For many of his 28 years as an Episcopal priest in New Hampshire, V. Gene Robinson has specialized in helping congregations and clergy grapple with painful conflicts. So perhaps it was divine destiny that Robinson would become the focus of the biggest and most painful conflict to afflict the Episcopal Church in decades--one that threatens the very integrity of the 2.3 million--member U.S. denomination and the 70 million--member worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs. Robinson seems to see his role in terms of a divine plan: 17 years ago, "I answered God's call to acknowledge myself as a gay man," he has explained. "Now God seems to be calling me to another journey."
That journey officially began last week, when Robinson, 56, became the first actively gay person to be approved as an Episcopal bishop. On the evening of Aug. 5, 62 of 107 bishops convening in Minneapolis, Minn., voted to support the canon, a divorced father of two grown daughters who has lived openly with another man for 13 years. The vote, which confirmed Robinson's earlier selection by the New Hampshire diocese, came just hours after he was cleared of last-minute charges of sexual misconduct.
Within moments of Robinson's confirmation, a quiet but furious storm began to shake the denomination. A procession of about a dozen grim-faced bishops admonished the assemblage. "With grief too deep for words, the bishops who stand before you must reject this action," intoned Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, Pa. "May God have mercy on his church." That evening, while Bishop-elect Robinson met briefly with the press to pronounce it "a very good day," members of the conservative American Anglican Council (AAC) held a press conference of their own in a nearby Lutheran church to announce their dismay and allude to plans for a possible rift.
"We consider Gene Robinson's election invalid, null and void," AAC leader David Anderson later told TIME. "When those 62 bishops voted, there was a shattering of the Episcopal Church as we know it. The structural disengagement of the church has begun."
Conservatives were further inflamed on Thursday when the bishops in Minneapolis addressed the controversial practice of blessing same-sex unions, which is permitted in some dioceses and banned in others. Although the bishops rejected a movement to write a formal liturgy for such ceremonies, they officially affirmed that such rites are "an acceptable practice within the church" and recognized that some parishes had already begun to "explore and experience" liturgies for gay unions. On Friday, the final day of the meeting, the AAC announced it would formally seek to create a new and separate Episcopal province in the U.S. The group plans to meet in Plano, Texas, in October to discuss the matter. Anderson denied that the group was splitting from the church. Rather, he told the New York Times, "they have split from us."