Conservative Anglicans said Monday they will cut or loosen ties with the U.S. diocese that has consecrated the church’s first openly gay bishop, but supporters of V. Gene Robinson said his elevation had sent a powerful message of love and tolerance.
FROM LATIN AMERICA to Africa, prelates thundered their disapproval of Robinson’s appointment, which has plunged the 450-year-old, 77 million-member church into one of its biggest crises.
“The devil has clearly entered the church. God cannot be mocked,” said Kenya’s Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi, who cut all ties with the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the international Anglican Communion.
But Liberals hailed Robinson’s consecration, saying it marks an end to hypocrisy and double standards in a broad Church that stretches from affluent North American cities to Africa’s poorest villages.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, battling to keep the world’s 70 million Anglicans together, said the divisions were “a matter of deep regret.”
Possessing none of the disciplinary powers of the pope in the rigid Roman Catholic hierarchy, Williams faces an uphill battle for consensus among Anglicans in 164 countries.
DEEP DIVISIONS EVIDENT
Nigeria’s Anglican leader, Peter Akinola, bluntly signaled a north-south divide, saying: “We cannot and will not recognize the office or ministry of Canon Gene Robinson as a bishop.”
“We deplore the act of those bishops who have taken part in the consecration, which has now divided the church,” he said in a statement representing over 50 million Anglicans in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Archbishop Greg Venables, the Anglican leader in South America, said: “The United States have declared independence. I think the chances of consensus are very slim.”
Australian church leaders joined the conservative camp with Sydney’s Anglican archbishop, Peter Jensen, telling Reuters: “It is a very sad day for the church. ... As far as I am concerned, he is not a bishop.”
Irish Anglican leader Robin Eames, appointed by Williams to head the commission tackling the thorny issue, pleaded for time. “We are moving into unknown territory,” he said.
Eames, known in the church as the divine optimist for his positive approach, said Anglicans had conquered their divisions over the issue of women priests and could do so again over gays.
The Liberal wing of the church sought to sooth conservative outrage.
In Britain, Southwark Cathedral’s Dean Colin Slee said Anglicans should rejoice that “at last there is an open and honest consecration of a homosexual bishop within the church. There have been many before but they have not been honest or open.”
Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, head of South Africa’s Anglican church, also struck a conciliatory note, arguing that each province of the Anglican church was autonomous.
CONGRATULATIONS FROM SOUTH AFRICA
“So, we would like to congratulate Gene Robinson and pray for him,” he said.
Keeping his global flock together is a daunting task for archbishop Williams, who cannot, like the Catholic pontiff, use such forceful weapons as excommunication.
Robinson’s appointment has forced him into a delicate balancing act. “The effects of this upon the ministry and witness of the overwhelming majority of Anglicans particularly in the non-western world, have to be confronted with honesty,” he said.
Following his consecration on Sunday, Robinson said his new position in the hierarchy symbolized that the church was reaching out to “people who find themselves at the margins,” just as Jesus did.
He also reached out to disgruntled conservatives. “They must know if they must leave, they will always be welcomed back,” Robinson said to cheers.
At Robinson’s ceremony, Assistant Bishop David Bena of Albany, N.Y., spoke for 38 opposing bishops in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. He said his group and most bishops in the international Anglican Communion will not recognize Robinson as a fellow bishop.
Reading from a statement, Bena said Robinson’s “chosen lifestyle is incompatible with scripture and the teaching of this church.”
Bena spoke after Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold asked if there was “any reason why we should not proceed,” a traditional part of Episcopal consecration services.
The Rev. Earle Fox from the Pittsburgh Diocese also objected. But when he began citing specifics of same-sex behavior, Griswold politely cut him off, saying “please spare us the details and come to the substance.”
In all, the objections took about 10 minutes.
Outside the ceremony, police kept more than 200 pro-gay demonstrators about 30 feet away from a couple of dozen anti-Robinson protesters. Armed officers stood on the roof of the building. Dissenting Episcopalians, meanwhile, joined together for a competing Communion service at a nearby church with more than 100 non-Episcopalians holding a candlelight vigil in support of them.
The consecration sermon by New Hampshire’s retiring Bishop Douglas Theuner was interrupted twice by vigorous applause as he defended Robinson’s gay commitment against detractors.
Theuner said Robinson “will stand as a symbol of the unity of the church in a way none of the rest of us can” because he will “bring into our fellowship an entire group of Christians hitherto unacknowledged in the church.”
Though there have been gay bishops in the past, all were closeted when they were elevated to their posts. Robinson has been open about his 14-year relationship with his partner throughout the process in which he won election to the new post.
The title conferred on Robinson, a longtime assistant to Theuner, is “bishop coadjutor,” meaning he automatically becomes head of the diocese when Theuner retires March 7.
A national association for conservatives opposed to ordaining gays, the American Anglican Council, says parishioners already were drifting away in protest of Robinson’s elevation. It plans to hold the denomination’s conservative flank together by building a network of “confessing” dioceses and congregations.
The network will exist more or less separately from the national denomination, claiming to preserve the traditional beliefs of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of which it’s a part.
Some predict this will develop into the worst Episcopal split since the denomination was founded in 1789. And depending on the shape things take, a spate of church lawsuits may well result.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.