DURHAM, N.H. – The Rev. V. Gene Robinson was consecrated Sunday as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, in a grand ceremony here shadowed by protests outside and a pointed rebuke during the service of his sexual orientation and suitability to join the church’s highest ranks.
Robinson’s elevation, which some conservative Episcopalians have said could cause a schism in the church, was sealed when more than 50 bishops gathered before more than 3,000 worshippers at the University of New Hampshire ice hockey arena and placed their hands on his head while he knelt before Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold.
Moments later, in his first remarks as New Hampshire’s new bishop, Robinson spoke emotionally to his diocese.
“You cannot imagine what an honor it is that you have called me,” he said, his voice breaking as he reminded those assembled that “there are people – faithful, wonderful, Christian people – for whom this is a moment of great pain, confusion and anger.”
The church must remain “hospitable, loving and caring to them in every way we can possibly muster,” he added. “And if they must leave, they will always be welcomed back into our fellowship.”
Robinson was enthusiastically cheered throughout most of the late afternoon service. But when Griswold asked worshippers “if any of you know any reason why we should not proceed,” three people spoke in opposition to his consecration.
“It breaks my heart to be here,” said the Rev. Earle Fox of Pittsburgh before graphically describing sexual acts “engaged in by homosexuals.” Griswold then interrupted Fox, telling him to “spare us the details.”
Two speakers affiliated with the conservative American Anglican Council then addressed the service. Meredith Harwood of Ashland, N.H., said: “We must not proceed with this terrible and unbiblical mistake which will not only rupture the Anglican Communion, it will break God’s heart.”
A statement signed by about three dozen Episcopalian bishops was then read by Suffragan Bishop David Bena of Albany, N.Y. It said Robinson’s “chosen lifestyle is incompatible with Scripture and the teaching of this church.”
The speakers then lowered their heads and walked out of the ceremony with a half-dozen others before making their way about a mile down the road to the wood clapboard Durham Evangelical Church. A few hundred Episcopalians were gathered there for an “alternative service” organized by the American Anglican Council.
In England, Rowan Williams, who as archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, said in a statement: “The divisions that are arising are a matter of deep regret; they will be all too visible in the fact that it will not be possible for Gene Robinson’s ministry as a bishop to be accepted in every province in the communion.”
Robinson, 56, was elected to head the New Hampshire diocese in July and confirmed by a national convention a month later. He has lived openly with a man for almost 14 years, and is the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, which includes 70 million members worldwide and about 2.3 million Episcopalians in the United States.
In the hours leading up to the service, which began just after 4 p.m., protesters and supporters gathered outside the Whittemore Center Arena, where the consecration ceremony was held.
Those attending the ceremony approached through a raucous sidewalk gauntlet that included two anti-gay groups waving signs and shouting epithets, more than 200 University of New Hampshire students singing songs of support for Robinson, a half-dozen satellite trucks and more than 200 members of the international media who were credentialed for the event.
Resounding notes from a bell choir began the formal proceedings, followed by fanfare from a wind ensemble, before a 300-voice choir launched into “The Church’s One Foundation,” a hymn proclaiming the church’s enduring unity when “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.”
After the objections were raised, Griswold thanked attendees “for bringing their concerns before us.” But he also seemed to make a case for unity when he related a story of a primate who told him that “the Holy Spirit can do different things in different places,” adding, “That is precisely what we are doing here.”
Robinson received a more resounding endorsement from the Rev. Douglas Theuner, the man he is replacing as head of New Hampshire’s diocese.
Concluding a humorous and wide-ranging address that lightened the mood in the arena, Theuner told Robinson that his consecration is not the defining battle in the history of the church that some have made it out to be.
“When a young man unsure of his sexual orientation read ‘The Episcopal Church Welcomes You’ on a sign outside the church and enters that church, that’s a defining moment in Christian life,” he said.
Participating in the ceremony were members of Robinson’s family, including his partner, Mark Andrews. He presented Robinson with a mitre as he collected his new vestments, dominated by bands of green and gold and decorated with silken leaves, to evoke New Hampshire’s foliage.