to the Falls Church was extended by the congregation’s recently-called senior rector, the Rev. Burl Salmon, himself an openly gay man whose spouse Bob Henkel joined him in his move to the church when the congregation voted to call him in the summer of 2021.

Bishop Robinson recalled how he was elected 20 years ago as an openly-gay bishop and remarked that the fact he was at the Falls Church this week “was an unbelievable blessing.”

He noted that “the world has changed a lot since 2006,” and he wonders, he said, about the defectors and “what they think now about what they did in 2006.”

He told his own story of survival in the face of heated opposition in the last 20 years. He relayed “five things that I have learned,” using the 1982 book by John Fortunato, “Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians,” as his spiritual guide, the book “that saved my life,” he said. Wrestling with the challenges in that book caused him to “come out as gay” four years later in 1986.

One key theme was a dialogue with God in which it is posited, “How can love be wrong…I made you whole in my image, I have empowered you with my love…You must love them (your enemies) anyway.”

Consigned to a bullet proof vest as he pressed ahead with his ministry, he was encouraged by police assigned with protecting him and said privately to him how proud they were of him. He determined his call was not about him, but about his ministry, and that his challenge to witness his faith was “to be a good bishop.”

He found spiritual direction, he said, allowing God’s love to pour over him “like warm butter” to replenish his reservoir of faith.

He said it was vital to stay sympathetic to his detractors, who “believe what they were taught.” It is important to stay humble, and not believe all the PR that is out there.” Then, he said, it is important to affirm that, no matter how things go, “I’m going to heaven, no matter what.”

Finally, he said it is key to appreciate that all are children of God, and we are called not to believe, but to do the will of God. “There is no love without justice,” he said, quoting from Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonition written from the Birmingham Jail that “tolerance in the face of evil is complicity.”

He said “when you pull someone out of the river, you must do more than just rescue that person, you must go up the river to find out who is throwing people in.”

He said his case was “never about sexuality,” but about a bigger picture rooted in the notion that “God loves you more than you can imagine” and calls his people to do justice.

He called on the Falls Church Episcopal congregation to “fight Governor Youngkin’s attempt to disembowel the protections currently afforded transgender persons” and to fight against the profound errors of so-called Christian Nationalism.”

“Christians have to address,” he said, “How to be Christ-like” and to “do the work of the people” in the realm of politics, which is about the work of the people, and knowing that at the end of the day, love wins.”

“Jesus does not need more admirers,” he concluded, “but followers.” In the fishing boat, his followers did not just sit there and wait for the fish to jump into the boat. We are called to fight for justice, and not collaborate with injustice.”

“Christians have to address,” he said, “How to be Christ-like” and to “do the work of the people” in the realm of politics, which is about the work of the people, and knowing that at the end of the day, love wins.”

“Jesus does not need more admirers,” he concluded, “but followers.” In the fishing boat, his followers did not just sit there and wait for the fish to jump into the boat. We are called to fight for justice, and not collaborate with injustice.”