MONROEVILLE, Penn. The theologically conservative Pittsburgh diocese voted overwhelmingly o Oct. 4 to split from the American Episcopal Church. The 210 clergy and 70 parishes of the Pittsburgh diocese make up by far the largest single group so far to break away from the liberal Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Peter Frank, a spokesman for the diocese, said a "small number" of parishes will likely stay in the Episcopal Church, and that the national Episcopal Church will likely claim that they are the true diocese. The denominational divorce is more than academic since in the Episcopal Church it is generally the diocese, not local congregations, who own real estate.
"They will attempt to undo this decision," Frank said. "But we think our legal position is strong. Besides, we didn't make this decision based on legal risks. This was a decision of conscience."
According to Virtue Online, a conservative Anglican Web site that has been following the widening fissures within the American Church, more than 240 of the delegates voted to leave, while 102 voted to stay. Among the 160 clergy ballots cast the division was even wider with 121 voting to leave and 33 wanting to stay.
The Pittsburgh diocese will temporarily be under the authority of the Province of the Southern Cone of Africa, and all clergy and church members will thereby remain members in good standing of the worldwide Anglican Church. However, those on all sides of the controversy acknowledge that such arrangements are stopgap measures.
"People voted by significant margins to get out of The Episcopal Church and into the wider Anglican Communion," the Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan was quoted as saying by Virtue Online. "The clergy voted nearly three quarters to leave, the laity by two thirds, a remarkable margin for realignment. We did it gracefully, charitably with no rudeness," said a clearly happy bishop.
With the vote, Duncan became the Episcopal commissary of the Province of the Southern Cone.
At least a half-dozen Anglican provinces in Asia and Africa are providing oversight to American congregations. A statement released by the Diocese of Pittsburgh expressed a "hope there will be a new Anglican province in North America for those Anglicans who hold to historic faith and order."
That day may be coming soon.
With the departure of Pittsburgh, the Episcopal Church, which claims 2.1 million members, now has less than 800,000 people actually in pews on a given Sunday. The combined breakaway Episcopal and Anglican congregations now have at least 100,000 in regular Sunday worship.
Nearly a year ago, the Diocese of San Joaquin, which serves California's central valley, also voted to secede from the Episcopal Church, becoming the first regional body in the denomination to do so.
And in coming months, two more dioceses have indicated they may also vote to secede.
Bishop Martyn Minns, who leads the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a group attempting to bring together the Anglican diaspora in America, is looking forward.
"The Pittsburgh decision is a significant milepost on this journey. Does it change the conversation we're having with the national church and with the worldwide Anglican communion? You bet it does."
Lori Arnold contributed to this report.