Gay bishop forced to halt sermon after heckler calls him 'heretic'

The tensions tearing the Anglican Church apart were underlined last night as its first openly gay bishop was heckled during a sermon in London.

The Rt Rev Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, was forced to halt his address after a demonstrator repeatedly called him a heretic.

He faced the protest as hundreds of bishops from around the world prepare to travel to Canterbury for the Lambeth conference, which takes place every 10 years. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is desperately fighting to avoid a lasting split in the church over the issues of gay clergy and the ordination of women bishops.

Bishop Robinson, who has not been invited to the conference, began his sermon at St Mary's Church in Putney, south-west London, by saying how sad he was that the worldwide Anglican communion was being split over the issue of homosexuality.

But a member of the congregation shouted that the schism was his fault and forced him to halt mid-sentence. As the bishop's supporters started slow handclapping the demonstrator, a hymn was sung and the unidentified protester was escorted from the building.

Earlier, Stephen Green, national director of the traditionalist Christian Voice, said: "It is a sad day when you get a bishop in a church preaching something that God himself called an abomination."

Resuming his sermon shortly after the interruption, Bishop Robinson said: "This discussion of homosexuality we are having in the church is not so significant because of what it says about homosexuality, but because of what it says about God.

"When someone stands up and says homosexuality is an abomination, does that make you want to get to know God?"

Earlier Bishop Robinson, whose ordination five years ago sent convulsions through the church, said he was disappointed that Dr Williams was trying to "appease" conservative elements over homosexuality.

His omission from the Lambeth conference guest-list has been seen as an olive branch to the church's more traditional wing. He described the decision to bar him as a mistake as it would mean the openly gay voice would be absent from the event.

Asked if any of the bishops attending were gay, but not open about it, he said: "Absolutely." He added: "I do not think that there is a person around and breathing that believes that I'm the first gay bishop, just the first talking honestly about it."

Bishop Robinson said: "When Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, we were delighted because he had been very vocal in his support of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the Church.

"It has certainly been a disappointment that he has been seen to seem to us to bend over backwards to, some would say, listen, others would say appease, the most conservative elements of our church."

In the latest sign that the church faces a potentially irrevocable split, members of the Gafcon movement (Global Anglican Future Conference) have established the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. Members said the move was born, not of homophobia, but "to reassert the authority of the Bible". But the breakaway group is widely seen as a rebuke to the Archbishop of Canterbury after he invited supporters of gay bishops to the Lambeth conference.

They include the Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, who said yesterday he would be happy to consecrate Britain's first openly homosexual bishop himself.

Dr Morgan told The Sunday Telegraph: "If there was a candidate who was in a homosexual relationship that would be discussed. It would be my job to say, 'you have to vote according to your conscience, but I'm duty-bound to tell you that it will have repercussions as far as the wider Anglican communion is concerned'. If a priest had a partner and someone nominated them, that wouldn't be a bar to them becoming a bishop."

Pleading for unity in the communion yesterday, Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, said: "The Anglican Church prides itself – and this is one of its greatest attributes – it prides itself on being the church that is comprehensive, meaning that it includes all kinds of points of view."

He added: "One of the sadnesses about the current crisis is that we seem to be jettisoning this wonderful inclusivity that is a characteristic of our church."