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U.S. Episcopalians approve openly gay bishop, moving church closer to a possible split

Updated:

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Episcopal leaders voted to approve the election of their first openly gay bishop, risking a possible exodus of conservatives who said their grief over the decision was ``too deep for words.''

The Episcopal General Convention on Tuesday took the final vote needed to confirm the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire.

The vote had been scheduled Monday, but was delayed after last-minute misconduct allegations emerged. Robinson was cleared just before Tuesday's vote.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, head of the church, said the vote places ``squarely before us the question of how a community can live in the tension of disagreement.''

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

``God has once again brought an Easter out of Good Friday,'' he said.

But Robinson acknowledged that many in the church would be upset by the decision, saying, ``That is the only thing that makes this not a completely joyous day for me.''

Griswold said the bishops voted 62-45 to confirm Robinson's election. Two bishops abstained, but their ballots under church rules were counted as ``no'' votes.

Immediately after results were announced, more than a dozen conservative bishops walked to the podium of the House of Bishops, surrounding Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan who read a statement saying he and the others felt ``grief too deep for words.''

Some convention delegates who opposed Robinson left the meeting in tears.

``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,'' Duncan said. ``This body has divided itself from millions of Anglican Christians around the world.''

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

The American Anglican Council, which represents conservative Episcopalians, planned a meeting in Plano, Texas, in October to decide their next move.

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.''

Duncan called on the bishops of the Anglican Communion 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 gauge the impact of the vote.

``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.

Robinson told ABC's ``Good Morning America'' on Wednesday that ``anytime anyone decides to leave the church, it's a very sad thing and I certainly have been praying ... that such a thing does not happen.'' He said the Anglican Communion has maintained ``a wide diversity of opinions on various issues while holding our faith in Jesus Christ as central.''

The church has been debating the role of gays for decades. In 1998, a worldwide meeting of Anglican leaders approved a resolution calling gay sex ``incompatible with Scripture,'' but 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.

Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two, has served 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, 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.

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

Allegations surfaced at the last minute and nearly derailed Robinson's vote, but he was later cleared.

David Lewis of Manchester, Vt., had e-mailed several bishops, saying Robinson had inappropriately touched him. Bishop Gordon Scruton, who investigated the claim, said Robinson briefly put his hand on the man's back and arm while engaged in a conversation at a church meeting in public view.

A family friend said Tuesday that Lewis never intended the allegations to be made public. Scruton said Lewis told him he did not want to file a formal complaint.

Robinson told ABC that ``I certainly am sorry if I did anything that made him feel uncomfortable'' and said he had helped write church procedures for dealing with such allegations.

The other concern was an indirect link from the Web site of Outright, a secular outreach program for gay and bisexual youth, to pornography. 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.''

Scruton determined Tuesday that there was no need for a full-blown inquiry, allowing the vote on Robinson to proceed.

If conservatives do decide to break away, it was 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.

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