With conservative congregations threatening rebellion, the American Episcopal Church is expected Monday to confirm the election of the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Christians across the nation will be watching the Episcopal national convention in Minneapolis this weekend to see how it grapples with the issue of homosexuality, one of the most challenging and contentious issues in American religious life.
If, as expected, the convention confirms the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson - an openly gay man who was recently elected bishop of New Hampshire - parishes from Texas to Buenos Aires are warning of a major realignment in the 75 million-member Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch.
The election of Robinson, who has been in a committed relationship with another man for 13 years, would mark the first time a national church has confirmed an avowed homosexual as a bishop. It would also make the 56-year-old Robinson, a divorced father of two, the highest-ranking openly gay clergyman in America.
Some traditionalists say confirmation could fragment the church, forcing parishes to split from their dioceses and ally with other like-minded bishops and congregations.
"The Episcopal Church as it is now constituted won't exist in a month," said the Rev. Quintin Morrow, rector of St. Andrews Episcopal Church, an affluent parish of 2,500 in Fort Worth, Texas. "In the past, people have threatened to leave and now the threats are no longer threats, they are promises."
Some observers discount fears of a schism, noting that similar threats in the past have failed to materialize. The last time Episcopalians faced such a high-profile issue was in 1976, when the convention approved the ordination of women. Some congregations did leave, but nowhere near the number traditionalists had predicted.
The dispute over Robinson, who won committee support yesterday and is scheduled to come up for a vote by convention delegates tomorrow and Monday, reflects long-running tensions in the Episcopal Church over how far it should go to adapt to changes in American society.
It also underscores the divisions between the U.S. church, which has 2.3 million members, and the majority of the Anglican Communion. Although the Church of England is the institution's historical home, most of its members live in Asia and Africa and are more socially conservative.
Last month, clergyman Jeffrey John withdrew his name for appointment as a bishop in England after a divisive response among the global Anglican community.
Robinson, well-respected and widely-liked, is expected to win approval in Minneapolis, where he would become one of about 100 Episcopal bishops in the United States. Traditionalists, though, say they object to confirming an openly gay bishop because it would mark a continued drift away from a strict adherence to scripture.
"The fact is the church has never accepted homosexuality," said Morrow, 39. "We've been trying so hard to be relevant, we marry the culture - whatever is faddish."
Supporters say a confirmation vote for Robinson simply upholds his June election in New Hampshire and acknowledges the reality of the church's diversity.
"There are those who say we can't consecrate a homosexual bishop. The reality is we have been doing it for 2,000 years," says the Rev. Michael Stone, senior associate at the Church of the Redeemer on Charles Street, who has known Robinson since the 1980s. "There have been homosexual clergy for the whole history of the church."
Requiring people to conceal their sexuality runs contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, Stone said.
It "relegates people to a second-class citizenship that is inappropriate in a gospel that demands that we uphold the dignity of every human being," he said.
Contributing to the heat surrounding the vote on Robinson is the possibility that the convention will consider the development of a liturgy that could be used for blessing same-sex unions. A hearing on the issue was held for last night. Some observers, though, say church leaders may defer a vote on the matter until the next convention, in 2006, to mollify conservatives.
Proponents of blessing same-sex unions say it permits gay couples to enjoy the same religious safeguards for their unions that heterosexuals enjoy. As recently as 1998, though, a majority of Anglican bishops worldwide stated that gay sex was "incompatible with scripture."
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland operates on what some church members here describe as a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Bishop Robert W. Ihloff says that the decision to bless same-sex unions is up to local priests.
"This is a pastoral matter," said Ihloff, who is a strong supporter of Robinson and plans to vote for his confirmation. "They can't ask my permission, I'm also not going to persecute anyone who does that. I would guess that 70 to 80 percent of the bishops in the American church do the same thing."