NEW YORK — The theologically conservative Diocese of Fort Worth voted today to split from the liberal-leaning Episcopal Church, the fourth traditional diocese to do so in a long-running debate over the Bible, gay relationships and other issues.
About 80 percent of clergy and parishioners in the Texas diocese supported the break in a series of votes at a diocesan convention.
The Steering Committee North Texas Episcopalians, an umbrella group for those who want to stay with the denomination, plans to reorganize the diocese. They promised that “the Episcopal Church’s work of Christian ministry and evangelization will go forward” in the region.
A lengthy, expensive legal battle is expected over who owns Episcopal property and funds. The Fort Worth diocese oversees more than 50 parishes and missions serving about 19,000 people. The Steering Committee estimates that at least five parishes and hundreds of other churchgoers will remain with the New York-based national church.
The other seceding dioceses are Pittsburgh; Quincy, Ill.; and San Joaquin, based in Fresno, Calif., where a legal fight over assets is already under way. National church leaders are helping local parishioners reorganize each diocese.
All four withdrawing dioceses are aligning with the like-minded Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, based in Argentina, to try to keep their place in the world Anglican Communion.
The vote is the latest fallout from the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The 77-million-member Anglican fellowship, which includes the U.S. Episcopal Church, has roots in the missionary work of the Church of England. Most overseas Anglicans hold traditional views of the Bible and Robinson’s consecration has moved the global communion toward the brink of schism. Breakaway U.S. leaders hope to form an Anglican province in North America.
Years before Robinson’s election, Episcopalians and Anglicans were already divided over how they should interpret Scripture on issues ranging from salvation to sexuality. That rift broke wide open when the New Hampshire bishop was installed.
“Some have encouraged us to stay and fight as the faithful remnant in (the denomination), to work for reform from within,” Bishop Jack Iker said in his speech before the balloting.
“I can only reply by quoting the saying that ‘the definition of insanity is to keep on doing the same thing, expecting different results,”’ he said. “The time has come to choose a new path and direction, to secure a spiritual future for our children and our grandchildren.”
Of the four withdrawing dioceses, only Pittsburgh ordains women. In 2006, the Episcopal Church elected its first female leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Nationally, most of the 2.1 million Episcopalians don’t consider their theological differences cause to leave the denomination, which has more than 100 dioceses. Outside the four that are splitting off, church officials estimate that about 100 additional parishes of a total of more than 7,000 have withdrawn on their own.
However, the secessions have a large cost to the national church, not only in legal expenses and lost donations from the dioceses, but also in damage to the Episcopal public image as the U.S. church struggles to keep its place in the global Anglican family.