BBC, 6 Aug 03

Gay inclusion closer, says bishop

The first openly gay cleric to become bishop in the United States says his appointment will pave the way for other denominations to follow.

New Hampshire bishop Gene Robinson said his confirmation was "the first very big step" to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.

The appointment has provoked anger among traditionalists, some of whom are considering breaking ties with the US church.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, warned of "difficult days" ahead and admitted it would have a significant impact on the Church worldwide.

But he urged opponents not to act rashly.

"It is my hope that the church in American and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response," he said.

Reverend Robinson was elected by 62 votes to 45 by bishops of the Episcopal Church, the US branch of the 80-million strong global Anglican Communion.

His partner of 13 years, Mark Andrew, attended the turbulent confirmation process - which was suspended briefly so church elders could investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, of which he was cleared.

Threatened split

Reverend Robinson said after his appointment: "I suspect that before too long, other denominations will also follow and welcome openly gay and lesbian people into leadership positions."

"Just as Jesus reached out to people on the fringes and brought them in, that's what the Episcopal Church is doing with this vote," he added.

But his comments are unlikely to sit well with the traditionalists, many of whom believe the vote has brought the Church to crisis point.

Church leaders in Asia and Africa have condemned the appointment and are planning to meet to discuss cutting ties with the US church over the issue.

"We cannot be in fellowship with them when they violate the explicit scripture that the Anglican Church subscribes to," said the Very Reverend Peter Karanja, provost of All Saints' Cathedral in Nairobi, Kenya.

"Practising homosexuality is culturally and legally not acceptable here," said Bishop Lim Cheng Ean, leader of the Anglican Church of West Malaysia, who added that southeast Asian bishops would be meeting to discuss the issue.

Episcopal Church spokesman Daniel England called the vote "an important step".

"Some will be elated at this news, others very disappointed," he said. "Yet the decorum and the civility throughout leads me to believe that things will hold together."

Fiercest criticism has come from the American Anglican Council, a two million-strong Episcopal splinter group, which said the Episcopal Church had "departed from the historical Christian faith. We reject these actions of our Church".