Three conservative Episcopal dioceses, including one in Central California, asked Wednesday to be released from the authority of the U.S. church’s presiding bishop.
Citing differences over the ordination of gay bishops, the dioceses of San Joaquin, Calif., South Carolina and Pittsburgh voted to ask Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to place them under someone else’s jurisdiction.
The move came one day after Williams suggested the creation of a two-tier system that would move the U.S. church to the fringes of Anglican life if it continued to pursue a progressive course on matters of human sexuality and interpretations of Scripture.
Just a week ago, at their national convention in Columbus, Ohio, Episcopal leaders including the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori -- the newly elected first woman to preside as bishop of the U.S. church -- endorsed a proposal that doesn’t ban gay bishops but discourages the church from electing them.
But conservative congregants said the proposal only showed how the denomination had divided into, as Pittsburgh Bishop Robert W. Duncan said in a statement, “two bodies within our church.”
“The decisions made today don’t change who we are in the least,” Duncan said, “but they do make clear here in Pittsburgh and to the rest of the communion with which body in the Episcopal Church we stand.”
On Wednesday, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J., underlined those differences by announcing that among its nominees for bishop was a noncelibate homosexual living with his same-sex partner.
Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, which has 300 affiliated churches in the United States, said the Newark diocese’s announcement was “staggering -- way beyond defiance.”
“We’re talking about great differences between the U.S. church and those trying to remain faithful to Anglicanism and retain the heritage we hold dear,” Brust said. “We anticipate five to six dioceses will eventually seek alternative oversight.”
Which dioceses those would be remains to be seen. Though individual churches, including at least four in Southern California, have opted to operate under the authority of dioceses in Africa, this is the first time entire dioceses have asked to splinter off.
The 2.3-million member U.S. Episcopal Church, which represents a small portion of an estimated 80 million Anglicans worldwide, has been trying to stem defections by parishes since its 2003 decision to consecrate a gay priest in a same-sex relationship as bishop of New Hampshire.
“It’s heartbreaking; nobody wants to see hardship between brothers and sisters,” said the Rev. Van McCalister, a spokesman for the San Joaquin diocese, which represents 50 churches from Sacramento to Bakersfield. “We simply want someone else to represent us. The core issue at stake is this: As Christians, are we defining ourselves by adherence to Scripture, or revisions of Scripture?”
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, presiding bishop and primate until Schori takes over in November, rejected that kind of talk as “consistent with their implicit intention of walking apart from the Episcopal Church.”
“I would very much hope that they remain part of the Episcopal Church as we, along with the other provinces of the communion, explore our Anglican identity, as the archbishop has invited us to do.”