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New Hampshire Episcopalians Choose Gay Bishop, and Conflict

Laurie Goodstein
New York Times

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CONCORD, New Hampshire, June 7 -- Episcopalians in the Diocese of New Hampshire today elected as their leader the first openly gay bishop anywhere in the worldwide Anglican communion, a step likely to roil the church in the United States and England, and deepen the disaffection of the more conservative Anglican churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The bishop-elect, the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, who had developed a loyal following here in 16 years as assistant to the current bishop, was elected from among four candidates on the second round of balloting at St. Paul's Church.

He received 58 of 77 votes from members of the clergy and 96 of 165 votes from laypeople. A majority in each group is needed for election.

When the tally was announced, the clergy and lay delegates leaped to their feet and applauded as Bishop-elect Robinson came to the front, stood before the altar rail and embraced his two grown daughters, his son-in-law and his partner.

He acknowledged that his election could precipitate outrage and division in his denomination. The Episcopal Church has 2.3 million members in the United States, while the Anglican Communion, a global association of churches that trace their heritage to the Church of England, has about 79 million members internationally.

But he urged the delegates who elected him to be "kind and sensitive and gentle" to believers who "will not understand what you've done here today."

"The world is hurting out there, and the Episcopal Church and the Anglican communion worldwide are divided by lots of things," he said to the delegates.

He said the rift could be healed if believers focused on God and the sacraments. "We can get through this if we keep coming to the altar rail," he said.

His election now forces a showdown in the Episcopal Church in the United States, which like most mainline Protestant denominations has been torn over the issue of homosexuality over the past two decades.

Bishop-elect Robinson cannot be ordained as bishop until he wins the consent of bishops and diocesan representatives at the General Convention, which begins on July 28 in Minneapolis.

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank T. Griswold III, declined, through a spokesman, to comment on today's development. But church members say they anticipate that the decision here could pose doctrinal problems for some Episcopalians who believe that the Bible prohibits homosexuality.

"The bishops and the delegates at General Convention are snarled up on the whole issue of whether to ordain gays and lesbians, and there is considerable opinion in the church, particularly emanating from the South and Southwest, that this should not happen," said the Rev. Dr. John E. Booty, a former historiographer of the Episcopal Church and an emeritus professor of Anglican studies at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.

"My hunch is that Gene will get enough votes, but there will be people working furiously on either side of this to gather the votes for or against," Dr. Booty said in a telephone interview.

James Solheim, the church's press officer, said in a telephone interview tonight: "Reaction is already coming in by e-mail, and it is mixed. Some people are already announcing that this is the last straw, they're leaving the Episcopal Church."

The election is likely to be contentious in the Anglican Communion, which covers 38 regional churches in 164 countries, said the Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas, professor of mission and world christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

The growth in the church in the developing world is tipping it toward theological conservatism on some issues, including homosexuality, but it is a mixed picture, Dr. Douglas said. At the last Lambeth Conference, a gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world, in 1998, conservatives passed a resolution saying the church recognized only heterosexual, married relationships, Dr. Douglas said. But he also noted that at the same conference, a committee issued a report urging dialogue on the issue.

Bishop Douglas E. Theuner, the current bishop of New Hampshire, has championed gay causes in the church and approves of commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Bishop Theuner said in an interview that there was no organized opposition in his diocese to Mr. Robinson's election. He said he believed Mr. Robinson was elected as bishop because the the delegates trusted him and were familiar with him, not that they wanted to make him a cause célèbre.

"His election pushes the envelope, but certainly that was not our intention in New Hampshire," Bishop Theuner said. "The people of the diocese are aware that they're part of the larger church, and value that, but we're selecting a bishop to be our bishop."

The Rev. David P. Jones, rector of St. Paul's Church and co-chairman of the search committee for the next bishop, said, "Ten years ago I would not have been happy about this because I would have felt it's clearly contrary to the Bible, contrary to the traditions of the church.

"It's all because I've experienced the ministry of this man and a couple of others that I think I was mistaken," Mr. Jones said.

Church experts say that the Episcopal Church has had gay bishops before and does now, but none who have made their sexual orientation known before they were elected.

The only gay bishop to disclose his sexuality before now is retired Bishop Otis Charles of Utah, who sent a letter to the church's House of Bishops in 1993 sharing his experience as a closeted gay churchman watching the bishops wrestle with the issue.

On Friday, the Daily Telegraph in London reported that leaders of the Church of England have known for years that Bishop Jeffrey John, a newly ordained suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Oxford, had been living with his gay partner of 25 years.

Bishop-elect Robinson, who is 56, is originally from Kentucky. He worked previously at a church in Ridgewood, N.J., and has run ministries for teenagers, AIDS patients and congregations going through conflicts.

He said in an interview after the vote that he came out as a gay man in 1986 and soon after divorced his wife, with whom he had two daughters.

He said he believed the Anglican church should be able to accommodate people who have opinions other than his on issues like homosexuality.

"I'm certain that I want to be in a church with them," he said. "I'm just not certain they want to be in a church with me."

In the history of the church in the United States, only one bishop-elect did not win affirmation by the General Convention, and that was in 1875, he said. He likened his election to that of Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church, elected in 1988 in Massachusetts.

"There were dire predictions of schism then, and today the gifts of women in ministry are almost universally accepted," he said. Only 3 of the 100 Episcopal dioceses in the United States now do not ordain women.

The other candidates, who were not present for the election today, were the Rev. Pamela Jane Mott of Portland, Ore., and two supervisors of groups of parishes in Pennsylvania, the Very Revs. Robert L. Tate and Ruth Lawson Kirk. Another candidate withdrew after being selected as bishop of Nebraska.

As the clergy and laypeople here today left the service that followed the election, some said they had favored Bishop-elect Robinson because of his pastoral skills, his preaching and his devotion to the church. If confirmed by church officials, he would be only the ninth bishop in the history of the diocese, which dates to 1802.

"We made history," said Bayard Coolidge, a retired software engineer and a delegate from St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Pittsfield.

"Everybody is going to be making a lot of the fact that he's gay, but that's not the point," Mr. Coolidge said. "The point is, he's well qualified."

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