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“Welcome home, Matt”: Bishop Robinson welcomes Matthew Shepard — and gay Christians — back to the church

Shepard’s interment illuminates a path forward for progressive mainline Protestantism.

Matthew Shepard Interred At Washington National Cathedral
Bishop Gene Robinson carries the remains of Matthew Shepard
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Matthew Shepard has finally been laid to rest.

Shepard was a 21-year-old college student who was fatally beaten in Wyoming for being gay 20 years ago. His ashes were interred at Washington, DC’s National Cathedral on Friday, as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop extended a tearful welcome to LGBTQ individuals who had felt unwanted by their churches.

Retired Bishop Gene Robinson, who presided over the service, told attendees, “Many of you have been hurt by your own religious communities, and I want to welcome you back.” He added that Shepard’s symbolic return to the church represented “a remarkable step forward” for LGBTQ Christians. ”It’s the cathedral saying some churches are different,” Robinson said. “Some churches have been on this journey with you, and we will not only welcome you, we will celebrate you.”

Later, he added another message of welcome and hope: “There are three things I’d say to Matt: ‘Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.’ Amen.”

According to the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein, who live-tweeted the service, Shepard’s father, Dennis Shepard, also expressed an appreciation for the possibility of the church as a place of hope and refuge for LGBTQ individuals. “Matt loved the church,” Shepard said at the service. “He loved the ceremony. He loved the fact that it was a safe place for anyone who wanted to enter. That it was a welcoming place for anyone who wanted to enter.”

Robinson’s words, and those of the Shepard family, provided a powerful blueprint for a politically progressive, radically inclusive Christianity. Like the sermon of Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding — and thus most senior — bishop of the American Episcopal Church who delivered a fiery liberation theology-tinged sermon about social justice at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Robinson’s words seemed designed to present a religiously radical Christianity — and, in particular, a mainline Protestant tradition — as a viable and necessary alternative to the political conservatism and pro-Trump nationalism increasingly associated with white evangelicalism in America.

Matthew Shepard’s interment was a long time coming

Matthew Shepard was killed in October 1998. Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who had met Shepard at a bar in Laramie, Wyoming, robbed and beat Shepard, then 21 years old, and left him tied to a fence outside of town. He died five days later. The men were later convicted of his murder and ultimately sentenced to life in prison.

Shepard’s violent death and the widespread public outcry against it became a watershed moment for LGBTQ rights and acceptance. The murder also galvanized wider advocacy for better hate crime legislation; at the time of Shepard’s death, sexual orientation was not considered valid grounds for designating an attack a hate crime. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, expanding the federal definition of hate crimes to include victims targeted for their gender identity, sexuality, or disability.

At the time, according to NPR’s Tom Gjelten, Shepard’s family did not want his ashes interred, fearing that anti-gay activists would desecrate any burial site they chose. However, after consulting with Robinson — a longtime family friend — the Shepards decided to request that Shepard’s ashes be interred in the National Cathedral. Robinson put the couple in touch with the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the Cathedral, as well as Washington’s Episcopal bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde, and helped make the arrangements for the ceremony.

Robinson’s speech was all the more historic given his own history within the Episcopal Church. The first openly gay bishop to be consecrated, Robinson’s ascension to the post in 2003 prompted a split within the American Episcopal Church, with some theological conservatives in its ranks splintering to form the small Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which does not affirm same-sex marriage. ACNA has about 135,000 members, while the Episcopalian Church has 1.9 million.

Robinson’s speech Friday was ferociously political, at once acknowledging the long road toward LGBTQ acceptance in America and contending with the no less challenging road ahead. He obliquely called attention to the Trump administration’s plans to legally define gender at birth — a move decried by many transgender activists — before telling his audience to “go vote.”

Robinson’s words were also significant in light of a Christian culture that, by and large, has not been welcoming to LGBTQ people. Although the Episcopal Church has generally been more affirming of LGBTQ people than other Christian denominations, LGBTQ individuals tend to leave religion altogether at staggeringly high rates. Nearly half of queer individuals report being religiously unaffiliated, about double the rate of the general population.

We may be seeing the cultural rise of a religious left

Robinson’s speech, like Curry’s before it, should be seen in a much wider context: the potential resurgence of the mainline Protestant tradition for political progressives. While historically centrist Protestantism has been in decline for the past few decades — ceding its cultural and political influence to the evangelical right — prominent mainline figures and institutions have become increasingly political in recent years.

Earlier this year, for example, activists and pastors Rev. James Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis launched a renewal of Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign, a religiously-infused series of protests against income inequality and social injustice in America. Last month, the National Council of Churches — a body that represents most mainline Protestant traditions, as well as some other Christian denominations — demanded Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of numerous instances of sexual harassment and assault, abandon his Supreme Court nomination.

It may be working. While every other religious demographic — from white evangelicals to the religiously unaffiliated — have reported virtually unchanged attitudes toward Trump since his inauguration, mainline Protestants appear to have turned away from the president. Among mainline Protestants, according to a PRRI poll taken earlier this month, Trump’s approval rating is now down nine points, to 48 percent.

These numbers might not be significant. Political liberals, particularly young ones, are far more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than, say, Episcopalian — nearly 40 percent of liberals self-identify as religious “nones.” But Robinson’s words, like Curry’s, offer a vision of a religious tradition that marries a commitment to fight social injustice with a theologically robust account of why that fight is so important. For Robinson and Curry alike, a commitment to inclusion and justice isn’t just part of political progressivism, but part of the Christian message itself.

In welcoming Shepard home to the National Cathedral, Robinson has provided the young faithful (and would-be faithful) with a long-overdue model of what a church for politically radical, progressive Christians could be.

Update: the article has been updated to clarify Michael Curry’s position