V. Gene Robinson’s Convocation Speech Receives Standing Ovation

Rebecca Cole


Reverend V. Gene Robinson (C ’69), the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, has finally received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Sewanee after years of support and petitions from the students and faculty. He was one of three individuals honored at Fall Convocation. The other two recipients were Natasha Trethewey, a two-time Poet Laureate honored with a Doctor of Letters, and Malcolm Holzman, the architect of McClurg dining hall honored with a Doctor of Fine Arts. 

Photo courtesy of Beylie Ivanhoe

After a foggy and cold Friday morning, the clouds cleared for a sunny gowning of new members inducted into the Order of the Gown. As families gathered on the quad, students and their gowners took a seat inside All Saints’ for the honorary degree ceremony and the reading of inductee names. 

With a heartfelt ovation after the bestowing of the honorary degrees, Robinson took to the podium to give the ceremonial address. Swallowing back tears and composing himself, he continued to describe to students the emotional toll of returning to a place that he simultaneously loved and feared. Two years before he began his education at Sewanee, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. While he was a student at Sewanee, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Robert Kennedy was then killed as well. With the Vietnam war ramping up and “America taking undue advantage of its young men of color and poor men of every color,” Robinson said, “we were protected by a college deferment.” The national draft began his senior year at Sewanee. During a decade of national unrest and uncertainty, Robinson was confirmed as an Episcopalian his senior year at Sewanee. 

Robinson described fighting with God about his identity and “whether or not someone like me was worthy of seminary ordination. My answer was no and God’s answer was yes and God won.”

Facing backlash and death threats after being elected bishop in 2003, Robinson impassionately told students that “while mostly wishing just to be a good bishop, I was labeled by the media as the gay bishop. I decided that if the world was going to reduce me to being the gay bishop, then I’d be the best damn gay bishop ever.” That prompted applause across All Saints’. 

He left students with seven lessons that he has learned since graduating from Sewanee. The first being that God will always love you. Addressing the current political climate in the United States with a growing far-right coalition, Robinson called students to action, “You are either working for justice or by intent or apathy you are working against it. It is one or the other, you must choose.” He tells students to “have a conversation with someone who is other.” Robinson calls students to use their skills they learned at Sewanee to do justice work in the world. He tells students, quoting the Gospel, to “love your neighbor as yourself and care for the most vulnerable.”

All three honorary degree recipients have been contacted by The Purple for comment and those remarks will be included in a separate article highlighting thoughts from the recipients. 

Students filtered out of the chapel with Sofie Behr (C ’24), Order of the Gown president, calling their names in alphabetical order. Each found friends and family waiting on the quad to congratulate them and bear witness to the gowning of the new members. After the choir sang the Alma Mater, the gowns were donned and the celebration commenced!

Another successful fall convocation closed with a feast and live music to offer a delightful atmosphere for enjoying the academic achievements of students and to kick off Parents’ Weekend. 

Photo courtesy of Beylie Ivanhoe

One comment

  1. I am glad to say that I voted for his Consecration at General Convention 2003. I was told then–“your vote will be the correct one in twenty years.”

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