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Anglican Global Conference Gets Heated with Arrival of Openly Gay Bishop

By L.K. Regan

The Anglican congregation continues to wage a very public internal battle this month as it struggles to resolve its attitude to openly gay New Hampshire bishop Gene Robinson. Robinson, who married his partner of 20 years last month, is attending the Anglicans' once-a-decade global meeting, called the Lambeth Conference and held in Canterbury, England. After the Church declined to invite Robinson to the conference, the controversial bishop decided to make appearances at a series of independently organized events on the conference's margins. He began on Sunday with a sermon in Putney, England.

Robinson's consecration in 2003 has taken the Anglican congregation (known as the Episcopal Church in the U.S.) to near schism, as conservative bishops have vociferously protested his ordination. This has pitted the world congregations against each other, with the authorities of the American Episcopal Church sharply at odds with more conservative congregations, particularly that of Nigeria. The Anglican Church of Nigeria has broken long-standing Church tradition by establishing its own conservative congregation, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, within the United States. The group has consistently pressured for an official division of the Church. As a result of this and other efforts, some 200 conservative bishops, a quarter of those invited, have chosen to boycott the conference in protest of the attendance of the clergy who appointed Robinson to his bishopric. At the Lambeth Conference, organizers clearly worry that this situation will come to a head, as Robinson's appearances compete with protests for the attention and sympathies of the members.

Though he is not included in the conference, Robinson has chosen to make a number of public appearances, putting the situation of gay and lesbian congregation members at center stage. He began by preaching Sunday at St. Mary's Church in Putney, England. Though the service was interrupted by a protester yelling "repent" and "heretic," Robinson stuck to his message of hope for all members of the Anglican communion. "This discussion of homosexuality we are having in the Church is not so significant because of what it says about homosexuality, but of what it says about God," he said. "When someone stands up and says homosexuality is an abomination, does that make you want to get to know God?" He also added, "I think God wants us to be bold, I think God wants us to take risks, I don't think God wants us to be afraid." He wore a bulletproof vest throughout the service, the result of repeated death-threats he has received.

Other events have been scheduled in the vicinity of the conference to keep Robinson's presence visible. Next Sunday, after the conference's official opening ceremony, Robinson will hold a private service with other Anglican members of the LGBT community. He will also be available for questions and conversation in the conference's public exhibition hall, though he will not be permitted to attend any of the conference's private meetings. Two private receptions have been organized by sympathetic bishops to invite Anglicans from around the world to get to know Robinson, and put a personal face on the conflict.

For Robinson, the Lambeth Conference, and his presence there, has come to be a rare chance to reach a new Anglican audience, one that he fully embraces. "I so want to be a good steward of this opportunity. I want to do God proud," he said. "I have this wonderful opportunity to bring hope to people who find the church a hopeless place."