The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh yesterday voted to secede from the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in South America. At least 17 of 74 congregations elected to remain with the U.S. church.
Meeting in Monroeville, the laity representatives voted 119-69 and the clergy voted, 121-33, to secede.
Bishop Robert Duncan, whom the Episcopal House of Bishops deposed Sept 18 but is now "episcopal commissary" to Pittsburgh from the Southern Cone, called it "a historic day."
"They used to burn us at the stake, but I'm increasingly fire-retardant," he said of his removal. Quoting scripture and giving a nod to the new headquarters in Argentina, he concluded, "Our God is a consuming fire. Buenos dias."
The split follows decades of contention between the theologically conservative diocese and the U.S. denomination over doctrine, biblical authority and sexual ethics. The 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, which is based In England, but whose membership is centered in the global South.
The Episcopal Church views the Pittsburgh secession as a violation of canon law and claims full rights to all church property. Litigation is expected.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, primate of the Episcopal Church, said most of the worldwide church "will be intensely grieved by the actions of individuals" in Pittsburgh. Unlike in the past, however, she did not mention suing the breakaway group.
"I have repeatedly reassured Episcopalians that there is abundant room for dissent within this Church, and that loyal opposition is a long and honored tradition within Anglicanism. Schism is not," she said.
Immediately after the vote, the Rev. James Simons, the only member of the diocese's governing Standing Committee to oppose secession, held a press conference behind a sign that said "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You."
The Rev. Simons, a conservative and longtime ally of Bishop Duncan, called it "a sad day."
"All of us who remain in the Episcopal Church will look after those who are suffering because of this split. We will find someone to minster to us as bishop. We will be recognized by the national church. We will have a diocese, and it will be healthy and faithful," he said.
Both sides have claimed the name Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, but one will add "of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone."
The Southern Cone group will hold a convention Nov. 7-8 to elect a bishop, which is expected to be Bishop Duncan. The continuing Episcopal Diocese also expects to call a convention before the end of the year to elect new leaders, including a retired bishop to serve until a permanent bishop can be chosen.
The Rev. George Werner of Sewickley, a loyalist and a former top official of the Episcopal Church, said the denominations headquarters in New York was "to be advised" by local Episcopalians.
"Many people, myself included, want to make sure that [national leaders] don't slam a bishop in here who will tear us to shreds," he said, an acknowledgement that many Episcopal loyalists are also conservative.
There is agreement that at least 17 parishes will not join the Southern Cone; and the Rev. Simons believes it could go as high as 28. Both sides also agree that many parishes on both sides are likely to lose some members to the other side. The Rev. Werner believes that splits in small churches could cause 20 to 30 of them to fail altogether.
Bishop Duncan did not lead the meeting, celebrate the Eucharist or preach, though mention of his name brought several long ovations.
The Rev. David Wilson, president of the Standing Committee, preached. Many on both sides have "diametrically different beliefs" about sin salvation and scripture, he said.
"It would be far better to bless each other in separating . . . than to continue the internecine warfare," he said. "If we act today out of godly motives, with godly love toward one another, then both sides will be on God's side."
Opponents twice tried and failed to have the attempt to secede ruled out of order. More liberal members of the diocese then kept mum, as conservative loyalists appealed to other conservatives.
The Rev. Philip Wainwright of St. Peter's, Brentwood, appealed for continued efforts to reform the Episcopal Church.
"Jesus' instruction to the church is to seek and save the lost," he said. "Many in the leadership of the Episcopal Church are still among the lost ... and are leading other souls astray. I believe those of us who can see that are sent by Christ to those very people to call them to repentance and new life."
Others countered that church leaders who deviate from classic doctrines are not fit to follow. The Rev. Joseph Martin of the Church of Our Savior, Shaler, cited a diocese that declared all humans were "begotten children of God," a title the ancient creeds give to Christ alone.
"We only want to preserve the faith that the people who came before us have believed and loved and known," he said.
After the vote the Rev. Harold Lewis, a leader of the liberal wing, stood to say that the delegation from his Calvary Episcopal Church, East Liberty, was leaving. "To remain part of the convention would appear that we condone the actions they have taken," he said. "There are no winners here ... No one likes to see a diocese bifurcate for any reason."
The Rev. Mary Hays, a top official of the Anglican diocese, said she believed Pittsburgh would become a haven for women throughout the conservative movement. The Province of the Southern Cone, which does not itself ordain women, has agreed that Pittsburgh can continue to do so, she said.
"Women in realignment who have a call to ordination will be ordained here," she said.
"What we have done today has been to bring the diocese fully back into mainstream Anglicanism," said Bishop Henry Scriven, Pittsburgh's former assistant bishop and now a "bishop providing assistance" to the Anglican diocese.
Clergy were offered credentials from the Southern Cone, though they have two years to make up their minds. They were also given handouts for parish bulletins, explaining the vote.
The impact won't be felt immediately, the Rev. Simons said.
"Sunday, for most people, will look pretty much the way last Sunday did," he said.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416.