Members of the US Episcopal Church have witnessed the world’s first consecration of an openly gay bishop.
Braving protests from their own clergy and laity this Sunday, the ceremony went ahead despite warnings of a permanent schism within the Anglican faith's 70 million adherents worldwide.
The late afternoon consecration in the small New Hampshire university town of Durham was tense with at least one senior clergyman vowing to take advantage of his right to speak out against the appointment.
Outside the venue, a group of protesters gathered, some of them carrying placards with the slogan "God Hates Fags," while a number of Episcopal churches organised alternative services for those opposed to the consecration.
"I have a problem with any church calling a homosexual its leader when he is an unrepentant homosexual," said Joshua Phelps-Roper, leader of a Kansas-based Baptist group that travels the country preaching an anti-gay message.
Nigeria's Anglicans may leave the
"I have a duty to preach the word of God. The Episcopalians aren't doing that," Phelps-Roper said.
At the centre of the controversy is Gene Robinson, 56, a divorced father-of-two, who will become the first bishop of a major Christian denomination to openly live with a same-sex partner.
Despite warnings from the church of a permanent split within the Anglican community, Robinson has refused to step down and repeatedly predicted that his consecration will open the doors for other homosexual bishops.
"There are extraordinarily gifted gay and lesbian people in serious positions of leadership throughout our church. They will be nominated as well. My stepping aside would not stop this one bit," Robinson said.
So vehement is some of the opposition to the idea of an open, sexually active gay bishop that Robinson had been given police protection after receiving numerous death threats.
About 4000 people, along with 55 American Episcopalian bishops, attended the ceremony, where a 300-strong choir sang, as the gathered clergy laid hands on Robinson.
Several hundreds of those who attended were there to object to the appointment, but they had given reassurances not to disrupt the service, which began at 1600 (2100 GMT).
The Archbishop of Canterbury
believes schism can be avoided
However, some spoke out at one point when the congregation is traditionally asked if there are "any objections" to the appointment.
Assistant Bishop David Bena of Albany, New York, spoke on behalf of the objecting US and Canadian bishops and a written statement from lay people of the church was also read.
The head of the global Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said on Saturday that he believed any rift over Robinson's consecration would eventually be healed.
At a ceremony in London, Williams said both sides in the current dispute were considering a "risky break with what we have thought of as orthodoxy and good order".
But even if they did not hold together, God "will still teach us in our separateness" and eventually there would be reconciliation, he said.
The threat to split away is especially strong in developing countries, where many church leaders stick to the traditional view that the practice of homosexuality is a sin.
Possible Nigeria split
The head of the Nigerian wing of the Anglican Church, Primate Peter Akinola, has said that he will take its 17 million believers out of communion with US members if the consecration went ahead.
But senior Anglican church leaders in Nigeria on Sunday said they hoped the row would not split the worldwide church.
Moderate Anglicans, however, are more optimistic.
"I don't believe this is a schismatic issue," the Bishop Charles Bennison, head of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, said last week.
"I know the ECUSA and the Anglican Communion well enough, and don't think they're going to split over this," Bennison said.