October 5, 2008

Episcopal Diocese to Vote Today on Split

By Mike Cronin

Hundreds of clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh are scheduled to vote today on whether to leave the New York-based church for a more conservative affiliation.

The voting at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Monroeville would occur about two weeks after a group of Episcopal bishops representing the U.S. church removed Bishop Robert Duncan as head of the Pittsburgh diocese for supporting efforts to split from the church.

If a majority votes to leave the Episcopal Church, the Pittsburgh diocese will become a member of the more conservative Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in Buenos Aires, Argentina, "as soon as the gavel falls," said Deacon Peter Frank, a diocesan spokesman.

That result would be binding because of November's preliminary vote in Johnstown that approved aligning with a different Anglican church. Lay representatives voted 118-58, with one abstention. The clergy voted 109-24.

"We are quite confident that there's going to be a majority," said Edith Humphrey, a professor of Bible and Scripture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty. Humphrey is a member of the Church of the Ascension in Oakland.

"We're voting to stay with the Anglican Communion because the Episcopal Church already has left the Bible and church tradition," she said.

Yet, "a sizeable minority, between 30 and 40 percent" of Episcopalians in the Pittsburgh diocese want to remain with the New York church, said Rich Creehan, spokesman for Across the Aisle, a group that represents 30 of the 66 parishes in the diocese. Seventeen parishes wrote letters of commitment to stay with the Episcopal Church, Creehan said.

"It's not a forgone conclusion" that voters will decide to leave, said the Rev. James Simons, rector of St. Michael's of the Valley Episcopal Church in Ligonier. Simon said he has talked to people who voted for splitting last year "to send a message to the national church, but won't vote for it this time around."

"I don't think the church has strayed," Simons said. "There are places or congregations that have departed from what we teach, but our doctrine has not changed since 1979. Our teaching has remained consistent and orthodox."

Those who want to split say the rift has been decades in the making. They point to Episcopalians who doubt the divinity of Jesus, blessing dogs as part of the liturgy, allowing marriage of same-sex couples and the ordination of openly gay people.

A majority of the 80 million-member Anglican Communion, a worldwide coalition of churches that align with the Church of England, say Scripture condemns homosexuality. A majority in the Episcopal Church do not.

Pittsburgh is one of at least four Episcopal dioceses out of 110 that have taken steps to break from the national church.

If the split happens, Frank said officials would begin the procedure to rename Duncan as leader of the diocese covering 11 Western Pennsylvania counties.

Simultaneously, officials would attempt to organize the more than 600 Anglican parishes and between 100,000 and 200,000 Anglicans in the United States not affiliated with the Episcopal Church into a national church.

Neva Rae Fox, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church in New York, said "those who decide to leave will always be welcome to return."

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