Central California’s Diocese of San Joaquin on Saturday became the first in the nation to secede from the Episcopal Church, taking the historic, risky step as part of a years-long struggle within the U.S. church and global Anglican Communion over homosexuality and biblical authority.
Despite emotional last-minute appeals from opponents to reconsider or delay, delegates to San Joaquin’s annual convention voted 173 to 22, far more than the two-thirds majority needed, for the key constitutional change to break the diocese’s ties to the Episcopal Church.
The action could serve as an impetus for other dioceses around the country to leave the Episcopal Church and try to start a more conservative alternative church. It could also lead to more lawsuits over who controls millions of dollars worth of property.
The delegates formally accepted an invitation to align their small, largely rural diocese with an Anglican province in South America and its conservative archbishop.
As the results were announced, a majority of the delegates in a hall of St. James Cathedral in Fresno applauded, shouted congratulations to one another and rose in a standing ovation. But toward the back of the room, faces were glum and a gray-haired woman wiped away tears.
San Joaquin Bishop John-David M. Schofield, a longtime critic of the Episcopal Church who pushed hard for the changes, was exultant after the votes were counted.
“We’ve seen a miracle here,” Schofield said, as he was flanked by supporters in a crowded parish hall. “We are now clearly outside the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church.”
In response, the Episcopal Church’s leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said she had received news of the delegates’ decision with sadness.
“We deeply regret their unwillingness or inability to live within the historical Anglican understanding of comprehensiveness,” Jefferts Schori said in a statement. “We wish them to know of our prayers for them and their journey. The Episcopal Church will continue in the Diocese of San Joaquin, albeit with new leadership.”
The influential 2.4-million member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the 77-million member worldwide Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest Christian denomination.
For years, Schofield has said, he and his conservative diocese of 47 parishes and 8,800 members have been all but ignored by the Episcopal Church and its New York-based leadership. And the diocese, which stretches from just south of Sacramento to just past Bakersfield, does appear out of sync with majority views in much of the liberal-leaning U.S. church.
San Joaquin, for instance, is one of just three of the church’s 110 dioceses that do not ordain women. On the issue of gay rights, Schofield has said he views homosexuality as contrary to the Bible’s teachings. The diocese’s cathedral has a ministry devoted to helping those experiencing “sexual brokenness,” including homosexuality, the bishop said.
For years, both in the U.S. and abroad, conflict within the Anglican Communion has simmered over the American church’s comparatively liberal views on issues of sexuality and theology. The rifts widened in 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated a partnered gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.
Now, the San Joaquin Diocese’s decision to break away and align with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of South America could increase tensions within the communion, pushing it closer to fracture, several experts said.
In the last four years, about 55 congregations of the Episcopal Church have taken steps to sever their ties with the national church. But the San Joaquin Diocese’s actions Saturday -- passing a series of constitutional amendments that confirmed initial votes a year ago -- marked the first time representatives of an entire diocese had finalized a decision to depart.
Two other dioceses, in Pittsburgh and Fort Worth, recently took initial votes to follow the same course. Schofield predicted Saturday that as many as half a dozen more may follow suit. And partly to forestall such actions, the national church is expected to file lawsuits over property in the San Joaquin Diocese, as it has against individual parishes elsewhere, including several in Southern California.
“The legal battle will be huge, drawn out and will cost tons of money on all sides,” said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading conservative theologian in the church. “It’s a waste, a total waste, and both conservatives and liberals are to blame.”
Jefferts Schori also has warned Schofield and other dissident bishops that if they choose to try to lead their dioceses out of the church, they are likely to face discipline, including a process in which their offices are declared vacant and new bishops appointed.
But it is unclear how quickly such actions would take place. Schofield said he expected little immediate change.
Before the vote, Samantha Bland, a lay delegate from a small church in the Stanislaus County community of Riverbank, urged the convention to step back. Bland said church members should be working instead on such societal problems as methamphetamine addiction and teen pregnancies, and “this is a distraction.”
“We need to focus back on our communities,” she said.
Members of Remain Episcopal, an organization opposed to the split, said they were deeply disappointed but not sure of their immediate course of action.
“I’m just very, very sorry that it passed,” said Nancy Key, who co-founded the group. “The Episcopal Church has always had differences of opinion within it, and I had hoped we could co-exist.”
The Rev. Gordon Kamai, rector of Christ Church in Oakhurst, said he was elated.
“Now we can put behind us all the shenanigans of the Episcopal Church and get on about the business of the Gospel.”
Some who supported the vote said they were nonetheless saddened by the decision, with one likening it to the end of a troubled but long marriage.
“This is what we had to do to remain true to our beliefs,” said Bob Latour, a deacon at St. John’s Church in Porterville, as he left the building. “But it hurts.”