The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, was consecrated Sunday as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire -- a break with 2,000 years of Christian tradition that could split the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Robinson's elevation to one of the highest offices within the Episcopal Church has been hailed by supporters as a breakthrough for the inclusion of gays and lesbians, and decried by opponents as a precursor to division. It has become the focus of an international theological struggle in which sharply opposing views on homosexuality and differing interpretations of Scripture have pushed the church to the edge of schism.
But on Sunday, as an estimated 2,500 gathered at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore Center Arena here, the controversy came down to a single, indelible gesture that grafted Robinson -- the son of Kentucky sharecroppers -- into, according to the liturgy, "the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope."
In an ancient ceremony, Robinson, 56, knelt before a makeshift altar. He was encircled by eight consecrating bishops in flowing vestments of white and gold, led by the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church.
Placing their hands on Robinson's head, the bishops repeated the words of consecration by invoking God: "Therefore, Father, make Gene a bishop in your church."
Robinson's companion of 15 years, Mark Andrew, and the bishop's two adult daughters, Jamee and Ella, then presented him with a gold miter -- the headdress symbolizing his new office. Robinson's former wife, Isabella McDaniel, was among those officially presenting Robinson to the consecrating bishops.
It was a moment that many Anglicans feared could be the final theological tremor opening an unbridgeable chasm separating liberals from conservatives.
The new bishop, his voice breaking, acknowledged that his consecration has brought both joy and pain to many in the church.
He told the audience gathered for the ceremony that their presence was "a welcome sign" for gays and lesbians to be brought into the church.
Then Robinson reached out to opponents: "There are 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. They must know that if they must leave, they will always be welcomed back into our fellowship."
Minutes after Robinson was officially installed, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who two weeks ago had urged Robinson to step back for the sake of unity, issued a statement from London.
"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.
Williams, the spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion -- of which the 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch -- summoned his 37 fellow primates to London last month for an emergency summit. At that time, the church leaders said some of them would probably sever ties with the American church if Robinson were consecrated. But they stopped short of fulfilling conservatives' request that the Episcopal Church be ejected from the 77-million-member worldwide communion, and acknowledged that they had no power to stop Robinson's ordination.
While there are other gay bishops in the Episcopal Church, none publicly disclosed their sexual orientation before they were elevated to the high office.
In the United States, many conservative Episcopalians have united behind the banner of the American Anglican Council and are moving toward an as-yet undefined "realignment" of the church.
The service Sunday was punctuated by three official protests, as permitted by church custom.
"This consecration poses a dramatic contradiction to the historic faith and discipline of the church," Assistant Bishop David Bena of Albany, N.Y., said on behalf of 29 Episcopal bishops. "We also declare our grief at the actions of those who are engaging in this schismatic act."
At one point during his official protest, the Rev. F. Earle Fox of Oxon, N.H., became so explicit in describing sex acts that Griswold interrupted him and directed him to stick to the substance of his complaint.
A handful of protesters demonstrated in the rain outside the arena. One group from Flushing, N.Y., parked a black van nearby with a hand-painted poster on the side that said: "Anglican Diocese of New Hampshire: You parade your sin like Sodom."
Security was tight, with police on horseback, plainclothes officers and contraband-sniffing dogs. All those entering the arena, including purple-vested bishops, had to pass through metal detectors. There have been numerous threats against Robinson's life, a church spokesman said.
Conservative Episcopalians held an opposing service at a nearby evangelical church.
Moments after the formal protests, the congregation was asked by Griswold if it was their will that Robinson be ordained. "That is our will," they shouted. Asked if they would uphold him as bishop, they repeated loudly, "We will."
For Robinson's friends and supporters -- including 44 other bishops and hundreds of priests, deacons and lay people -- Sunday was a time to rejoice. As the now-vested bishop was formally introduced to the congregation, cheers and applause echoed through the arena.
Seated in the audience, a gay couple joined in the celebration. "I think a terrific thing is happening today, and that reflects the message of Jesus, which was inclusive," said Andrew Malinowski of Cambridge, Mass. Beside him sat his partner of three years, Brian VanBuren.
The Rev. Susan Russell -- president of Integrity, the church's national gay and lesbian advocacy group -- compared Robinson's consecration to the church's then-controversial decision in the 1970s to become the first in the Anglican Communion to ordain women. Robinson's elevation, many of his supporters predicted, would win converts among gay men and lesbians who have felt alienated by churches.
But the celebration was expected to be short-lived.
One conservative theologian, Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, called the homosexual controversy "the greatest crisis faced by the church since the Reformation."
As early as today, some Anglican primates from Africa, South America and Southeast Asia said they would declare themselves, at the very least, in "impaired communion" with any U.S. Episcopal bishop who consented to Robinson's confirmation. They also said they would not recognize Robinson as a bishop.
They argue that, for many of them, acceptance of homosexuals in the church not only runs counter to biblical morality, but also puts them in danger in countries where homosexuality remains taboo based on cultural and religious views, among them Islam.
As many as 10 U.S. Episcopal dioceses could attempt to separate from the national Episcopal Church. Several have passed resolutions condemning the national church's tacit approval of same-sex blessings and Robinson's consecration.