US church faces split over gay bishop

Conservative Episcopalians in the United States are galvanising to declare war on their church over next month's consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire by vowing to set up their own independent network of congregations.

The action, which will be mapped out on Wednesday at a meeting in Fairfax, Virginia, of the conservative-dominated American Anglican Council, threatens to shatter the Episcopalian Church, which traditionally has been home to the 2.3 million Anglicans in the US.

It has been triggered by the election of Canon Gene Robinson, who lives with a male partner, as the next Bishop of New Hampshire. Last week, he made plain his intention to go ahead with his consecration on 2 November, even after 37 archbishops meeting in London last week warned that for him to do so would "tear apart the fabric" of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Outside that meeting it was hard to find anyone in the church prepared to strike a note of conciliation. While both sides of the divide in the US hardened their line, gay churchmen and women in the UK said they were prepared for the church to split.

The Rev Richard Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), said: "If there has to be a schism let there be one. Justice delayed is justice denied. The acceptance of gay clergy is an inevitable change. There is no hope for Anglicanism unless it embraces the will of the whole human race, not just heterosexuals."

He said the US church had been at the forefront of change in the Anglican community, citing its stand over women priests, who were consecrated in America years before their acceptance in the UK. He also welcomed the archbishops' call, following their extraordinary meeting in London, to listen to lesbian and gay people, but said it did not go far enough and that homosexuals should be included in the discussions.

The LGCM is to hold a conference in Manchester next week at which Canon Gene Robinson will speak by live video link-up. It is understood he had originally planned to attend but has been advised not to travel by the FBI after receiving death threats. He is currently under 24-hour guard. The conference will also be addressed by Michael Ingham, the Bishop of New Westminster in Canada, who has allowed gay relationships to be blessed in his diocese.

Meanwhile, American conservatives appear to have given up hope that the consecration of Canon Robinson can be called off. Instead, they are accelerating their preparations to create a splinter group of parishes opposed to gay clergy. Such a step is likely to spawn lawsuits and battles over the church's financial assets.

The Rev Peter Moore, dean of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, said the breakaway churches would immediately stop sending money to the national Episcopalian headquarters in New York. Until now, all member churches have sent 10 per cent of their collections to the national church. "We are certainly going to start creating networks of dioceses and parishes and send money to a new location," he said.

A passage in the statement issued by the London meeting of archbishops, calling on the church to re-examine its supervision structures to ensure some leeway for both sides in the argument over homosexuality, has been taken by US conservatives as a green light to create their splinter group.