Last month, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, 56, was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Robinson is openly gay and in a long-standing relationship. If his election is confirmed by the national church's General Convention, which starts July 30, he will become the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop. The event will be a watershed not only for Episcopalians, but also for the Worldwide Anglican Communion, whose governing body in 1998 called gay sex "incompatible with Scripture."

The vote will occur about a month after a gay Anglican minister in England, the Rev. Jeffrey John, turned down an appointment as a bishop. Two U.S. prelates who hailed John's decision as "one of deep courage and grace" now are focusing on Robinson. "Approval of this (Robinson's) election will be a vote to rupture the Anglican Communion," bishops Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh and Edward Salmon Jr. of South Carolina said in a joint statement on July 8.

This week, Robinson spoke with Beliefnet about the tempest swirling around him.

So much news about gay rights has happened this summer -the Canadian marriage decision, the Texas sodomy case, and your election. At the same time, Pat Robertson is praying for changes on the Supreme Court because of the Texas case, and other conservative Christians are predicting the downfall of civilization because they believe traditional marriage is now threatened. What's your take on all of it?

The famous test pilot Chuck Yeager, after breaking the sound barrier for the first time, in a speech said something like: "The plane shakes the hardest just before you break through." And I believe what we're experiencing from conservatives right now is that shaking, and maybe the whole culture is shaking before we break through this next barrier for gay and lesbian folks.

I believe God is doing a new thing in the world. God is always moving us to include more people in the kingdom. God has taught us that about people of color, about women, and now I think God is teaching that about gay and lesbian folk. And I am humbled and privileged that I might be playing a very small part in that grand and wonderful plan of God's.

What's happened to you in this last month?

I've been going to two different churches every Sunday morning since the election, and my reception has been remarkable. People are excited about our future ministry together. People have been so welcoming; even those who have difficulty with my election and making that square with their reading of scripture have done me the honor of asking me those questions directly. It's helped me to stay in touch with why I'm doing this in the first place--which is that I want to be in ministry with these people as their bishop.

And that has helped me to keep perspective on all the national and international news and press surrounding my election. When I stand back and look at it, I'm amazed I'm not more overwhelmed at the whirlwind I find myself in.

What sorts of mail are you getting?

First of all, I'm getting lots of mail. I've surpassed 2,600 emails and over 500 letters and notes. So that in and of itself is a little overwhelming. It's my intention to answer all of them, although it might take me several months. But I'd say 95% of them are supportive.

Really? Isn't that surprising?

It's overwhelming support. And that's from within the diocese, within the Episcopal Church, and internationally. Most of the negative stuff is going on at an official level and not aimed at me personally or coming into my own email box.

But many of the letters are so moving. I got a letter from a woman in the state women's prison here who started out by saying, "I'm neither gay nor Christian but your election means so much to those of us who are incarcerated here because it gives us hope that there might be a community that could love us despite what we've done." It's those kinds of letters I want to respond to personally and tell them how much it means to me.

Do you have a sense of how close--or not--the election will be?

I don't think there is any way to predict. I have to tell you I'm hopeful, and cautiously believing that indeed consent will be afforded me. But no one knows that for sure, and one of the big question marks is how the House of Deputies will vote on this, because 44% of the deputies are brand new. So there are no voting records on similar issues that you can look back to.

We've made a great effort to bring women and people of color and young people into the deputation--but this is their first general convention.