The Anglican Church was on the edge of a constitutional crisis last night as members in the United States took a step closer to appointingtheir first openly gay bishop.
Delegates in Minneapolis, at a triennial convention of the Episcopal Church USA, which is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, voted to approve the election of the Rev Gene Robinson as the new Bishop of New Hampshire.
The vote, by the House of Deputies, a legislative body composed of clergy and lay people, was the first of two final ballots required to confirm the selection of Canon Robinson. The final vote, by the House of Bishops, will take place this morning.
Last night, the House of Deputies voted by delegation, with 128 delegations voting yes and 63 voting no. The votes of 25 delegations were not counted because their members were divided.
The American Anglican Council, which represents conservative bishops and parishes, said it was "deeply grieved" by the results. "It is a tragic decision that leads the Episcopal Church to the brink of shattering the Anglican Communion," the council said in a statement.
With most observers expecting the convention finally to ratify the selection of Canon Robinson, conservatives in the Anglican Church are warning of a schism over the issue. They argue that a homosexual lifestyle is at odds with Christian scriptures.
Canon Robinson, divorced with two children, who has been living with his male partner, Mark Andrew, for 13 years, has stood steadfast in the maelstrom caused by his election. "I believe God is calling me to do this thing and I mean to go through," he said yesterday.
On Saturday night, Canon Robinson received warm support from an audience of Episcopalian teenagers meeting on the convention's fringes. "Why should people be so concerned about who somebody else is in love with?" said Valerie Fincher, 16, from Maryland. "God loves you no matter what."
The decision on the future of Canon Robinson will be followed up this week by a vote on a separate motion to write a liturgy allowing Episcopalian pastors to give blessings to gay unions. A "yes" vote on the first issue might help the passage of the other motion.
The furore in the Church comes as the issue of gay rights has been re-ignited in the political arena in the United States. Last week, President George Bush signalled his opposition to gay marriage, suggesting that he might seek to codify marriage in law as being between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, the Vatican declared that gay sex was "deviant behaviour".
Opposition to the elevation of Canon Robinson comes from conservative members in the US but most acutely from Anglican Churches in Africa and Asia. There is concern in those regions of a backlash against the Anglican faith if it was seen as starting to embrace gay rights.
"In the Muslim world, dioceses are up against a propaganda machine from the other side saying, 'How can you be Anglican when your bishops believe in same-sex relationships?'" said the Rev Peter Moore, dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, a conservative. "It exposes Christians in those countries to persecution."
Some fear that a positive vote in Minneapolis could lead to financial hardship for Anglican Churches in Third World countries, with many of them vowing to turn down financial help from the Episcopalian wing in the United States.
"It would be a horrible tragedy," said Canon David Anderson, who heads the American Anglican Council, which represents conservative bishops and parishes in the United States. He said that a "yes" vote would spell disaster for the Church akin to the Titanic striking an iceberg.
But James Bradbury, a Virginia parishioner, said: "If you only followed scripture then you'd better be prepared to endorse slavery and the submission of women. We have to evolve."Reuse content