COLUMBUS, Ohio – Three conservative Episcopal dioceses that oppose consecrating gay bishops voted Wednesday to reject the authority of the denomination's presiding bishop, but stopped short of a full break with the Episcopal Church.
In separate meetings, the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, South Carolina and San Joaquin, Calif., asked the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to assign them an alternative leader.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh is home to the Anglican Communion Network, which represents 10 conservative U.S. dioceses and more than 900 parishes within the Episcopal Church that are deciding whether to split from the denomination.
The decision by the three dioceses came on the same day that the liberal Diocese of Newark, N.J., tested the new Episcopal call for restraint on choosing gay bishops by naming a gay priest as one of four nominees to become its next leader.
The Episcopal Church and its fellow Anglicans worldwide are struggling to prevent differences over the Bible and sexuality from escalating into a permanent break.
On Tuesday, Williams said the divisions have become so deep that any member churches who support ordaining gays may have to accept a lesser role in the fellowship to prevent a schism.
The years-long debate over gay ordination reached a crisis point in 2003 when the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, elected the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Most Anglican archbishops believe gay relationships violate Scripture, and many broke ties with the U.S. church over Robinson. However, conservatives are a minority within the American church. The Diocese of Pittsburgh's vote Wednesday was an attempt to strengthen its position.
Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan objects to the June 18 election of the new Episcopal presiding bishop, Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who voted to confirm Robinson in 2003 and supports ordaining gays and blessing same-sex relationships. She will be installed Nov. 4.
"There are really two bodies within our church," Duncan said in a statement.
Duncan, who leads the U.S. conservative network, also said his diocese would seek permission from the top Episcopal legislative body for a new division within the church that would bring together dioceses with traditional biblical views.
Separately, leaders of the Diocese of South Carolina said "relationships have now been so strained" by church actions that the diocese needs to be under a new national leader.
The Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, last week had also asked Williams to assign them a leader other than Jefferts Schori, but did so because it rejects the ordination of women. Jefferts Schori will be the first woman to lead a national church in Anglican history. The Diocese of San Joaquin also does not accept women priests.
A few other dioceses are considering taking similar votes.
"We're going to have a lot of arguments about what this means," said Lionel Deimel, a board member of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh. "Whether Bishop Duncan is in the Episcopal Church or out of the Episcopal Church and whether we're in the Episcopal Church or we're out of the Episcopal Church, I think there probably is no definitive answer to that."
Outgoing Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said the Pittsburgh action is a sign of the diocese's "implicit intention of walking apart" from the denomination.
In Newark, Canon Michael Barlowe of the Diocese of California, who has a longtime male partner, is among the nominees for the Sept. 23 election of bishop. Last week, Episcopal legislators asked dioceses to use "restraint" in confirming gay bishops.
The three other nominees are the Rev. Mark Beckwith of Worcester, Mass.; the Rev. William Stokes of Delray Beach, Fla.; and the Very Rev. Petero Sabune of Ossining, N.Y.
More nominees could be named within the next week.