Honorary Degree Recipients Reflect and Bishop Gene Robinson’s Full Speech

Rebecca Cole


After receiving an honorary degree at Fall Convocation earlier this month, Malcolm Holzman provided The Purple with a statement about his experience. Holzman reflected on his legacy as the architect of McClurg dining hall and said, “My Sewanee honorary degree demonstrates the high regard McClurg Hall holds after twenty years of active daily use by students, faculty, and guests. I was delighted to be recognized for making this contribution to the shared cultural experiences that give meaning, energy and character to the evolving history of campus life.”

Bishop V. Gene Robinson (C ‘69) also reflected on his time here receiving an honorary degree from his alma mater. “Receiving an honorary degree from Sewanee was a ”coming home” of sorts, in the best way possible. It followed two days of conversations with multiple communities on campus, the memories of which I will always treasure. At every turn, I was treated with warm hospitality and welcome, and that is always balm for the soul. Reconnecting and receiving an honorary degree after all these years is an honor and joy I never expected to see, and I accepted it with deep gratitude. I look forward to my next visit.”

Natasha Trethewey shared with us some of her thoughts following the convocation about what receiving the degree from Sewanee means to her. “In a nation built on forgetting, on selective remembering and willed amnesia about our history, and in this tumultuous time in which contests over what we memorialize and teach are taking place around the country, it is especially meaningful to me to be here, at Sewanee, a place leading the way in its willingness to contend with our difficult and shared history as Americans,” Trethewey said. “It is not easy to deal with the past, and to do so is a courageous and patriotic act. I am proud to be part of the legacy of reckoning undertaken here, and for this honor, I am deeply grateful.”

Robinson was generous in providing The Purple with a full transcript of his speech from Fall Convocation. It can be found below.


The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson

All Saints Chapel, Sewanee, Tennessee

Friday, October 6, 2023

In honor of this Indigenous People’s weekend, let us remember and honor the Indigenous People of the world, especially the Cherokee nation, one of a number of tribes who called the land we sit on today “home.” May we learn from our past sins and be instruments of justice and peace for ALL of God’s children.

Good afternoon, and thank you to the Vice-Chancellor, Chancellor, Trustees and Regents for this great honor, and to the faculty and students who worked to make it happen. Greetings to parents and families present today, and congratulations to my fellow degree recipients and to those receiving their gowns. To you students, let me say, YOU are the reason I’m here; this address is for you; but with your permission, we will let everyone else here listen in.

What an honor and delight to be here and to receive this acknowledgment of my life and ministry. Whatever contributions I have made, to the Church and to the world, they were made possible, in large part, by my time here at Sewanee in the last half of the 1960’s. But as in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, for me, Sewanee was the best of times and the worst of times.

Two years before my arriving here, President Kennedy had been assassinated. While I was here, Dr. King would also be assassinated; two months later Robert Kennedy would be gunned down. Movie theaters were showing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (2001 seemed impossibly far off and now is firmly fixed in our rearview mirrors!). The Vietnam War was cranking up, and America was taking undue advantage of its young men of color and poor men of every color, by sending them to the front lines, while we here at Sewanee were protected by a college deferment, until in my senior year, that unearned racial and class privilege ended with a national lottery for who would be drafted.

This chapel is where I was confirmed and became an Episcopalian. On many a night, I would walk through the dense Sewanee fog, out of which this chapel would magically appear (thankfully unlocked), and get on my knees at that altar rail. God knew I had a secret. God and I would fight about whether or not someone like me was worthy of seminary and ordination. My answer was “no”; God’s answer was “yes.” Ultimately God won.

I was here at Sewanee because of the generosity of the Georgia Wilkins Scholarship. How else would a son of tobacco sharecroppers from Kentucky, who had grown up without running water or indoor plumbing, find himself at an institution founded for the benefit of the sons of slave-owning plantation owners? Little did anyone know that this country boy was also a gay boy, fiercely closeted, and scared to death — afraid to come to terms with what I feared was my own sexual truth and fearful that discovery would have dire consequences.

You see, when I was here, young men discovered to be gay were literally made to simply vanish in the night, without a word of explanation to anyone. Oh, but everyone knew! Four years on this Mountain, and along with all that was good, every minute of every day, I was terrified! So I confided in no one. I participated in the testosterone-fueled party weekends, dated women, and prayed I could look and act — and hopefully turn out to be — straight.

I will be forever grateful to Lambda Chi Alpha for taking me in, giving me a community of brothers who loved me, and providing me with a home in which I could flourish, all the while keeping my secret. I would have died without it. That community of young men seemed to have kindness in its DNA, and all kinds of misfits like me found a home there. Sewanee, I suspect, would have been a kinder place with female students, but that wouldn’t finally happen until the fall after I graduated.

Three weeks after my graduation, the Stonewall Riots happened in New York, launching the modern gay rights movement. Had I even known about it at the time, I’m sure the Gene Robinson of 1969 would have pleaded with God that it had nothing whatsoever to do with me.

I was ordained a priest 50 years ago. And then, twenty years ago, in 2003, I was elected by my Diocese of New Hampshire to be their bishop — and the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion exploded. I got my first death threat before I even got home, the afternoon of my election. Death threats would continue, almost daily, for two and a half years. While mostly wishing just to be a “good bishop,” I was labeled by the media and became, in the world’s eyes, 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 damned gay bishop ever, and use every opportunity afforded to me by that designation, to advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people everywhere — and to use what I had learned from my experience as an outcast to fight discrimination and advocate for justice for people of color, women, and the poor; for disabled people, immigrants and asylum-seekers. And of course, my beloved community of LGBTQ siblings.

All these years later, and given the very few minutes allotted for this address, let me cut to the chase and challenge you (maybe even exhort you) with seven things I have learned in the 54 years since I graduated:

There is nothing any of us can do to cause God to stop loving us. Nothing. With the assurance and confidence which comes from that, there is almost nothing you can’t do.

Jesus is famous for walking on water, but then, you might expect that of him. The real surprise in that story is that the disciple Peter also walked on water, until he lost the faith to do so. Jesus taught that we are all meant to walk on water — but here’s the hitch: you can’t walk on water unless you step out of the boat you’re comfortable in. Uncertainty, risk, and sometimes danger are required in making any real contributions to humankind. If you plan to make a difference in the world, buckle up!

Your generation’s work (mine too) is to secure democracy in this country. People of faith (and people of good will) believe in democracy because, more than any other form of government, it seeks the most good for the most people. At its finest, democracy is a government of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But White Christian Nationalism is snake oil, and it’s poisoning this democracy and undermining it at every turn. The question is: Are you paying attention, and do you intend to help?

Paraphrasing 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker, Dr. King famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” But that progression toward justice is neither linear nor inevitable, so I would caution: In the quest for justice, there are no innocent observers. You are either working for justice, or by intent or apathy, you are working against it. It’s one or the other. Be benders of the arc.

If you want to know God, work with the poor, the dispossessed, the despised and discriminated against, the weak, those who never benefited from a Sewanee-type education. You can meet God there. When I was here, Sewanee bragged that graduates didn’t know a lot about any one thing, but a little about everything. Perhaps overstated. But it means you can hold your own in conversation with anyone. If you want to know God, have a conversation with someone who is “other” to you: an undocumented immigrant, a transgender teenager, a black man in prison, a mother trying to raise three children, alone and poor. The skills you learn at Sewanee aren’t just good for cocktail parties. They’re also good for justice work.

Don’t confuse God with religion. God never gets it wrong; religion often does. But religion — be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or Buddhist — can be a great place to hang out with others who want to know God and change the world.

Lastly, in 2023 it is suddenly and sadly in vogue to belittle people for being “woke.” Before it was vilified as “woke,” it was dismissed as “mere political correctness.” But before that, it was called The Gospel. For those of us who are Episcopalians, accusing someone of being “woke” is in fact making fun of “respecting the dignity of every human being.” Treat people like the children of God they are, regardless of how they treat you. If that’s being “woke,” wear the label with pride. In every religion on the planet, it’s called “loving your neighbor as yourself” and caring for the most vulnerable. Don’t run from it. Embrace it!

That’s what I have learned in the 54 years since I graduated. I wish I could live another 54 years to see what YOU will have learned in your lives.

In this moment, I am so humbled and so grateful for this honorary degree, and for Sewanee’s kindness in offering it. It is a joyful and healing moment for me, to feel once again like I’ve come home. Mere words cannot adequately express my gratitude. May God bless you as you learn from all that Sewanee has to give.More than half a century ago I’m not sure anyone could have predicted where Gene Robinson or Sewanee would be in 2023. By God’s grace, it appears we’ve both come a very long way!

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