An openly gay priest from San Francisco is among six candidates for bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark at a time when a divide over sexuality is threatening the solidarity of the worldwide Anglican church.

But a win by Canon Michael Barlowe, 51, would put the diocese at the centre of a crisis over whether Anglicans who disagree about ordaining gays can stay in the same fellowship.

Episcopalians and Anglicans on all sides of the issue will be watching, the Reverend J Robert Wright, professor of church history at General Theological Seminary in New York, told the San Jose Mercury News.

The Episcopal Church is the US branch of the global Anglican Communion.

“For some people, this election would be courting danger,” Wright told The Mercury News>.

“For other people, his election would be an eloquent testimony to the ideals held by the gay and lesbian movement within the church.”

The Associated Press reports that the bishop will be chosen by 339 lay people and nearly 200 clergy from the diocese, which serves about 35,000 people in seven northern New Jersey counties.

The feud erupted in 2003, after the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

His supporters believe the Bible’s social justice teachings trump what they view as an outdated understanding of homosexuality in Scripture.

But the majority of overseas Anglican leaders believe the Bible bans gay relationships and they have demanded that Episcopalians either follow that teaching or leave the communion.

In June, the Episcopal General Convention, the church’s top policymaking body, voted to ask US bishops to “exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration” of candidates “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.” However, the measure is not binding.

The new Newark bishop will be chosen next week by 339 lay people and nearly 200 clergy from the diocese.

The Reverend Sandye Wilson, a member of the nominating committee, told the Mercury News that Barlowe was put on the ballot mostly because of his current job as officer for congregational development for the Diocese of California in San Francisco, not for the message it would send about sexuality.

“We were not trying to make a statement. We didn’t want to discriminate against this man’s gifts and skills. We did not want to leave him off because he was gay.”

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