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Last Updated: Friday, 4 November 2005, 20:04 GMT
Bishop's battle 'for soul of church'
By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs correspondent

The first openly gay Anglican bishop has met Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for talks, as controversy still surrounds his role.

Gene Robinson makes an unlikely hero, and a still more unlikely villain.

His willingness to smile, the pale blue eyes behind the rimless glasses, give the impression of diffidence, almost vulnerability.

But when the Reverend Gene became Bishop Gene, and the first openly gay Anglican bishop, pure naked dislike rained down upon him from the four corners of the world-wide Communion.

One African Archbishop declared: "The devil has entered our church".

And the act - taking up the bishop's mitre on a cold rainy night in a New Hampshire sports hall, two years ago almost to the day - revealed a steely resolve.

Gene Robinson knew the probable consequences.

Church-splitting issue

The attempt to appoint the gay Church of England cleric Jeffrey John as the Bishop of Reading earlier the same year had dissolved into humiliating chaos.

It had also given birth to a powerful worldwide coalition of traditionalists, united in their conviction that the Bible itself rules out active homosexuality.

The conservative Anglican churches of Africa and Asia, populous and growing, had spelt out that making a bishop of Gene Robinson was a church-splitting issue.

So who is the man who regarded his ordination as an openly gay bishop as a prophetic step, willed by God himself?

Gene Robinson was born 58 years ago to tobacco farmers in Kentucky.

People in Britain find it hard to understand the role of openly gay people in congregations in America
Bishop Robinson

They did not expect the sickly child to live and called him Vicky, the name they had planned for a daughter.

He realised he was gay during a marriage of more than a decade that produced two daughters.

He even underwent therapy in an attempt to change.

It was only after his divorce that Gene Robinson met Mark Andrews, a health service administrator.

They have lived together for more than 15 years.

Moratorium imposed

Since Gene Robinson's ordination as Bishop of New Hampshire, a powerful coalition of traditionalist Anglicans has campaigned to exclude the American Church from the Communion.

They are demanding a change of heart from America. Gene Robinson says there is little prospect of that.

"People in Britain find it hard to understand the role of openly gay people in congregations in America," he says.

"They serve as wardens and in leadership positions. People in America understand that to reverse that would be to say to a significant number of the faithful, 'you're no longer members of the body of Christ'.

"I can't imagine that happening."

The American Church has placed a moratorium on ordaining any bishops at least until its governing body meets next year, but its failure to accept that Gene Robinson's ordination was wrong is fuelling a bitter and spreading dispute.

The Nigerian Church - unhappy with the Church of England's failure to condemn the American Church - recently amended its constitution to remove references to the historic links with the See of Canterbury, a defining characteristic of Anglicanism.

It has emerged that two nights ago a Church of England congregation brought in a South African bishop to ordain three men in defiance of its own bishop.

Apparently to placate conservative critics, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told Gene Robinson he could attend church services to celebrate the tenth anniversary of a gay lobby group Changing Attitude but not play any active part in them.

Nor could he wear full bishop's vestments.

'Disappointed and shocked'

Bishop Robinson admits that the conditions left him hurt and upset.

"I must say I was disappointed and shocked by that," he said. "But I'm not here to undermine the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"If that makes my visit here more acceptable then that's a small gesture on my part.

"But of course I would much rather have been greeted and allowed to conduct my ministry."

But traditionalists see even Gene Robinson's presence in English churches as a provocation.

The Rev George Curry, of the Church Society, said Bishop Robinson was not worthy of the office he held.

Mr Curry accused the bishop of "adopting a lifestyle totally contrary to the will of God as declared in the written word of God".

Because it is about how the bible is interpreted, the issue of homosexuality goes to the heart of what it is to be an Anglican.

It has made Gene Robinson's personal stand - his matter of principle - into a battle for the soul of the Church.

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