updated 10/4/2008 9:11:31 PM ET 2008-10-05T01:11:31

Clergy and lay members of the theologically conservative Pittsburgh diocese voted overwhelmingly Saturday to break from the liberal Episcopal Church.

Of 159 clergy who voted, 121 favored leaving and 33 opposed, with five voters abstaining or casting disqualified ballots. The lay vote was closer, with 119 of 191 lay deputies voting for the split, 69 voting against and three abstaining.

Asst. Bishop Henry Scriven said the vote means the Pittsburgh diocese is now more firmly aligned with the majority of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, which is more conservative than the communion's 2.2 million-member U.S. church.

"I am delighted that what we have done today is bringing the diocese of Pittsburgh back into the mainstream of worldwide Anglicanism," Scriven said.

But the Rev. James Simons, who pastors one of at least 16 Pittsburgh-area churches that plan to remain in the Episcopal Church, called it a "sad day."

"A majority of deputies to the diocesan convention voted for the schism. They took the convention's theme, 'A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand,' and today caused the Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh to be divided indeed," Simons said.

Disputes over Bible, homosexuality
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.

Many who opposed the split said the national church erred by disciplining Duncan before the vote, and Simons said it "created enormous sympathy" for those voting to split.

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 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.

The Rev. John Guest, an Episcopal priest who leads a nondenominational congregation north of Pittsburgh, opposed the split. He said the personal salvation of those remaining 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.

S. American Province welcomes diocese
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 is led by a standing committee which is formally expected to elect Duncan as its bishop in November.

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.

Conservatives like Duncan and the Pittsburgh diocese are in the minority of the U.S. church but constitute a majority in the Anglican Communion.

Duncan expects 54 of the Pittsburgh-area's 74 congregations will be part of the breakaway diocese, while Simons said as many as a third — or 25 — might eventually remain. Some congregations may end up splitting themselves over the issue, Duncan said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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