Leaders of the two million member U.S. Episcopal church are close to confirming the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. Some of the church's conservative members say such a move could create a schism between the Episcopal church in America and followers of the larger Anglican church worldwide.
Openly gay, Reverend Gene Robinson, 56, has lived with a man for more than a decade. Now, Episcopal bishops from across the nation gathered in Minneapolis are set to decide whether he will become the first openly gay bishop in the church and in the larger worldwide Anglican Communion. Some 800 priests and lay people from dioceses across the United States have already voted that he should.
"While I rejoice with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and all those who are working for full inclusion in this wonderful Episcopal church of ours, we are also very aware that this is a troubling decision for many in our church," he said.
In fact, some of those more conservative members of the flock see the issue as possibly the thin end of a wedge that could lead them to break away from the two million member Episcopal church or even from the larger 70 million member Anglican Communion worldwide.
Reverend Robinson says it was never his goal to become the first openly gay bishop. "My first order of business is to be the very best bishop of New Hampshire that I can be for the people of New Hampshire," he said.
But those opposed to anointing an openly gay clergyman have threatened to take the matter all the way to the Archbishop of Canterbury. "There's no question that this is going to cause enormous disarray and people will be making decisions of conscience," said Diane Knippers is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. "I fully expect to go to my church next Sunday morning and there will be fewer people there."
This debate in the Episcopal church follows the ongoing scandal in the Catholic Church in America over alleged abuses committed by homosexual priests and amid an emerging national debate over the idea of gay marriage, which some Christians would like to see a constitutional amendment to prevent.
It is not the first time the Episcopal Church has faced such a controversial issue. The church agreed to ordain women in the 1970s and to accept gay and lesbians as equal members of the church. But for many, endorsing the first openly gay bishop would raise fundamental religious issues including whether an apparent approval of homosexuality clashes with Biblical teachings about sex between men and women.
Late Monday, the vote to confirm Reverend Robinson as bishop was unexpectedly delayed in order to look into last minute allegations that he may have been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior as well as a pornographic material on the internet.