Gene Robinson introduced as bishop in Durham. Photo courtesy of the Concord Monitor.
By the Executive Staff
Winter Convocation saw many deserving people receive honorary degrees from the University. Dr. Ramona Doyle (C’81), the Rt. Rev. Phoebe Roaf, and Lee M. Thomas (C’67), are all deserving honorees, just to name a few. One deserving Sewanee alumnus, however, has yet to receive an honorary degree from his alma mater: Gene Robinson (C’69), former Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, and the first openly gay bishop elected in the Episcopal Church.
It is the opinion of the Executive Staff of the Purple that Robinson not only deserves an honorary degree, but that it is a blight upon our institution that he has yet to be so honored. Robinson is perhaps Sewanee’s most famous alumnus, right up there with Jon Meacham (C’91, H’10) – and notice Meacham’s honorary degree. Robinson was installed as bishop in 2004, and in the 16 years since his alma mater has been silent.
In Advent 2018, the Purple covered Brant Lewis’s (C’19) documentary The Feet We Stand On: An Oral History of Sewanee, which chronicles LGBTQ+ history at the University. In the documentary, Robinson said “Honestly, I don’t need this honorary doctorate, but you know what? You need to give it… you need to do what you need to do as an institution to welcome and acknowledge us.” Robinson is surely the most notable Sewanee alumni who hasn’t been honored with an honorary degree, and more than anything it is likely due to the institution’s reticence to jump into a heated debate – or once heated, one might say it has cooled 16 years hence in a post-Obergefell nation.
Robinson’s election as bishop, for sure, was controversial. It resulted in a schism within the Episcopal Church, leading more conservative Episcopalians to split and form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). But Sewanee is not affiliated with ACNA. It is affiliated with the Episcopal Church. It is our opinion – which includes the churched and unchurched alike – that Sewanee ought to align itself with the position of its own church, which “warmly welcomes our LGBTQ+ siblings.”
Warmly welcoming includes more than perfunctory acceptance of LGBTQ+ students and funding of LGBTQ+ programming. An honorary degree for Robinson may push a donor or two away, but how much more could it mean to students already on Sewanee’s own campus?
We would also say to those fret over the perceived controversy of awarding Robinson an honorary degree that LGBTQ+ church leaders have been given honorary degrees already – leaders like Richard Webster (H’16), who has served as the Director of Music at one of the largest Episcopal churches, Trinity Church in Boston, since 2005, and who has written a number of the musical pieces used for Lessons & Carols.
Robinson’s ‘controversiality,’ if it may be called that, is not of his own making. It was, and still often is, controversial for Robinson to be an openly gay man. The controversy lies not with him, but how he is treated and perceived. While one may attribute to Robinson the most recent bout of theological quarrels in the Episcopal Church (which would not be entirely accurate), one could also easily lay the blame at the feet of those who denied Robinson’s legitimacy as a man, as a priest, and as a bishop. However, in The Episcopal Church, there have been out LGBTQ+ clergy for over 30 years, and additionally, the late former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning (C’52, T’54), upon his election in 1985, famously proclaimed that “This church of ours is open to all — there will be no outcasts — the convictions and hopes of all will be honored.”
Honorary degrees, while in practice meaningless, do carry a symbolic importance. Not granting Robinson an honorary degree is just as much of a symbol as granting him one. It is not a neutral position. It is a position in the negative against Robinson’s worthiness to be honored by his own alma mater.
The argument is often made in Robinson’s favor that Sewanee honors every new bishop with an honorary degree, which doesn’t appear to be true, or at least every Sewanee alumnus who becomes a bishop, or if not that, every bishop of the owning dioceses of the University. None of these distinctions matter. The reason to give Gene Robinson an honorary degree is not because other bishops, whatever their relation to Sewanee, also received one. The reason is because he is an extraordinarily accomplished alumnus, who, in the opinion of this staff, ushered in a more just, equitable, and open era for the Episcopal Church and has become an important figure in the LGBTQ+ community. Gene Robinson stands on his own two feet.
The University’s motto, Ecce quam bonum, is often used as a fitting way to end inspirational speeches or emphasize a shared Sewanee experience. With Gene Robinson, Sewanee has a real opportunity to practice its motto in reality. If we are to truly “behold how good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity,” we should start in our own community, with our own alumni, and honor justly a man who deserves to be honored. How good and pleasant would that be?