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Conservative Episcopalians Defy Church Leaders

Episcopal conservatives who are bitterly opposed to same-sex blessings and the ordination of gay clergy launched a new, nationwide organization that plans to defy church leaders and may well wrestle with them for control of parishes and dioceses.

Rather than a schism or breakaway, the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (search) vows to fight Episcopal Church actions it says "departed from the historic faith and order and have brought immense harm."

"This has been, for us, a glorious and historic day," said Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan (search), elected as network leader Tuesday after delegates gave a governing charter unanimous approval.

Under the charter, the network's core will be the 12 dioceses in nine states that sent delegates to a meeting at a suburban Dallas church. They must now return home and ask for formal diocesan approval to join the network.

These dioceses include roughly one-tenth of the Episcopal Church's membership of 2.3 million, though some parishioners in those dioceses will undoubtedly oppose the new group.

Network leaders contend they're not leaving the Episcopal Church but the church left them when it began allowing gay clergy and blessings for same-sex couples. November's consecration of openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson (search) of New Hampshire brought the situation to a crisis point.

Robinson was traveling and could not be reached for comment, his spokesman Mike Barwell said. Daniel England, a national church spokesman, said the network "would be a lot more troubling if their numbers were stronger."

The network has characterized the new group as a "church within a church" and talk of schism was downplayed during the two-day meeting in suburban Dallas. One reason is that parishes would likely be forced to surrender their properties to the denomination if they leave.

The most ticklish aspect of the network is conservative parishes within liberal dioceses. Each member parish will be placed "under the spiritual authority of a bishop" approved by the network's 13-member steering committee -- a direct challenge to the Episcopal Church system of leadership.

Though the meeting made no decision, some activists also want the network to have outside bishops directly lead conservative congregations in liberal dioceses upon request, even against the wishes of the resident bishop, which would violate church law.

"I don't think most Episcopalians, committed to a system centered on the authority of diocesan bishops, are going to put up with that kind of behavior very long," England said. "It goes to the heart of what it means to be an Episcopal Church."

However, the network says it will "operate in good faith within the constitution of the Episcopal Church" as "a true and legitimate expression of the worldwide Anglican Communion."

Delegates who approved the charter were sent by dioceses based in Albany, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville and Orlando, Fla.; Peoria and Springfield, Ill.; Salina, Kan.; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Fresno, Calif.

Together, they represent churches with a combined 235,000 members. The network hopes to add some of the 31 other dioceses whose head bishops voted against Robinson's elevation.

The network will create five geographical districts -- New England, Mid-Atlantic, Southeastern, Mid-Continental and Western -- and one non-geographical district.

The meeting discussed writing a doctrinal platform but lacked the time to do that in Plano, and delegates acknowledged they disagree about whether women should be ordained.

Anglicanism is a global body of churches stemming from the Church of England and the Episcopal Church is its U.S. branch. A wide majority of overseas Anglican leaders insist on the traditional Christian teaching against same-sex activity, but that's a minority view among U.S. Episcopal leaders. The network wants to get recognition -- and greater legitimacy -- from those overseas Anglican leaders.

Due to the U.S. dispute and another over same-sex blessings in the Anglican Church of Canada, the world Anglican leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, appointed a crisis committee to propose solutions by Sept. 30.