The conservative Diocese of San Joaquin voted Saturday to split from the liberal-leaning Episcopal Church, becoming the first full diocese to secede from the denomination in the debate over the Bible and homosexuality.
Clergy and lay members of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin voted 173-22 at their annual convention to remove all references to the national church from the diocese's constitution, said the Rev. Van McCalister, a diocesan spokesman.
The diocese, based in Fresno, plans to align with the like-minded Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, based in South America.
The decision is almost certain to spark a court fight over control of the diocese's multimillion-dollar real estate holdings and other assets.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. member of the global Anglican Communion, a 77 million-member fellowship that traces its roots to the Church of England.
Anglicans have been moving toward a worldwide schism since 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. San Joaquin is also one of the three Episcopal dioceses that will not ordain women.
The Episcopal rift over theology began decades ago and is now focused on whether the Bible condemns gay relationships.
"We have leadership in the Episcopal Church that has drastically and radically changed directions," McCalister said. "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."
Episcopal and Anglican advocates for accepting gay relationships say they are guided by biblical teachings on social justice and tolerance. Traditionalists believe that gay relationships violate Scripture.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, elected last year as the first woman to lead the church, had warned San Joaquin Bishop John-David Schofield against secession but did not outline specific consequences. Jefferts Schori supports ordaining partnered gays and lesbians.
"We deeply regret their unwillingness or inability to live within the historical Anglican understanding of comprehensiveness," she said in a statement after the vote. "We wish them to know of our prayers for them and their journey."
Clergy delegates at the convention voted 70-12 to break away and lay delegates voted 103-10 in support of the move. The outcome leaves in question the status of the five or so parishes in the San Joaquin diocese that wish to remain aligned with the Episcopal Church. Local clergy who agree to leave could lose their ministerial credentials and their pensions.
Jefferts Schori indicated in her statement that the national denomination will not give up the diocese. "The Episcopal Church will continue in the Diocese of San Joaquin, albeit with new leadership," she said.
The diocese serves about 8,500 parishioners in 47 congregations in central California.
Nancy Key, a member of Holy Family Episcopal Church in Fresno and co-founder of Remain Episcopal, which fought the secession, said she was "very disappointed."
"This has been threatening to split our diocese apart for a long time," she said. "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."
The Episcopal Church was divided along North-South lines during the Civil War, as several other Protestant groups were, but the denomination was not considered formally split over theological differences, making San Joaquin the first full Episcopal diocese to break away.
Nationally, about 55 conservative Episcopal parishes, out of more than 7,000 around the country, have split off from the church in the last few years, and some have affiliated directly with Anglican provinces overseas, according to national church statistics. Courts have mostly ruled against allowing the breakaway congregations to take their property when they go.
Three other dioceses have taken initial steps toward splitting from the U.S. church. They are Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill.; and Pittsburgh.
In his address to the convention, Schofield said the vote was "all about freedom."
"It is about freedom to remain who we are in Christ. It is freedom to honor the authority of Scripture," he said. "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."