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Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Gay US bishop-elect replies to critics

By David Bamford
BBC correspondent in Manchester, New Hampshire

"Live free or die" is the motto of the state of New Hampshire. The phrase captures the passionately liberal spirit of this corner of New England, just an hour's drive from where the first shots of the American revolution began.

A copy of the Bible
Some Anglicans believe the Bible condemns homosexuality
Now a new revolution of sorts could be underway here - with worldwide ramifications for the Anglican movement - to the backdrop of a stunning explosion of autumn colours for which this part of the world is famed.

Local Episcopalians - belonging to the American wing of the Anglican community - gathered on Sunday in the draughty hall of Grace Church in this picture postcard town on the swirling Merrimack River.

They were there to take part in a question and answer session offered by New Hampshire's controversial Anglican Bishop-elect, Gene Robinson - a declared homosexual.

If his consecration goes ahead as planned on 2 November, the first openly gay bishop in the global Anglican community.

"You can ask me anything you want," he told his audience with a grin, "and believe me, I've been asked it all, so you won't embarrass me."

But this was a friendly gathering, fully supportive of his election as bishop in August by the New Hampshire Episcopal clergy and laity.

Among those looking on at the gathering was Canon Robinson's partner.

Schism looms

A lone objector stood outside the hall. "I want the world to know that New Hampshire did not vote for this man," said Edna Swank.

"The convention was fixed by the clergy," she said. "As a small child I was taught that sexual activity outside of marriage was a sin. I'm not judging him as a person, but what he does is the same as adultery."

Mrs Swank's view that Canon Robinson should not be installed is one that is shared by a sizeable minority in more conservative parts of the US.

You can't elevate a piece of historical scripture to give it a modern significance it does not have
Canon Robinson on the Bible and gays
She conceded that as a human being, it was hard not to like Canon Robinson. But that was not the issue, she insisted.

"What bothers me most is that a schism is occurring and that breaks my heart," she said.

Canon Robinson, plastic coffee cup in hand, was meanwhile warming the crowd inside the church hall, with slightly irreverent humour on the origins of the Anglican Church.

He said that Queen Elizabeth I - when asked whether people should continue to cross themselves as the Catholics did - declared that "all may, none must, but some ought".

"That's kind of how we Anglicans in this country look at the world," he said.

Shellfish

He took issue with those who quoted the Book of Leviticus to him and claimed that through the Bible, God forbade homosexuality.

The Bishop-elect, winning himself a ripple of laughter, said Leviticus also forbids the consumption of shellfish, but we still eat it.

"You can't elevate a piece of historical scripture to give it a modern significance it does not have," he said. "The Bible is the story written by us about our love affair with God," he said.

A majority of US bishops of the Episcopal Church endorsed Canon Robinson's election, saying what mattered was the content of his character, not his sexual orientation.

Since then, Anglican primates from the around the world have met in London and warned the US branch that its stance will be seen by many as out of step with the mainstream of the Church.

Rather than being a bold progressive statement, they say, it is the consequence of a parochial selfishness.

The American bishops see it as an opportunity for the Anglican Church to be honest with itself - and with its God.




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Canon Gene Robinson
"I'm very well aware of the pain that people are expressing"



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