Life Lessons

05.04.14

A Bishop’s Decision to Divorce

All of us sincerely intend, when we take our wedding vows, to live up to the ideal of ‘til death do us part.’ But not all of us are able to see it through.

Life is hard. And it just keeps on coming, ready or not. Somewhere inside me, I guess I thought that life in “retirement” would be more peaceful, easier somehow. But I am also not naïve enough to believe it for long.

Recently, my partner and husband of 25-plus years and I decided to get divorced. While the details of our situation will remain appropriately private, I am seeking to be as open and honest in the midst of this decision as I have been in other dramatic moments of my life—coming out in 1986, falling in love, and accepting the challenge of becoming Christendom’s first openly gay priest to be elected a Bishop in the historic succession of bishops stretching back to the apostles. 

As my marriage to Mark ends, I believe him to be one of the kindest, most generous and loyal human beings on earth. There is no way I could ever repay the debt I owe him for his standing by me through the challenges of the last decade. I will be forever grateful to him, and as I tell couples in pre-marital counseling, “Marriage is forever, and your relationship will endure—whether positively or negatively—even if the marriage formally ends.” 

I know this flies in the face of the common practice of regarding one party in a divorce as the bad guy and one the good guy. The fact remains that it takes two people to make a marriage and two people to make a divorce. The reasons for ending a marriage fall on the shoulders of both parties: the missed opportunities for saying and doing the things that might have made a difference, the roads not taken, the disappointments endured but not confronted.

It is at least a small comfort to me, as a gay rights and marriage equality advocate, to know that like any marriage, gay and lesbian couples are subject to the same complications and hardships that afflict marriages between heterosexual couples. All of us sincerely intend, when we take our wedding vows, to live up to the ideal of “til death do us part.” But not all of us are able to see this through until death indeed parts us.

My belief in marriage is undiminished by the reality of divorcing someone I have loved for a very long time, and will continue to love even as we separate. Love can endure, even if a marriage cannot. It will take a lot of work, a lot of grieving, and a large measure of hope to see it through. And that’s where my faith comes in.

My belief in marriage is undiminished by the reality of divorcing someone I have loved for a very long time, and will continue to love even as we separate. Love can endure, even if a marriage cannot.

We have just concluded the dramatic remembrance of the events of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. The reason this annual remembrance of “The Passion” resonates so profoundly with me is that it is a reenactment of the grand scenario of life: bad things happen, people suffer, some friends fall away and some stay close, no one knows what comes next after what seems like death, and then God acts in a way that brings new life, new possibility and yes, resurrection.

The thing that astounds me about Jesus, as told in this Passion story, is that he keeps putting one foot in front of the other, praying that it’s in the right direction, but not knowing for sure. In the face of his enemies, he prays that God might forgive them. In the midst of his own pain, he cares for his mother Mary and the “beloved disciple” John, commending them to each other’s care. And then, even though God seems remarkably absent at the time of his death, Jesus nevertheless offers his soul back to God as a gift. To the very end, he would remain an active participant in his own destiny.

That all may seem far away from one couple ending a marriage. But I draw much comfort and guidance from this story and my faith in the One about whom it is told. While I would never remotely compare myself to Jesus, I do know that I too have to move forward without knowing whether the steps I am taking are in the right or wrong direction. I too need to take care of relationships, in the midst of my own pain. (No, it’s not all about me.) And I need to be an active participant in my own destiny.

Most importantly, I need to hold on to the belief that God will have the last word, and that word is hope. If God can bring an Easter out of that awful, long-ago Good Friday, then God can bring new life to me and Mark out of the pain of our parting company. That is my faith, even if the pain of the present moment is too excruciating to envision what it might be. Mark and I will need, and welcome, the prayers of our friends and the support of our community. 

My newest, most favorite piece of bumper-sticker wisdom which I will hold onto in this in-between time is this: “In the end, all will be well. If all is not well, it is not yet the end.” Life is hard, and that is true whether you’re in your teens or in your “golden years.” Life keeps on coming at you, ready or not. And sometimes life brings pain and seemingly impossible choices.  So, for me, all is not well right now; but I believe—no, actually I know—in the end, it will be.

The Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, and the recently-retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire.