Episcopalians Consecrate First Openly Gay Bishop

The Episcopal Church consecrated V. Gene Robinson (search) as bishop in a heartfelt ceremony Sunday, making him the first openly gay man to rise to that rank in any of the world's major Christian bodies.

But while pageantry mixed with exultation in the ritual elevating Robinson to bishop of New Hampshire, it seems unlikely the church will hold together in its aftermath.

Minutes after Robinson was consecrated, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams -- spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion (search) -- said the divisions caused by Robinson's elevation "are a matter of deep regret." And a thoughtful protest from conservatives, already moving toward a break with the Episcopal Church, marked the consecration ceremony.

At the climax of the precedent-setting, three-hour ritual, held in a university sports arena, some 45 bishops laid hands on Robinson and the head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, recited an age-old prayer that began: "Father, make Gene a bishop in your church ..."

The congregation of 4,000 then greeted the new bishop with a three-minute standing ovation. Robinson nodded and brushed away a tear. He then spoke informally, his voice breaking twice with emotion.

Robinson said his new position in the hierarchy symbolized that the church was reaching out to "people who find themselves at the margins," just as Jesus did.

He also reached out to disgruntled conservatives. "They must know if they must leave, they will always be welcomed back," Robinson said to cheers.

But the growing split was evident in Williams' remarks.

In a statement from London, he said: "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.

"It is clear that those who have consecrated Gene Robinson have acted in good faith. ... But the effects of this upon the ministry and witness of the overwhelming majority of Anglicans particularly in the nonwestern world have to be confronted with honesty."

At Robinson's ceremony, Assistant Bishop David Bena (search) of Albany, N.Y., spoke for 38 opposing bishops in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. He said his group and most bishops in the international Anglican Communion will not recognize Robinson as a fellow bishop. Indeed, the world's Anglican leaders affirmed their opposition to same-sex relations at an emergency meeting in London last month.

Reading from a statement, Bena said Robinson's "'chosen lifestyle' is incompatible with Scripture and the teaching of this church."

Bena spoke after Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold asked if there was "any reason why we should not proceed," a traditional part of Episcopal consecration services.

The Rev. Earle Fox from the Pittsburgh Diocese also objected. But when he began citing specifics of same-sex behavior, Griswold politely cut him off, saying "please spare us the details and come to the substance."

In all, the objections took about 10 minutes.

Outside the ceremony, police kept more than 200 pro-gay demonstrators about 30 feet away from a couple of dozen anti-Robinson protesters. Armed officers stood on the roof of the building. Dissenting Episcopalians, meanwhile, joined together for a competing Communion service at a nearby church with more than 100 non-Episcopalians holding a candlelight vigil in support of them.

The consecration sermon by New Hampshire's retiring Bishop Douglas Theuner was interrupted twice by vigorous applause as he defended Robinson's gay commitment against detractors.

Theuner said Robinson "will stand as a symbol of the unity of the church in a way none of the rest of us can" because he will "bring into our fellowship an entire group of Christians hitherto unacknowledged in the church."

Though there have been gay bishops in the past, all were closeted when they were elevated to their posts. Robinson has been open about his 14-year relationship with his partner throughout the process in which he won election to the new post.

The title conferred on Robinson, a longtime assistant to Theuner, is "bishop coadjutor," meaning he automatically becomes head of the diocese when Theuner retires March 7.

A national association for conservatives opposed to ordaining gays, the American Anglican Council, says parishioners already were drifting away in protest of Robinson's elevation. It plans to hold the denomination's conservative flank together by building a network of "confessing" dioceses and congregations.

The network will exist more or less separately from the national denomination, claiming to preserve the traditional beliefs of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of which it's a part.

Some predict this will develop into the worst Episcopal split since the denomination was founded in 1789. And depending on the shape things take, a spate of church lawsuits may well result.