The Episcopal Church USA voted Tuesday to approve the election of its first openly gay bishop, a decision that could split the denomination and shatter its ties with its sister churches worldwide. After a delay, caused by an allegation that he had inappropriately touched another man and was affiliated with a Web site with links to porn, the Episcopal General Convention approved the Reverend V. Gene Robinson by a vote of 62-45 as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Robinson had been cleared of the accusations a few hours before the vote was taken. Presiding bishop Frank Griswold called the vote. American conservatives and like-minded overseas bishops who represent millions of parishioners have said a Robinson confirmation 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, which has been debating the role of gay men and lesbians for decades. A win by Robinson was expected to build momentum for other pro-gay policy changes. The Episcopal Church has no official rules--either for or against--ordaining gay men and lesbians. Some Episcopal parishes already allow gay clergy to serve, and those who have not revealed their sexual orientation have served as bishops. But Robinson is the first clergyman in the Anglican Communion to live openly as a gay man prior to his confirmation.
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 homosexuality. 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 in New Hampshire said they chose Robinson simply because he was the best candidate. Under church rules, a majority of bishops, clergy, and lay people serving as convention delegates had to ratify Robinson's election. On Sunday the House of Deputies, a legislative body composed 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 voted to do the same. The final vote had been scheduled for Monday but was delayed at the last minute for an investigation of the claims against Robinson. Bishop Gordon Scruton of Western Massachusetts, who conducted the investigation, determined Tuesday afternoon that there was no need for a full-blown inquiry, and the debate on Robinson proceeded immediately thereafter.
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, stopping 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. Bishop Griswold and Archbishop Rowan Williams, leader of the Anglican Communion, both issued pleas for unity before the national meeting began. Those who support a wider role for gays in the church contend that conservatives exaggerated the potential for a split, noting that among the bishops threatening to leave now are some who pledged to walk away before over issues such as the ordination of women--then did not follow through. But many Episcopalians believe the debate over homosexuality has been more divisive.