Episcopal Church consecrates first openly gay bishop in N.H.

Ceremony likely to spur split in denomination

November 03, 2003|By Larry B. Stammer | Larry B. Stammer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DURHAM, N.H. -- The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, was consecrated yesterday as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire -- a break with 2,000 years of Christian tradition that could split the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Robinson's elevation to one of the highest offices within the Episcopal Church has been hailed by supporters as a breakthrough for the inclusion of gays and lesbians, and decried by opponents as a foretaste of heresy and division. It has become the focus of an international theological struggle in which sharply opposing views on homosexuality and differing interpretations of scripture have pushed the church to the edge of schism.

But yesterday, as an estimated 2,500 gathered at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore Center arena, the dispute came down to a single, indelible gesture that grafted Robinson -- the son of Kentucky sharecroppers -- into, according to the liturgy, "the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope."

In an ancient ceremony, Robinson, 56, knelt before a makeshift altar. He was encircled by eight consecrating bishops in flowing vestments of white and gold, led by the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church.

Placing their hands on Robinson's head, the bishops repeated the words of consecration by invoking God: "Therefore, Father, make Gene a bishop in your church."

Robinson's companion of 15 years, Mark Andrew, and the bishop's two adult daughters, Jamee and Ella, then presented him with a gold miter -- the headdress symbolizing his new office. Robinson's ex-wife, Isabella McDaniel, was among those officially presenting Robinson to the consecrating bishops.

It was a moment that many Anglicans feared could be the final theological tremor opening an unbridgeable chasm separating liberals from conservatives.

The new bishop, his voice breaking, acknowledged that his consecration has brought both joy and pain to many in the church.

He told the audience gathered for the ceremony that their presence was "a welcome sign" for gays and lesbians to be brought into the church.

Then Robinson reached out to opponents: "There are faithful, wonderful, Christian people for whom this is a moment of great pain and confusion and anger. And our God will be served if we are hospitable and loving and caring toward them in every way we can possibly muster. They must know that if they must leave, they will always be welcomed back into our fellowship."

Minutes after Robinson was officially installed, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who two weeks ago had urged Robinson to step back for the sake of unity, issued a statement from London.

"The divisions that are arising are a matter of deep regret; they will be all too visible in the fact that it will not be possible for Gene Robinson's ministry as a bishop to be accepted in every province in the communion," Williams said.

Williams, the spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion -- of which the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch -- had summoned his 37 fellow primates to London for an emergency summit. At that time, the church leaders served notice that some of them would probably sever ties with the U.S. church if Robinson were consecrated. But they stopped short of fulfilling conservatives' wishes that the Episcopal Church be ejected from the 77 million-member worldwide communion and acknowledged that they had no power to stop Robinson's ordination.

In the United States, conservative Episcopalians have united behind the banner of the American Anglican Council and are moving toward an as-yet undefined "realignment."

Indeed, the service here yesterday was punctuated by three official protests, as is permitted by church custom. "This consecration poses a dramatic contradiction to the historic faith and discipline of the church," Assistant Bishop David Bena of Albany, N.Y., said on behalf of 29 Episcopal bishops. "We also declare our grief at the actions of those who are engaging in this schismatic act."

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