DURHAM, N.H. -- The Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, an Episcopal priest whose elevation has threatened the union of the Anglican Communion, yesterday became the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom, as 44 Episcopal bishops laid their hands on his head and proclaimed him a successor to Jesus' apostles.
The elaborate three-hour consecration ceremony took place under heavy security inside a hockey arena at the University of New Hampshire. The ceremony was accompanied by protests from conservative Episcopalians in the United States and leaders of affiliated Anglican provinces in the developing world, who called the consecration of a gay bishop unbiblical and warned that it could trigger a schism in the 70-million-member Anglican Communion.
The leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, issued a statement immediately following Robinson's consecration, saying he has already begun making provisions for those "alienated" by the move.
"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," Williams said. "It is clear that those who have consecrated Gene Robinson have acted in good faith on their understanding of what the constitution of the American church permits. But the effects of this upon the ministry and witness of the overwhelming majority of Anglicans, particularly in the non-western world, have to be confronted with honesty."
But for gay and lesbian Christians and their supporters, Robinson's consecration was a welcome moment, and the assembly witnessing the consecration greeted the new bishop with several sustained standing ovations.
"This is not about me, but about so many people who find themselves at the margin, and for whatever reason have not known the year of the Lord's favor," said Robinson, who choked back tears as he spoke. "Your presence here is a welcome sign for those people to be brought into the center."
But Robinson also reached out to those who opposed his consecration, saying "there are people -- faithful, wonderful Christian people -- for whom this is a moment of great pain and confusion and anger, and our God will be served if we are hospitable and loving and caring toward them in every way we can possibly muster."
Robinson was consecrated in a lengthy and rich ceremony in which he affirmed his Christian faith and was queried by seven bishops about his readiness to serve. After the assembly asserted that it was their will to see Robinson become a bishop, the 56-year-old priest knelt as the bishops surrounded him and placed their hands on his head, making him a part of the unbroken line of bishops that the church traces back to Jesus' apostles.
Robinson's family and friends, including his partner of 15 years, his former wife, his daughters, his parents, and his sister, then gave him the symbols of his office: a pectoral cross, an episcopal ring, a crosier, and vestments including a chasuble decorated with green, gold, and red silk applique leaves representing the trees of the White Mountains.
The Whittemore Center, where the New Hampshire Wildcats play hockey and basketball, was converted into a makeshift cathedral, with an altar in the center of the floor, incense wafting through the bleachers, and a celebrant in a white cassock holding aloft a kite in the shape of a white dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit.
The procession of laypeople, priests, and bishops into the arena took a full 30 minutes, as hundreds of people representing Episcopal schools and churches in New Hampshire led priests and then bishops, wearing festive stoles and their full episcopal finery, into the arena.
At the start of the ceremony, priests and laypeople testified to the legality of Robinson's election, reading documents attesting that he was properly ordained a priest, elected a bishop, and approved by the denomination's general convention. But, when the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, Frank T. Griswold III, asked if anyone in the crowd knew of "any reason why we should not proceed," three speakers rose to represent those Episcopalians who objected to Robinson's consecration.
"This is the defiant and divisive act of a deaf church," said Meredith Harwood, a laywoman from Orford, who termed the consecration of Robinson a "plunge into unrighteousness" and "the cowardly and conforming act of a church that has capitulated to elite culture."
The Rev. Earle Fox of Pittsburgh began reciting a list of statistics that he said represented the frequency with which gay men engage in various sexual acts before Griswold asked him to "spare us these details."
And Bishop David Bena of Albany, reading a letter from about two dozen bishops who objected to Robinson's consecration, said Robinson's "chosen lifestyle is incompatible with Scripture and the teaching of this church."
"It is impossible to affirm a candidate for bishop and symbol of unity whose very consecration is dividing the whole Anglican Communion," Bena said. "We join with the majority of the bishops in the Communion and will not recognize it. "
Griswold listened to the statements, but said, "the basis of the objections put forward are well known and, I think, have been considered by both this diocese and the general convention. . . . We shall proceed."
And the current bishop of New Hampshire, the Rev. Douglas E. Theuner, who is retiring next March, drew applause during his sermon when he said that Robinson's consecration will lead to greater unity, not division.
"Because of who you are, Gene, you will stand as a symbol of the unity of the church in a way in which none of the rest of us can," he said. "Just your very presence in the episcopate will bring into our fellowship the presence of an entire group of Christians hitherto unacknowledged in these councils of the church."
Among the co-consecrators who presided over yesterday's ceremony was Bishop Barbara C. Harris, who in 1989 became the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion amid similar controversy.
The crowd was smaller than expected, with between 2,500 and 3,000 in attendance. Theuner said it was the largest gathering of Episcopalians in the history of New Hampshire, a small state with 16,475 baptized Episcopalians in 50 congregations.
Security was tight, with more than 100 law enforcement officers from more than 12 agencies around New Hampshire assisting. Everyone entering the Whittemore Center had to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched; remote cameras and security guards were posted inside and outside the stadium.
Robinson, a resident of Weare, has worked since 1988 as a top aide to Theuner. A son of Kentucky sharecroppers, he grew up worshiping at a Disciples of Christ church but decided to enter an Episcopal seminary while attending the University of the South. He moved to New Hampshire in 1975 to establish a retreat center.
While a seminarian, Robinson got married, and he and his wife had two daughters, but in 1986 he separated from his wife after concluding that he was gay. He later met his partner, Mark Andrew, while both were vacationing in St. Croix.
Robinson was elected a bishop June 7 by Episcopal laypeople and clergy in New Hampshire. The national church then consented to Robinson's election during its general convention in August in Minneapolis, after a heated debate over whether biblical injunctions against homosexual sex disqualified Robinson from serving as a bishop.
Robinson's formal title is now bishop coadjutor of New Hampshire, which means he will assist Theuner until his retirement in March, and then will succeed him. Robinson is to be formally installed as the ninth bishop of New Hampshire in Portsmouth on March 7.
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.