Conspiracy claims as last-minute e-mail halts bishops' vote

What had seemed a near-certainty for the Anglican church yesterday - a vote by Episcopalians in the United States appointing an openly gay man as bishop, leading to a schism - has suddenly given way to confusion.

Delegates at a convention in Minneapolis of the Episcopalian church, the US branch of the Anglican denomination, had been due to take a final, determining vote last night to ratify the election of the Rev Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire. It was postponed after reports began to circulate in the hall that allegations of inappropriate conduct had been made.

Bishop Frank Griswold, head of the Episcopal church, released a statement announcing the debate would be delayed, giving no word on when it would resume. "Questions have been raised and brought to my attention regarding the bishop-elect of the diocese of New Hampshire," it said. He added that both he and Canon Robinson had decided that "a thorough investigation be undertaken before we proceed".

The delegates voiced shock over the development and said they felt certain the bishops would want to resolve the quandary and take a vote before the church's convention, which happens only once every three years, concludes on Friday. Failing that, Episcopalians in the US and Anglicans around the world will have to wait for months while the uncertainty remained.

The confusion is also likely to complicate a second debate due this week on a motion that would allow the church to write a new liturgy for blessings for unions between same-sex couples. That resolution has similarly drawn the opposition of conservatives.

Canon Robinson, who is divorced with two children, was widely expected to emerge as the first openly homosexual bishop of any mainstream Christian denomination in the world. That spelled a crisis for the broader Anglican church, with conservatives threatening a schism.

If the allegations are dismissed in the coming days, the vote may still happen and his new status may yet be confirmed. A preliminary vote had been taken by the full membership of the convention on Sunday, which included lay people. That came down in favour of confirming Canon Robinson, who was first elected to the position by members of his own diocese in New Hampshire in June.

A ratification of his election would spur conservative bishops in the US to look to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, for guidance on their next moves. So far Dr Williams has kept his counsel on the American situation.

But already those conservative bishops, who have their own association of dioceses known as the American Anglican Council, have threatened to break away from the Episcopalian organisation, and from the See of Canterbury, if the Rev Robinson is indeed confirmed. "We're not going to accept this," said Bishop Edward Salmon of South Carolina, whose diocese belongs to the conservative council. "We will not accept a change in doctrine. If you're asking whether we're soft on this point, the answer is no."

In a statement released after the preliminary vote on Sunday, conservative bishops called it a "tragic decision that leads the Episcopal church to the brink of shattering the Anglican family". Anglican churches in Africa and Latin America have also been threatening to severe links with the Episcopalians.

The 11th-hour nature of the charges against Canon Robinson will provoke suspicion among his supporters of desperate measures by his conservative opponents. Robyn Cotton, a lay Episcopalian from New Hampshire, called them "preposterous". He added: "This is horrible. It's character assassination."

In Britain last month, Canon Jeffrey John withdrew his name after being chosen as the new Bishop of Reading because of his fears of a split in the church. But Canon Robinson has repeatedly said that he would not follow the same path. "What binds us together is our faith," he commented before yesterday's final vote. "We should not hold any one issue above or higher than our commitment to Jesus Christ."

He has been supported at the rowdy convention by his daughter, his former wife and his partner.

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