Diocese votes to split from US Episcopal Church

The Diocese of San Joaquin has voted to become the first to split away from the US Episcopal Church on the issue of homosexuality. A diocese spokesman, the Rev Van McCalister, said the diocese had voted to remove all references to the Episcopal Church from its constitution.

The vote at their national convention on Saturday was overwhelming, with 173 clergy and lay members voting to leave the national church compared to only 22 voting to stay, reports AP.

The split has come about due to profound differences over the issue of homosexuality. The US Episcopal Church has taken an increasingly liberal stance on the issue by permitting same sex blessings and by failing to renounce the principle of homosexual bishops.

Divisions deepened in 2003 when Gene Robinson of New Hampshire was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.

The Diocese of San Joaquin is now planning to align itself with the conservative Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in South America, headed by Archbishop Gregory Venables of Argentina.

It is highly likely that the Episcopal Church will claim property rights of the diocese's real estate, worth millions of dollars, in which case a legal battle could ensue. When parishes have split from the Church previously, the courts have tended to rule in favour of the Episcopal Church rather than the seceding parish.

According to AP, McCalister said, "We have leadership in the Episcopal Church that has drastically and radically changed directions.

"They have pulled the rug out from under us. They've started teaching something very different, something very new and novel, and it's impossible for us to follow a leadership that has so drastically reinvented itself."

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori warned the Bishop of San Joaquin, John-David Schofield, against splitting from the national Church. However, she did not name the specific consequences of such an act.

She said, "We deeply regret their unwillingness or inability to live within the historical Anglican understanding of comprehensiveness. We wish them to know of our prayers for them and their journey," reports AP.

Around five of the 47 parishes in the diocese wish to remain as part of the Episcopal Church. It is as yet unsure what will happen to them.

Schori, meanwhile, has made it clear that any vote to split from the Church would mean that new leadership would be found and the Episcopal Church would continue to have its own diocese in San Joaquin.

She said, "The Episcopal Church will continue in the Diocese of San Joaquin, albeit with new leadership," reports AP.

One of the co-founders of Remain Episcopal, a group which campaigned against splitting in San Joaquin said she was "very disappointed".

Nancy Key, who is a member of Holy Family Episcopal Church in Fresno said, "This has been threatening to split our diocese apart for a long time. We feel like what we want to do is follow Christ, who included all, and used all of us for his ministry. And that didn't happen today," according to AP.

Around 55 out of 7,000 Episcopal parishes have already split from the national Church in recent years, some of which have become affiliated with other Anglican provinces who share their conservative views, particularly those of the Global South movement in Africa, Asia and South America.

For a diocese to split from the Episcopal Church, two votes a year apart are required. The Dioceses of Fort Worth, Quincy and Pittsburgh have already voted once to split. Another vote next year could see them split finally as San Joaquin has done.

Speaking at the convention at which the vote took place, Bishop Schofield said the vote was "all about freedom", reports AP.

He said, "It is about freedom to remain who we are in Christ. It is freedom to honour the authority of Scripture. It is freedom to worship with the Prayer Book we know and freedom from innovations and services that are contrary to the Word of God."