US set to elect gay bishop after sex assault claims dismissed

Leaders of the Episcopalian Church in the United States voted last night to confirm the election of a gay man as a one of their bishops, ending a tumultuous process that was almost derailed at the last moment by allegations that the candidate had inappropriately touched a parishioner.

The decision gives the Christian church its first openly gay bishop in any denomination anywhere. It also threatens to split the Episcopalian community, the Church of England's American cousin, and the wider 80 million-strong Anglican Communion, which is nominally headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

Indeed, as the result of the vote by about 100 bishops was announced at the Episcopalian Church's triennial general convention in Minneapolis last night, a group of conservative bishops walked out and gathered in a Lutheran church near by to discuss their next move.

Dr Williams said in a statement early today: "The decision will inevitably have a significant impact on the Anglican Communion throughout the world and it is too early to say what the result of that will be.

"I have said before that we need as a church to be very careful about making decisions for our own part of the world which constrain the church elsewhere.

"It will be vital to ensure that the concerns and needs of those across the Communion who are gravely concerned at this development can be heard, understood and taken into account," Dr Williams said.

The vote on whether to confirm Canon Gene Robinson, a divorced father of two who has lived with a male partner for 14 years, had been scheduled for Monday evening. It was put off at the last moment after allegations were made of inappropriate contact with a parishioner four years ago. Concerns were also raised of his alleged use of a gay website with possible links to pornography. Bishops had received an e-mail from a man in Vermont complaining that Canon Robinson "put his hands on me inappropriately every time I engaged him in conversation".

The timing of the charges raised suspicions among his supporters of last-minute dirty tricks by conservatives.

The brief investigation into the charges against Canon Robinson was led by the Right Rev Gordon Scruton, Bishop of Western Massachusetts. But officials said last night that the charges did not withstand scrutiny. It was revealed that the parishioner did not want to pursue his case and that Canon Robinson had only touched his arm and shoulders. Moreover, he had had no connection with the website since 1998.

Canon Gene Robinson, 56, will now become the new Bishop of New Hampshire. Anglican conservatives may now look to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to voice his opinion on the issue.

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