Over 3,000 people, including 54 bishops and ecumenical guests, gathered today at the Whittemore Center - part of the University of New Hampshire, Durham - to celebrate one of the most controversial and momentous occasions in the history of the Anglican Communion.
The Rt Revd V Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, was consecrated as Bishop-coadjutor of New Hampshire this afternoon in a three-hour long ceremony that involved choirs, bell ringers, brass bands and thunderous applause, but also heard the witness of some Episcopalians who were not so happy with the first openly gay bishop to be consecrated in the Anglican Communion.
There is always a point during a consecration service when people are asked whether they know of any just reasons why the person should not become a bishop. Before any objections were raised the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA (ECUSA), reminded everybody that "the people who are to speak are our brothers and sisters in Christ and there should be no public responses voiced from the congregation".
One of the objections was read by Meredith Harwood, a parishioner of St Mark's Episcopal Church, Ashland, NH. "To press forward with this consecration will be to turn our backs on Almighty God," she said. "This is the defiant and divisive act of a deaf church.... The vast majority of Anglicans worldwide have told us not to take this step which many of them see as a scandal, yet we are deaf to their cries." She concluded her speech by saying, "We must not proceed with this terrible and unbiblical mistake which will not only rupture the Anglican Communion, it will break God's heart."
The Rt Revd David Bena, Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Albany, read a statement that endorsed the "assessment of the Primates of the Anglican Communion". Part of the statement, which was signed by 38 bishops from the Episcopal Church, said, "All Christians, and bishops in particular, are called to guard the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God... It is impossible to affirm a candidate for bishop and symbol of unity whose very consecration is dividing the whole Anglican Communion."
After the pronouncements had been raised, Bishop Griswold said that, as there were no objections other than those which had already been debated extensively at General Convention and at other times, the consecration would proceed. He added that "one of the African Primates at the meeting in Lambeth Palace [two weeks ago] had said that the Holy Spirit can be doing different things in different places and I think that's precisely what we are doing here."
During the sermon the Rt Revd Douglas Theuner, VIII Bishop of New Hampshire, expressed his confidence in Gene Robinson's consecration to the episcopate saying, "Because of who you are Gene, you will stand as a symbol of the Church like none of the rest of us can. Because of your presence, the episcopate will be more of a symbol of unity than it ever has been."
Bishop Theuner continued by describing what he called "defining moments" in the Christian life. "When an abused woman attends a bible study in a local church and feels enough love and support there to realise that she is a child of God filled with worth and value...that's a defining moment in Christian life. When a young man unsure of his sexual orientations reads 'The Episcopal Church welcomes you' on a sign outside a church and enters that church and finds out through the love and acceptance of its members that the church really means what the sign says, that's a defining moment in the Christian life."
It is biblical interpretation that is the driving force behind the entire altercation regarding human sexuality, and the conservative debate is grounded firmly in the belief that the Bible is clear on homosexual practice, not to be altered or interpreted in light of cultural developments. Many societies in the West are coming to terms (however uneasily) with the presence and participation of homosexual people in the church and in society but countries in the southern hemisphere are far more uncomfortable with the matter.
Questioned by an interested news editor, the Sub-Dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Harare said, "It is the Bible that decides on the way forward because it is the final authority or reference point on this matter. Bishop Robinson must be expelled from the Church and no Anglican must pull out of the Church in protest."
The American Anglican Council issued a strong statement shortly after the consecration asking for people to redirect their financial giving "to ministries or organizations that call Jesus Lord". The statement also included such lines as "Heresy has been held up as Holy" and "Blasphemy has been redefined as blessing".
On the other side of the dispute the Revd Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude - a national organisation of Bishops, Priests and Lay People in the Church of England calling for the full participation of lesbian and gay people in the Anglican Communion - said that "Gene Robinson's ministry will inspire lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual Christians with new confidence that we have a full place at the communion table of our Lord. The highest offices of the church can be open to lesbian and gay people without pretence." He added that "a new honesty is present, undermining the secrecy of 'don't ask, don't tell' policies and the fear of discovery and abuse which many lesbian and gay Christians live with."
Outside the hall protestors gathered from both sides of the issue. One person told ACNS that "Gene Robinson is living his life in defiance of the Lord God almighty". Marshall Greenleaf, a student from the University of New Hampshire, said that he felt it was about time that people came together and accepted one another.
The Revd Richard Kirker, General Secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said, "Despite all the furious debate this ordination has stirred, what strikes me as I speak to people here, is the admiration and love felt by all who know Gene Robinson. Even those who are troubled by his sexuality are full of praise for him as a Man of God, pastor and teacher."
He added, "We Christians have so much to unite and inspire us, let us seize the moment and let our love for each other triumph over our divisions."
Bishop Robinson told the congregation this afternoon that, although he felt deeply honoured, he urged compassion towards church members angered and upset by his consecration.
"Our God will be served if we are hospitable and loving and caring towards them," he said, fighting back the tears. "If they must leave, they will always be welcomed back into our fellowship."