With a leading candidate who's a gay man, the selection of a new Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire could send tremors worldwide through a denomination divided about homosexuality.
For those who admire and respect the Reverend Gene Robinson, his sexual orientation isn't relevant to his ability to lead the diocese. He is an able administrator and a good listener and has a gift for sensing the needs of a group, his supporters say. "First and foremost, he's an impeccably decent man who has outstanding leadership skills," said Martha Yager, who has worked with him on many social justice projects. "This other issue just doesn't enter into what we talk about or deal with when we work together," said Jim Millikin, a parishioner at St. Paul's Church in Concord. But some see his homosexuality as an impediment to ministry that cannot be overlooked because of biblical teachings on the subject. Others respect Robinson but fear his selection would worsen divisions between liberal Episcopalians and their more conservative counterparts in Anglican churches worldwide.
In 1998 an international gathering of Anglicans, including representatives of the Episcopal Church of America, approved a resolution calling homosexuality "incompatible with scripture." Last week world Anglican leaders announced that for lack of consensus, they could not support ceremonies blessing same-sex unions. "I think it'll be a crisis in the church if New Hampshire follows through," said the Reverend David Moyer, a controversial pastor from suburban Philadelphia. Moyer leads a group called Forward in Faith, which is resisting the movement toward accepting gay and lesbian priests.
Not everyone views the situation in such dire terms, however. "Learning to live together in all of our differences--unity in diversity--is not only a challenge to the Anglican community, but it's a gift we can give to the world if we can work it out," said the Reverend Ian Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
On Saturday an estimated 60 clergy in New Hampshire and 200 lay Episcopalians will balance these and other issues as they choose among four candidates put forward by a committee of clergy and lay leaders. This spring the candidates visited churches around the state. This is not a new process for Robinson, who narrowly missed being elected bishop in Rochester, N.Y., in 1999 and in Newark, N.J., in 1998. But this is his home territory.
Robinson, 56, lives with his partner in Weare, N.H., and is an assistant to Bishop Douglas Theuner. Once married and the father of two children, he remains on good terms with them, friends say. He is a popular preacher at area churches and has been active in local causes, having established Concord Outright, a support group for teenagers.