MINNEAPOLIS – A New Hampshire clergyman moved a step closer Sunday to becoming the first openly gay elected bishop in the Episcopal Church (search), winning one of two final votes required to be confirmed.
The House of Deputies, a legislative body composed of clergy and lay people from dioceses nationwide, voted to approve the Rev. V. Gene Robinson (search) as bishop of New Hampshire. He faces a final vote Monday in the House of Bishops.
Robinson said he felt "very peaceful on the inside" and "very humbled" by the results. He appealed to opponents not to leave the church, but said he would not be responsible if they did.
"I'm carrying a lot on my shoulders," he said. "I'm not going to carry that."
The American Anglican Council (search), which represents conservative bishops and parishes, said it was "deeply grieved" by the results.
The council and like-minded overseas bishops in the Anglican Communion (search) have said they would consider breaking ties with the denomination if Robinson is confirmed. Episcopalians form the U.S. branch of the 77-million-member global association of churches.
"It is a tragic decision that leads the Episcopal Church to the brink of shattering the Anglican Communion," the council said in a statement.
The House of Deputies used a complex procedure that required clergy and lay people in diocesan delegations to cast separate ballots. Robinson needed a majority of votes in each delegation to win. In the combined results, 128 delegations voted yes and 63 voted no. The votes of 25 delegations were not counted because their members were divided.
Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two, has lived with his partner, Mark Andrew, for 13 years. If he is confirmed at this week's Episcopal General Convention, it will have an impact far beyond his diocese.
Bishops who believe gay sex is a sin contend that allowing Robinson to serve is a tacit endorsement of ordaining homosexuals. If conservatives decide to leave the church, it will spark a bitter fight over parish property and funds and undercut the denomination's influence.
But liberals said the threat has been exaggerated, and note that many conservatives had pledged to break ties before over issues such as ordaining women but did not follow through.
Robinson was elected by his diocese in June, but the church requires that a majority of convention delegates ratify his election. It is rare for the General Convention to reject a diocese's choice of bishop.
The vote by the House of Deputies came after about an hour of emotional but polite debate.
Bonnie Anderson, a parishioner from the Diocese of Michigan, said deputies should not be swayed by warnings about a potential split in the church.
"You may be afraid — afraid of schism and afraid it will hurt your church budget. Don't be afraid," she said. "The power behind you and within you is far greater than the resistance before you."
George Marshall, a parishioner from the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., said confirming Robinson would send a damaging message that Episcopalians are guided by shifting cultural attitudes, not by Scripture.
"It will prove once again that our church doesn't have the confidence to proclaim the Gospel," Marshall said. "Do not do this thing."
A chaplain led the deputies in prayer before their vote. The president of the legislative body had asked them to remain quiet when the results were announced and they complied.
Robinson has served as assistant to the retiring New Hampshire bishop. He has repeatedly rejected calls from opponents to withdraw his candidacy to prevent a breakup of the church, as a gay clergyman in England did recently.
A final vote in favor of Robinson could build momentum for approving blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples, Episcopalians on both sides of the issue say. A decision on the proposed ceremony is expected later in the meeting, which runs through Friday.