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Examining Bishop Gene Robinson’s Invocation

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, January 23, 2009

Part 9 of series: Rick Warren, the Obama Inauguration, and Praying in Jesus’ Name
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Two days prior to the official inauguration of President Barack Obama, there was an opening event at the Lincoln Memorial. The invocation for this gathering was offered by the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. As you probably know, Bishop Robinson is best known as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. His inclusion in the Obama inaugural surely demonstrated, for better or for worse, the new President’s commitment to reach out to all segments of American society.

Not unexpectedly, Bishop Robinson’s prayer was controversial. But the main reason for the controversy was not expected. Apparently, technical difficulties made it hard for most of those gathered to hear his prayer. Moreover, HBO didn’t include the prayer in their broadcast, which has led to cries of discrimination from gay and lesbian advocates. It seems likely, however, that HBO simply made a mistake. A reporter for Christianity Today magazine who was present when Bishop Robinson prayed took a surprisingly clear video, from which the picture to the right was taken. You can see the whole video on YouTube by clicking on the photo. The text of Robinson’s prayer can be found at the Episcopal Café website.

Bishop Robinson’s prayer included 525 words, and took just over four minutes to deliver. It was, as he described it, a prayer “to ask God’s blessing upon our nation and our next president.” With this basic structure, the prayer began with seven requests for God to “bless us.” It ended with ten specific requests for the President elect: “Give him wisdom; inspire him; Give him a quiet heart; Give him stirring words; Make him color-blind; Help him remember; Give him the strength; help him remember; keep him safe; Hold him in the palm of your hand.”

From the point of view of structure and language, Robinson’s prayer is exemplary. Unlike Rick Warren’s prayer, which seemed to wander from topic to topic and which included little poetic repetition, Robinson’s prayer reflected the artistry found in the liturgy that would be so familiar to an Episcopal bishop. One of the things Episcopalians, like all Anglicans, do so well is to use words sparingly, artfully, and profoundly in their written liturgies. One of the things Southern Baptists like Rick Warren do well is to pray spontaneously, eagerly, and enthusiastically. So neither Robinson’s nor Warren’s prayers were especially surprising in their form or manner of delivery.

I want to begin my examination of Bishop Robinson’s content by focusing first upon his intercession for President-elect Obama. I find this section of the prayer to be wise, moving, and pastoral, as well as poetic. For example, “Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.” The thought here is right on, and wonderfully phrased as well.

Given Robinson’s own liberalism, both theologically and politically, I was struck by the balance of one of his requests: “Make [Obama] color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.”

But I was most deeply impressed by the last two of Robinson’s intercessions:

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.

The prayer for Obama’s private life is full of pathos. I wonder if Robinson’s prayer concerning Obama’s time with his daughters reflects Robinson’s own experience as a father with two daughters. In my opinion, Robinson’s urgent request for Obama’s safety was outstanding and badly needed.

All in all, I would give Bishop Robinson’s prayer for Obama high marks. I can’t say the same for his intercession for the nation, though there are some fine thoughts there too, such as:

Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

A couple of paragraphs were problematic, however, such as:

Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

I actually agree that we should not discriminate in the public sphere against the people on this list, though I doubt Bishop Robinson and I would always agree about what counts as discrimination. Nevertheless, I find his predictable litany of “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people” to be unhelpful. It makes him sound like much less of a spiritual leader praying for the nation, and more of an activist pressing his own particular agenda. Of course one might counter in saying that Robinson is, indeed, more of an activist than a spiritual leader. He certainly doesn’t seem to mind splitting the Anglican communion in order to pursue his own aims. So, one might say that Robinson was being truthful in this part of his prayer. My point is that it was divisive. Contrast Rick Warren’s prayer, which did not bring up divisive issues. Warren was bringing people together. Robinson was, once again, rending them asunder.

Perhaps the most notable and obviously controversial element of Bishop Robinson’s prayer was his opening line: “O God of our many understandings.” From my point of view, this was a major mistake. It sounds almost like a Saturday Night Live parody. Of course Robinson’s point–that people understand God in many different ways–is correct. He could well have acknowledge this in a sentence, something like: “O God, though we understand you in many different ways, we come together at this time to pray that you will . . . .” But to address a prayer to “God of our many understandings” in this way seems to suggest that there is no real God out there to hear our prayers, but rather some figment of our corporate imagination. It’s almost as if Bishop Robinson has given God a new name: not Yahweh, not God Almighty, not Prince of Peace, but “God of our many understandings.” Yikes!

Aside from the inelegance of this title for God, it epitomizes what I find most lacking in Robinson’s prayer: Christianity. There is nothing specifically Christian here. There is nothing that reflects Robinson’s apparent role as a Christian priest. Now I’m not talking about any specific mention of Jesus. But I am talking about praying in a way that reflects the reality of Jesus and his ministry. There is no hint in Bishop Robinson’s prayer of such Christian essentials as grace, mercy, justice, or forgiveness. There’s not one mention of faith, hope, or love. Robinson points to God’s judgment, but never God’s salvation. He wants us to be tearful over the pain of the world, but doesn’t ask that we participate in God’s work of ending that pain. What a typically American response to the world’s suffering! Let’s feel bad, but otherwise do nothing. If I feel your pain, that’s enough. No need to heal it. Doesn’t sound much like Jesus, does it? Similarly, we’re to be angry about discrimination. But Robinson never asks God to help us end it. From this prayer, you’d never know that the founder of Robinson’s religion began to inaugurate the kingdom of God, and called his followers to participate in his mission.

I do realize that Robinson told the New York Times in advance that he wasn’t going “to pray a Christian prayer.” In fact, he said he was “horrified” at “how specifically and aggressively Christian” previous inaugural prayers had been. Robinson followed through quite nicely on his promise to pray in a non-Christian manner. But, in the end, what’s left is milquetoast religiosity. He leads us to ask God to give us tears, anger, discomfort, patience, humility, freedom, and compassion, all of which are quite fine. But there’s nothing about doing justice, loving mercy, or walking humbly with our God. Under Robinson’s leadership, we don’t ask God to help us love, forgive, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. Something is woefully lacking here . . . genuine Christianity.

I can understand why a Christian clergyman would choose not to use the name of Jesus in a civic prayer. But I cannot understand for the life of me why he would pray in a way that shows so little of Jesus’ influence.

Topics: Praying in Jesus's Name |

8 Responses to “Examining Bishop Gene Robinson’s Invocation”

  1. Bill Goff Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 5:38 am

    Hi Mark,
    Thank you for your detailed analysis of Bishop Robinson’s prayer with which I agree. I have only two additional observations to offer based on the fact that I was present when the bishop gave his prayer:
    1) You referred to the setting of his prayer as “an opening event at the Lincoln Memorial” and “this gathering”. That’s true, but oddly vague. The event was in fact a concert featuring some of the most talented and popular actors, singers, and musicians in America and the world. From my vantage point on the side of the reflecting pool in front of a jumbotron several hundred yards away from the Lincoln Memorial, with the temperatures below freezing I was mostly glad that the prayer was not too long.
    2) There is a difference between the immediate impression a prayer makes and a careful analysis of the text. The only thing that stuck in my mind at hearing the prayer out in the cold was the reminder that Barack Obama was not the messiah. Perhaps this reminder stuck because I had heard Rick Warren say the same thing in different words. The crowd around me at the concert greeted Barack Obama with much louder shouts and more mitten-muffled applause than any of the entertainers we enjoyed. So it was an appropriate and perhaps specifically Christian reminder to us concert goers that Barack Obama is not the messiah. As happy as I am that Barack Obama is now the President, I need to remember that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord. It is he who will ultimately receive the adulation of all crowds.

  2. Ray Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Dead-on analysis, Mark, both in your praise and your criticism, and also in your contrast to the style of Warren’s prayer. I hadn’t thought of that, and I found it interesting.

    The language of the Bishop’s prayer, though artistic as you pointed out, has a somewhat depressing tone to it. It seems to me that he made a point to recite a laundry list of political/social grievances, which is fine. But there was no corresponding expression of hope for God’s intervention in these matters. With regard to these laments he asks God to make us cry and get angry. He asks God to make us uncomfortable, patient, humble, tolerant and compassionate; but the only response mentioned to his list of injustices is a warning that “every religion’s God” (yes, the transcriber you linked to used a capital G) “judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community.” And he called not just for tolerance, but for unequivocal, all-inclusive acceptance…a topic for another day, maybe.

    Most troubling was the way he referred to God as a sort of pantheistic, pluralistic, make-God-into-whatever-you-want-him/her/it-to-be sort of entity.

    Most encouraging was his prayer for personal blessings on President Obama and his family. I thought that part of his prayer was extremely positive, and it actually acknowledged God’s sovereign ability to do something.

    I’m hypercritical, I know. Except for a couple of details I can pray that prayer too. So I will.

  3. Evan Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 7:28 am

    Mark: Regarding your comment:

    “But I cannot understand for the life of me why he would pray in a way that shows so little of Jesus’ influence.”

    My first thought is Occam’s Razor.

  4. Where have the Christians gone? « Whispers Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 10:04 am

    […] Pastor Mark Roberts takes a look at the prayers at the Inauguration and wonders about what is missing. I do realize that Robinson told the New York Times in advance […]

  5. D Groothuis Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    How would John the Baptist pray in the presence of Herod?

  6. Mike Says:
    January 24th, 2009 at 4:30 am

    The issue is not his prayer, it’s the condition of his heart. Without heart-purity a prayer is merely a collection of words. And depending his spiritual state, Robinson may have wasted his time according to 1 Peter 3:12 and James 5:16.

  7. Mariam Says:
    January 24th, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Speaking of inaugural prayers, the one that spoke best to me was the one delivered by Dr. Barry Black at the inaugural luncheon. I didn’t find the text, but it is toward the end of this video.

    Perhaps Dr. Black has an advantage, because, as Chaplain of the Senate, he is used to these occasions. He ends his prayer “In Your Sovereign Name.” People may call that a cop-out, but I have found it a helpful way to pray to mixed groups. Christians know perfectly well what it means, and other, non-Trinitarian believers can hear the prayer as being returned to the one God to whom it is originally addressed.

  8. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    January 24th, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Mariam: Thanks for the info. Dr. Black is a fantastic speaker, preacher, and, I expect, pray-er. I heard him once and was most impressed and grateful for his leadership in the Senate. He followed my mentor, Lloyd Ogilvie, in that role.


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