Consecration of gay bishop divides parishioners

After a handful of parishioners vehemently objected, more than 40 Episcopal bishops from around the country on Sunday consecrated the denomination’s first openly gay bishop, asking God to fill him with the Holy Spirit.

More than 4,000 spectators who witnessed the historic consecration in a University of New Hampshire sports arena, delivered a standing ovation when Rev. V. Gene Robinson emerged from the circle of crimson-clad bishops as a bishop himself in the New Hampshire diocese.

“It’s not about me,” Robinson said tearfully after donning his new emerald and gold mitre and vestments. “It’s about so many other people who find themselves at the margins. … Your presence here is a welcome sign for those people to be brought into the center.”

Meanwhile, nearly 300 orthodox opponents – about one-third of them from New Hampshire – gathered at an evangelical church to worship and grieve. They predict that Robinson’s consecration will divide the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the American arm. They also expect that they will be intimidated by the church hierarchy for their opposition.

“I am deeply grieved that the liberals in the Episcopal Church in their hour of victory are beginning an intense campaign of persecution of orthodox Anglicans,” said Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian in the South Carolina diocese, referring to a recent meeting of conservatives that a diocesan official tried to attend.

Robinson, too, acknowledged that his consecration, while attracting some parishioners, may drive others away.

“There are people – faithful, wonderful, Christian people – for whom this is a moment of great pain and confusion and anger,” he said. “And our God will be served if we are hospitable and loving and caring toward them in every way we can possibly muster. They must know that, if they must leave, they will always be welcome back in our fellowship.”

Robinson is the first openly gay man to become an Episcopal bishop. Formerly married to the mother of his two daughters, he has lived with his male partner, Mark Andrew, for 14 years. He has served in the New Hampshire diocese as canon to the ordinary, second in command to the current bishop Rev. Douglas E. Theuner for 17 years. Theuner retires in March 2004, at which time Robinson will be installed as his successor.

Clergy and lay representatives elected the bishop coadjutor in June. His confirmation by the national church at a midsummer meeting in Minneapolis prompted conservatives to have their own meeting in Dallas last month. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, also called the world’s presiding bishops to London for an emergency summit.

At that summit, world leaders warned that Robinson’s consecration would jeopardize the communion. Objections voiced during the consecration echoed the primates’ statement.

“The Anglican Communion is a sacred gift which has been entrusted to us,” Meredith Harwood said, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Ashland, N.H. “How dare this diocese rend asunder that which God has joined together.”

The Rev. David Bena, bishop suffregan of the diocese of Albany, N.Y., also delivered a statement from a network of 30 bishops, including Keith Ackerman of the diocese in Quincy, Ill., and Peter Beckwith in the Springfield diocese.

“It is impossible to affirm a candidate for bishop and symbol of unity whose very consecration is dividing the whole Anglican Communion,” Bena said.

But Theuner, who preached before Robinson’s consecration, testified that unity would be the hallmark of Robinson’s tenure as bishop.

“Because of who you are, Gene, you will stand as a symbol of unity of the church in a way in which none of the rest of us can,” Theuner said to resounding applause. “Just your very presence in the episcopate will bring into our fellowship the presence of an entire group of Christians hitherto unacknowledged in these councils of the church.”

Throughout the ceremony, from the moment Robinson took his place near the altar, spectators erupted in spontaneous clapping, cheering and laughter. Many said they were relieved and overjoyed that the event had finally come to pass.

“It was emotional, fulfilling,” Frank Heffron, a parishioner at Christ Church in Exeter, N.H, said. “The culmination of a long process.”

Sarah Smith, 52, the lesbian daughter of Rev. Philip A. Smith, retired bishop of New Hampshire, said the event was a testament to all who paved the way, including her father.

“This is a wonderful affirmation,” Smith said.

Philip Smith gave Robinson his Episcopal ring, an emblem of the marriage between bishop and church. Worn by Smith during his term as bishop, the ring did not need to be resized for Robinson. It was a perfect fit.

As were the emerald and gold vestments bestowed by his family. The stole and chasuble were adorned with green, red and gold leaves to represent the diversity of the diocese and the changing seasons of life.

For people formerly excluded, parishioners now say the Episcopal Church is a perfect fit too.

“I’ve been to lots of large gatherings before, but nothing like this,” Tracie Russell said, a parishioner at All-Saints Church in Wolfeboro, N.H., who nodded her head in agreement throughout the liturgy. “We’re all broken in some way, and nobody has the answer. I think this is the first step to bringing in everybody that should have been here all along.”