Episcopal Church Approves Gay Bishop

In a decision that risks splitting their denomination, the Episcopal Church (search) has voted to approve the election of their first openly gay bishop.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said bishops voted 62-45 to confirm the Rev. V. Gene Robinson (search)'s election. Two bishops abstained from voting, but their ballots under church rules were counted as "no" votes.

After a delay caused by an allegation that he inappropriately touched another man and was affiliated with a Web site that had a link to porn, the Episcopal General Convention proceeded with the vote to approve Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire (search).

With his daughter, Ella, and his partner of 13 years, Mark Andrew, standing nearby, Robinson expressed his love for the church.

"God has once again brought an Easter out of Good Friday," Robinson said after the results were announced.

Robinson had been cleared of the accusations a few hours before the vote was taken. The bishop who investigated said the touching incident "was in public view and was brief" and happened at a church meeting where Robinson put his hand on the man's back and arm while engaged in a conversation. It was also determined that Robinson had no involvement with the Web site.

After the vote, he acknowledged that many in the church would be upset by the decision. Some convention delegates who opposed him left the meeting in tears.

"That is the only thing that makes this not a completely joyous day for me," Robinson said.

American conservatives and like-minded overseas bishops who represent millions of parishioners have said confirming Robinson would force them to consider breaking away from the church.

The Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members, is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member global Anglican Communion.

After the results were announced, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, a conservative who had campaigned against Robinson, stood at the podium in the House of Bishops, surrounded by fellow conservatives, and read a speech saying he and the others were "filled with sorrow."

He said the Episcopal Church has "divided itself from millions of Anglicans throughout the world."

"This body willfully confirming the election of a person sexually active outside of holy matrimony has departed from the historic faith and order of the Church of Jesus Christ," he said.

Duncan called on the bishops of the Anglican Communion (search) and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the communion, "to intervene in the pastoral emergency that has overtaken us."

"May God have mercy on his church," Duncan said. Eighteen other bishops signed his statement.

Williams issued a statement saying it was too soon to know what the impact of the vote would be on the church.

"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," he said.

The American Anglican Council (search), which represents conservative Episcopalians, planned a meeting in October to decide their next move. The council said it would find a way to "stay in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury."

The leader of the Anglican Church of West Malaysia, Bishop Lim Cheng Ean, issued a statement affirming its opposition to homosexuality despite Robinson's confirmation. But the head of Australia's Anglican Church, Primate Peter Carnley, considered a liberal, said he didn't think it would be "a communion-breaking issue."

The church has been debating the role of gays for decades. A win by Robinson was expected to build momentum for other policy changes that would be favorable to homosexuals.

Griswold said he voted for Robinson out of respect for the decision made by the Diocese of New Hampshire, not as an endorsement of homosexuality. It is rare for the General Convention to reject a diocese's choice of bishop.

The denomination has no official rules -- either for or against -- ordaining gays.

Some Episcopal parishes already allow homosexual clergy to serve and gays who did not reveal their sexual orientation have served as bishops. But Robinson is the first clergyman in the Anglican Communion to live openly as a gay man before he was elected.

In 1998, Anglican leaders approved a resolution calling gay sex "incompatible with Scripture." Bishops who hold that view believe that allowing Robinson to serve would be a tacit endorsement of ordaining homosexuals.

Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two, has been living with his male partner for 13 years and serving as an assistant to the current New Hampshire bishop, who is retiring. Parishioners there said they chose Robinson simply because he was the best candidate.

Under church rules, a majority of convention delegates had to ratify Robinson's election.

On Sunday, the House of Deputies (search), a legislative body comprised of clergy and lay people from dioceses nationwide, approved Robinson by a 2-to-1 margin; a committee endorsed him by secret ballot Friday. The House of Bishops (search) vote was the final approval he needed.

Robinson will be consecrated in the New Hampshire Diocese in November.

Bishop Gordon Scruton of Western Massachusetts, who investigated the allegations against Robinson, determined Tuesday that there was no need for a full-blown inquiry, allowing the vote on Robinson to proceed.

The claim of inappropriate touching was e-mailed to Vermont Bishop Thomas Ely and other bishops by David Lewis of Manchester, Vt. A family friend said Tuesday that Lewis never intended the allegations to go public. Scruton said Lewis told him he did not want to file a formal complaint.

The other concern was a pornographic link found on a Web site of Outright, a secular outreach program for gay and bisexual youth. Robinson helped found the Concord, N.H., chapter of the group, but Scruton said the clergyman ended his association with the organization in 1998 and "was not aware that the organization has a Web site until this convention."

If conservatives do decide to break away, it is unclear what that would mean for the Episcopal Church. Some parishes could split from their dioceses and refuse to recognize clergy who support homosexuality, but stop short of a complete separation.

A full schism would trigger, among other things, bitter fights over parish assets and undercut the global influence of the U.S. church.

Liberals note that among the bishops threatening to leave are some who pledged to walk away before over issues such as ordaining women -- then did not follow through.

But many Episcopalians believe the debate over homosexuality has been more divisive.

Bishops from Africa, Asia and Latin America, representing more than a third of Anglican Communion members worldwide, took the unprecedented step this year of severing relations with a diocese that authorizes same-sex blessings -- the Diocese of New Westminster, based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Some conservative American parishes had already formed breakaway movements, such as the Anglican Mission in America, which remains within the Anglican Communion but rejects the Episcopal Church.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.