DURHAM, N.H. -- Approaching the University of New Hampshire's athletic center to attend the consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop yesterday, Sarah Olivera rolled her eyes, tugged on her friend's jacket, and said, "There's that three-letter word again."
"God?" her friend asked.
"No," Olivera answered, indicating an antigay epithet as the first of the fluorescent green-and-yellow signs came into view. "You knew they were going to be here, but still . . . ."
As 2,500 to 3,000 people came to celebrate the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, they were forced to enter the arena through a corridor defined by 12 screaming protesters with graphic signs condemning homosexuality on one side, and about 300 students on the other, trying to drown them out with songs and shouts about God's love.
Though tensions between protesters and Robinson's supporters occasionally spiked, Durham police reported no arrests and none of the opponents ventured beyond the areas designated by plastic orange fencing. Police officers were positioned throughout the area.
But if their entrance was dramatic, the Episcopalians and non-Episcopalians alike who came to support Robinson said the real emotional fireworks were generated by watching the church take what several of them characterized as an enormous step forward.
"I don't think it's often that you have a chance to see God," said Mark Henderson, a Methodist pastor who drove with his wife and son from Manchester for the event. "But if you look closely here today, that's what you'll see. The church is stepping forward out of bigotry. It's stepping forward out of the darkness and with these people here trying to intimidate [Robinson], it's even a greater act of faith."
Carli Stevenson, who was among the students standing in the rain wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Gay? Fine by me," called the day nothing short of historic.
"I feel this is a major step forward for Christianity," said Stevenson, a sophomore at UNH. Then, pointing toward the protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., 20 yards in front of her, she said, "I feel sorry for them. They don't believe that God is a just and loving God."
Though a tremendous rift has developed in the Episcopal Church over Robinson's consecration, and a bishop, a priest, and a laywoman spoke during the service about their anxiety over Robinson's homosexuality, the thousands in attendance were almost uniformly Robinson supporters.
Larry Rudiger, a lifelong Episcopalian from Oklahoma, noted that local support was what made Robinson's election legitimate.
"We don't know what's going to happen nationally or in the worldwide Anglican community," Rudiger said. "But this has to be the way -- five years from now I see a stronger church with a stronger mission that will appeal to fewer people, but will be more clear to those who are a part of it."