Page last updated at 22:40 GMT, Sunday, 13 July 2008 23:40 UK

Heckle that symbolises Church split

The Right Reverend Gene Robinson

By Jon Kelly
BBC News, St Mary's Church, Putney

It was a very Church of England way to deal with a heckler.

As a protester stood up to barrack the Right Reverend Gene Robinson, the world's first openly gay Anglican Bishop, the congregation did not abuse or strong-arm him.

Instead, people opened their Orders of Service and began to sing.

Hymn number four: Thine Be The Glory, Risen, Conquering Son.

But for all the Englishness of the churchgoers' response, this was an electrifying moment.

'Go back'

An air of anticipation had hung over St Mary's, a historic parish dating back to the 13th Century, even before the service began.

The sermon was, after all, to be given by Bishop Robinson - the man whose elevation to the episcopacy in spite of his open homosexuality had become emblematic of the bitter divide between Anglicanism's liberals and traditionalists.

The man standing up and heckling the bishop

Pointedly uninvited to the forthcoming Lambeth Conference, his very presence was an inflammatory gesture to conservatives who believe an active gay lifestyle is incompatible with Church leadership.

His address had begun unobtrusively enough among this largely liberal congregation, with a note of regret that human sexuality had become a point of focus for Anglicans rather than poverty and injustice.

How sad it was, Bishop Robinson remarked, that the Anglican Communion was "tearing itself apart" over the issue.

Then the heckler stood up.

"Because of heretics like you," he hollered.

Long-haired and clutching a motorcycle helmet, the interlocutor did not look much like most people's idea of a theological conservative.

But he yelled: "Go back, go back. Repent, repent, repent."

Bishop Robinson grimaced. Boos echoed around the church. A slow handclap began.

Then Giles Fraser, the parish's vicar, told his flock to open their hymn sheets.

The singing drowned out the heckles as the traditionalist was escorted from the building by churchwardens.

The congregation finished its verse. Silence was restored. With what looked like tears in his eyes, Bishop Robinson resumed his sermon, speaking softly this time.

"Pray for that man," he said.

Progressive past

If any church building in the Anglican Communion were suited to these scenes, it would surely be St Mary's.

Dr Giles Fraser
The Lambeth Conference have excluded the one person they should really be listening to
Dr Giles Fraser
Parish vicar

The south-west London parish hosted the celebrated Putney Debates of 1647, when members of Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army demanded universal suffrage and voiced the heretical notion that "the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he".

Dr Fraser is proud of his church's progressive past and he said Bishop Robinson's ideas were just as far-sighted as those of the English Civil War radicals who made it famous.

He told the BBC: "Some of us are struggling for the dream of an inclusive Church.

"The Lambeth Conference have excluded the one person they should really be listening to. I'm proud that Bishop Robinson is speaking here."

After the service, members of the congregation were quick to voice their appreciation.

"I can't tell you my name," said one Church of England vicar, attending incognito.

"My diocese is very conservative. I might get in trouble if people found out I had come here.

"But it was wonderful to hear someone talk so openly and so humbly about what needs to be done."

With the exception of the heckler, it appeared that most conservatives sat out the sermon.

Dr Christopher Knight, a traditionalist, was one of those who stayed away.

He asked: "How do you go into the Bible and pick and mix your theology?

"It's not about being prejudiced. It's about what's in the Bible."

And therein lies the crux of a battle that, it seems, will dominate the Anglican Communion for some time to come.

Profile: Bishop Gene Robinson
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