MONROEVILLE, Pa. – Clergy and lay members of the theologically conservative Pittsburgh diocese voted overwhelmingly Saturday to break from the liberal Episcopal Church.
The votes counted after Saturday's vote were 240 in favor of leaving the church and 102 against. Six people abstained from voting, and two ballots were declared ineligible.
The Pittsburgh diocese is one of several that disagrees with the U.S. church on Biblical teachings on salvation and other issues including homosexuality.
The Diocese of San Joaquin, based in Fresno, Calif., was the first to leave the national church, in 2006. Dioceses based in Quincy, Ill., and Fort Worth, Texas, also are set to vote next month on leaving.
The Pittsburgh diocese was led for 11 years by Bishop Robert Duncan. He was removed from office by the national church's House of Bishops last month.
Duncan is among the leaders of a national network of theological conservatives who are breaking away from the liberal denomination in a dispute over Scripture. The long-simmering debate, similar to others going on in the mainline Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran denominations, erupted in 2003, when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Clergy and lay members on both sides of the aisle were impassioned before Saturday's vote. Several opposed to splitting from the national church acknowledged disagreeing with its more liberal teachings — including a more "inclusive" salvation that doesn't rely on Christ's crucifixion alone. But many said staying in the church was the only way to remedy those teachings.
The Rev. John Guest, an Episcopal priest who split with the diocese over other issues and now leads a nondenominational congregation north of Pittsburgh, opposed the split. He said the personal salvation of those who remain in the national church is not compromised by its more liberal teachings, which can only be changed by remaining in the church.
"If the gates of hell cannot prevail against this church, then a gay bishop and those who consecrated him cannot either," Guest said.
But those voting to leave argued they're not being extreme, just faithful to Biblical teachings.
"The church became as gray as the culture," said Alison McFarland, who voted for the split. "Undefined Christianity became the problem, and now the church is indistinguishable from the world."
Pittsburgh diocesan spokesman, the Rev. Peter Frank, said the breakaway diocese will be led by Duncan, though that must be formally ratified in about 30 days.
The breakaway diocese will align with the like-minded Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in South America, which already recognizes Duncan as a bishop and has welcomed the San Joaquin diocese into its fold.
The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, a 77 million-member fellowship of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England.
Conservatives like Duncan and the Pittsburgh diocese are in the minority of the U.S. church but constitute a majority in the Anglican Communion.
A standing committee of those Pittsburgh-area parishes that remain in the national church will soon select a temporary bishop before holding a convention to select a permanent replacement, said Rich Creehan, spokesman for that group.