updated 11/9/2003 12:51:22 PM ET 2003-11-09T17:51:22

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson began his ministry as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop on Sunday by saying he wants to bring the message of God’s love to “those on the margins.”

HE ALSO said the church should speak out on issues of social justice, including the lack of access to health care for many Americans.

“How dare we in this country spend $87 billion on war when 44 million people have no health insurance?” he said in his sermon. “It’s up to the church to lead on some of these moral issues.”

After the service at All Saints Church, where he was married to his former wife, Robinson said he hopes that people who disagree with his confirmation will remain within the Episcopal Church, instead of breaking away.

“A church founded on unhappiness and anger is not going to go very far,” he said.

New Hampshire’s Episcopalians elected Robinson as bishop in June, and his selection was approved at the convention of the Episcopal Church USA in August. But his consecration a week ago has threatened to divide the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism.

On Nov. 3, overseas bishops who said they represented 50 million of the world’s 77 million Anglicans jointly announced they were in a “state of impaired communion” with the Episcopal Church — a step short of declaring a full schism.

In addition, conservatives within the U.S. church have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Anglican Church, to authorize a separate Anglican province for them in North America.

In his sermon, Robinson said Jesus spent most of his time with women, tax collectors and foreigners, not with the rabbis and wealthy members of the temple.

Jesus “looked at the religious establishment of his day and realized they had closed their eyes to those on the margins,” he said.

“Think of all the kinds of blindness right outside this door: not seeing people in need, or turning the other way when we do,” he said.

‘MOVE THE FENCE’

Robinson told a story about three American soldiers in World War I whose fellow soldier was killed in combat, then was buried just outside the fence of a French churchyard because the priest didn’t know whether the soldier had been baptized. When the Americans returned to pay their respects, they couldn’t find his grave outside the fence.

The priest explained to them, “I realized I’d followed the rules, but I hadn’t done the right thing — so I moved the fence,” Robinson said.

“You and I in Jesus’ name are called to move the fence ... as far away from us as possible,” Robinson said.

At a reception for the bishop following the service, churchgoer Jack Jones said he was “all for” Robinson.

“He’s a real brave man, and intelligent, and if people don’t want to come to church for him, let them go somewhere else,” said Jones, 64.

Elsewhere in the state, about half the members of the Episcopal parish in Rochester walked out of Sunday services to protest the dismissal of their interim minister, who opposes Robinson’s appointment.

Bishop Douglas Theuner of the Diocese of New Hampshire removed the Rev. Donald Wilson on Friday for insubordination when Wilson refused to come to Concord to meet with Theuner on the matter. Robinson will automatically succeed Theuner when the bishop retires next year.

Lisa Ball, a member of the group that left, said the protest has nothing to do with homophobia, and “it has nothing to do with gay bashing.”

Theuner “decided to take our priest away from us and didn’t even ask us,” Ball said.

David Tyler, the junior warden of the church and one of those who remained inside, said the parish “has a disagreement. We are trying to work this out.”

The American Anglican Council, a national conservative group opposed to Robinson’s elevation, called on Theuner to restore Wilson.

“Bishop Theuner’s actions represent an act of war against a small church of 100,” AAC president Canon David Anderson said in the statement.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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