Gay bishop defies his Lambeth Conference ban

Gene Robinson wasn't invited – but he's coming anyway. Ian Griggs and Cole Moreton report

The man whose love life has brought the worldwide Anglican Communion to the brink of self-destruction has not been invited to this week's crucial British gathering of bishops. But he's coming anyway.

Gene Robinson has sex with his male partner and is proud of it. That he is also the Bishop of New Hampshire in the US outrages Anglican traditionalists who believe homosexuality is a sin.

They are threatening to leave Anglicanism in their tens of millions – and their bishops will begin the move away by boycotting the historic Lambeth Conference, which begins on Wednesday.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in whose name the conference is called every 10 years, hoped it would provide the space for the warring bishops to find common ground and save the biggest Protestant church grouping in the world from disintegration. He even sought to offer the traditionalists an olive branch by barring the American from the event.

"I'm the first elected bishop not to be invited to the conference since it began in 1867," the Rt Rev Robinson told the IoS. "I must be a pretty scary guy." Used to inspiring deep feelings, he wore a bullet-proof vest to his consecration in 2003 after receiving "numerous and credible" death threats.

Tomorrow he will appear at the Southbank Centre in London for the premiere of the controversial documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, where the acclaimed actor and gay rights campaigner Sir Ian McKellen – who says "the church has to grow up" – will be at his side.

He will then travel to the University of Kent, where the conference is being held. He may speak at a fringe meeting but won't be an official delegate, although many of his supporters from America and many other countries will be – and this has been enough to make many traditionalists stay away.

Up to a third of the 800 or so bishops invited will not attend. Because of their rarity, Lambeth Conferences are often seen as milestones in the life of the Anglican church – and the boycott means history is likely to judge this one as the beginning of the end of Anglicanism as we know it.

The most senior absentee from this country will be the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who believes it is actually his liberal opponents who should be staying away: "Those who have gone against church teaching should not attend representative Anglican gatherings."

The traditionalists are a powerful lobby in England, where they tend to have the biggest congregations and therefore the most money. Last week, 1,300 clergy threatened to leave the Church of England because they disagreed with a vote allowing women to become bishops. Similar numbers are believed to be opposed to liberalising the stance on gay priests. But this is not just about England.

Half of the 80 million members of the worldwide Anglican Communion come from Africa, where a more literal, evangelical view of the Bible dominates. It is bishops from Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda who are challenging the right of the more liberal churches in England and the US to go on leading the communion. Last month, the dissidents held their own gathering in Jerusalem, apparently as a first step towards forming an alternative network of churches. Their departure would destroy the structures of Anglicanism and cause financial crisis.

Meanwhile, those with a different view of scripture do not see why they should surrender to the conservatives. Many gay clergy still operate in secret, says Gene Robinson: "I'm just the first to be honest about it."

The film he will introduce tomorrow looks at several deeply Christian families in America, including his own, who discover that some of their children are gay and try to reconcile religious teaching with their love for their offspring.

Sir Ian McKellen told the IoS: "The argument [the church] is having now is similar to the argument in the military in which heads of the service predicted its disintegration if gay people were allowed in. That is nonsense. They thought it was a problem particular to the military, but really it was the same old homophobia that exists everywhere."

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