MINNEAPOLIS - In a move that threatens to split the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church cleared the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson of last-minute allegations of sexual misconduct and confirmed him yesterday as the first openly gay bishop elected in America.
By a 62-43 vote, the church's House of Bishops approved Robinson's election as bishop of New Hampshire, ensuring that he will become the highest-ranking openly gay clergy member in the United States.
Robinson's confirmation, after an emotional debate on homosexuality and faith and two topsy-turvy days of suspense, served as a powerful symbol of the church's acceptance of gay men and lesbians. But it may provoke a schism with the institution's conservative factions.
"I believe that this is a huge step for gay and lesbian folk in the church," said a buoyant Robinson at a news conference after the vote. Robinson said he hoped that his confirmation shows that "we want to bring everyone into the fullness of the body of Christ."
The joy of gay rights advocates and church liberals was tempered by the somber words of traditionalists, who warned that Robinson's confirmation will tear apart the 75 million- member Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch.
"This body has denied the plain teaching of Scripture," Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh told his colleagues immediately after the vote. "This body has divided itself from millions of Anglican Christians around the world. ... May God have mercy on this church."
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and the cleric regarded as first among equals, urged restraint on the part of traditionalists. He suggested that congregants on both sides talk further before doing anything rash.
"It is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response," Williams said in a prepared statement.
Although the Church of England is the historic home of the Anglican Communion, the majority of Anglicans now live in the developing world - particularly Asia and Africa - and tend to be far more socially conservative than their brethren in the United States.
Despite their threat, traditionalists were not expected to make any swift moves to break with the Episcopal Church, which has 2.3 million members. The American Anglican Council, a conservative church group, plans an October meeting in Texas where traditionalists can chart their future.
At the news conference, Robinson said he hoped that his confirmation would not rend the church and suggested that one gay bishop in New Hampshire was unlikely to have a major impact.
"This particular issue in the Episcopal Church, or in the Anglican Church, is not going to make a big difference to people in the pew on Sunday," said Robinson. "I'm not saying these issues aren't important ... but most everyday Episcopalians will not notice a big difference."
Yesterday's vote ended a roller coaster ride that began Sunday night when David Lewis, 50, a member of the Zion Episcopal Church in Manchester, Vt., sent an e-mail to bishops charging that Robinson had "put his hands on me inappropriately" at a church meeting two years ago.
"I am a straight man reporting homosexual harassment by a gay male priest," Lewis wrote, urging the bishops to reject Robinson's confirmation.
About the same time, but apparently coincidentally - the American Anglican Council told bishops that the Web site for a gay and lesbian group with which Robinson was affiliated contained indirect links to a bisexual porn site.
Yesterday, a church investigative committee cleared Robinson of both charges after Lewis declined to make a formal complaint and investigators concluded that Robinson had no connection to the Web site.
"In both allegations, there is no necessity to pursue further investigation," said the Rt. Rev. Gordon Scruton, bishop of Western Massachusetts, who headed the committee.
Lewis, a 1974 Harvard University graduate, worked until recently as a fund raiser for a nonprofit school organization in Manchester. While he was living in Los Angles in the 1980s, he applied to become an ordained priest but was rejected early in the process, according to an official in the Los Angeles diocese who spoke under condition of anonymity.
According to Scruton, Lewis indicated yesterday that "he had no desire to pursue the matter any further. He regretted having used the word `harassment' in his e-mail."
Speaking before the House of Bishops, Scruton described a speakerphone conversation with Lewis on Monday, in which Lewis said he had met Robinson at a church meeting in Holyoke, Mass.
From Lewis' perspective, Scruton said, Robinson acted in an overly familiar way, twice putting his hands on Lewis' arms, back or shoulder during conversations that day.