MINNEAPOLIS — MINNEAPOLIS - Despite warnings of a split by tradition-minded congregations around the globe, the American Episcopal Church took a major step yesterday toward confirming the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
By a healthy margin, the House of Deputies at the church's national convention ratified the election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire.
The matter now goes to the church's House of Bishops, which is expected to make a final decision on Robinson's confirmation today.
Robinson hailed yesterday's vote as a step toward gays becoming full members in the church and said it sent a strong message about inclusion and respect.
"We have two wonderful opportunities," said Robinson, who appeared relaxed in a clerical collar and a dark suit at a news conference afterward. The first, he said, is to "say to the world: 'This church is wide open.'" The second is "to show the world how brothers and sisters in the body of Christ can treat each other with respect, forbearance and dignity."
Traditionalists described yesterday's result as a "tragedy."
"It is a tragic decision that leads the Episcopal Church to the brink of shattering the Anglican family," read a statement issued moments after the vote by the American Anglican Council, a conservative group of Episcopalians. "The Episcopal Church now has one foot outside the door."
The official tally under the church's unusual voting system was 128-88 - though the actual margin was considerably wider. The Maryland delegation cast its ballots for Robinson.
Robinson tried to strike a conciliatory note yesterday with conservatives who have opposed him.
"It's kind of a bittersweet moment," said Robinson, 56, the divorced father of two. The decision "involves some pain for a lot of us."
Conservative parishes in the United States and the developing world have threatened to break relations with the Episcopal Church if Robinson is confirmed. Opponents say approving Robinson, who is widely respected in the church, tacitly condones homosexual conduct, which defies Scripture.
But they also recognize the uphill struggle they face in trying to defeat him in the House of Bishops. The Episcopal Church hasn't rejected a locally elected bishop in more than 60 years.
For many deputies, yesterday's vote was wrenching.
The Rev. James Flowers, rector of a parish in Louisiana, said the issue was not homosexuality, but church cohesion and adherence to Scripture. A vote for Robinson, Flowers said, was a vote by Episcopalians to split with their brethren around the world.
"My parishioners are not homophobes, they are not bigots, they are good people," said Flowers, standing at a microphone in Minneapolis' cavernous convention center. "I don't have a clue what I will tell them."
The Episcopal Church - and its 2.3 million members - is just one of 38 regional and national churches in the Anglican Communion, which has 75 million members in more than 160 countries. Although the Church of England is the Communion's historic home, many Anglicans now live in the developing world and tend to be more socially conservative than their brethren in the United States.
Last night, a committee addressed the other issue roiling the convention: the blessing of same-sex unions. Committee members proposed a policy that would leave a decision on the practice up to the local diocese. The issue could come to the House of Deputies as early as today.
At the last convention, three years ago in Denver, a proposal to develop a liturgy that could be used to bless same-sex unions was narrowly defeated.