CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - With a leading candidate who's a gay man, the selection of a new Episcopal bishop for New Hampshire could send worldwide tremors through a denomination divided about homosexuality.
The Episcopal Church, the U.S. member of the world Anglican Communion, has never elected a bishop who lives openly with a same-sex partner, but the candidacy of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson could change that.
Robinson is among four priests who will be considered Saturday for the bishop's post at a meeting of an estimated 60 New Hampshire clergy and 200 lay Episcopalians. The winner will have to be confirmed next month at the church's national General Convention.
Robinson's supporters say his sexual orientation isn't relevant to his ability to lead the diocese. He is an able administrator, a good listener and has a gift for sensing the needs of a group, they say.
``First and foremost, he's an impeccably decent man who has outstanding leadership skills,'' said former Episcopal priest Martha Yager, who has worked with Robinson on many social justice projects.
Critics believe Robinson's homosexuality runs against biblical teachings on the subject and would be an impediment to his ministry.
Others respect Robinson, but fear his selection would worsen divisions between liberal Episcopalians and their more conservative counterparts in the United States and other Anglican churches worldwide.
The Episcopal News Service says the only other bishop to publicly state that he is actively gay is Otis Charles, former bishop of Utah, but he made the announcement in 1993 after retiring.
However, that has not ended the debate. Conservatives in the Church of England and elsewhere protested the May appointment of Jeffrey John as the new bishop of Reading because of his liberal views on homosexuality, though he has vowed to uphold existing church policy as bishop.
On Friday, The Daily Telegraph of London reported that John gave a 1998 talk about his ongoing gay relationship, which began when he was in the seminary. John said he informed his bishop at the time, who considered the partnership no barrier to ordination.
``I think it'll be a crisis in the church if New Hampshire follows through,'' said the Rev. David Moyer, a pastor from suburban Philadelphia who leads the conservative group Forward In Faith.
Not everyone views the situation in such dire terms, however.
``Learning to live together in all of our differences - unity in diversity - is not only a challenge to the Anglican community, but it's a gift we can give to the world if we can work it out,'' said the Rev. Dr. Ian Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
This is not a new process for Robinson, who missed being elected bishop in Rochester, N.Y., in 1999 and in Newark, N.J., in 1998. But this is his home territory.
Robinson, 56, lives with his partner, Mark Andrew, in nearby Weare and is an assistant to current Bishop Douglas Theuner, who is retiring after 17 years in his post. Robinson was once married and is the father of two grown children; he remains on good terms with his ex-wife and children, friends say.
He also is a popular preacher at area churches and has been active in local causes such as establishing ``Concord Outright,'' a support group for teenagers.
Robinson declined to be interviewed, saying he has agreed not to discuss the process until it's over. Diocesan leaders have asked the other candidates not to comment on each other.
If Robinson is elected Saturday, his confirmation by the national General Convention - usually a routine matter - could be contentious.
``I'm sure it will be a large issue,'' said the Rev. Hays Junkin, head of the committee that selected the New Hampshire candidates. ``I don't think the national church is of one mind about the consecration of an openly gay bishop.''
Nor are the Episcopalians of New Hampshire. But Junkin said most care more about selecting the best bishop than about any candidate's sexual orientation. All the candidates have expressed support for gays and lesbians in the church, as has Theuner.
The other candidates are the Rev. Pamela Jane Mott of Portland, Ore., and two supervisors of groups of parishes in Pennsylvania, the Very Revs. Robert L. Tate and Ruth Lawson Kirk. Another candidate withdrew after being selected bishop of Nebraska.