Despite a warning from the head of The Episcopal Church, members of the Diocese of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly Friday to leave the national church.
Clergy members and lay people voted 227 to 82 to approve constitutional amendments, taking the first step in separating from The Episcopal Church, which the diocese says has drifted from Scripture.
It was the first of two vote approvals needed for the diocese to remove itself from the national church and realign with a conservative province in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of Anglicanism.
Delegates had the choice of voting for realignment or full accession to The Episcopal Church.
"As a diocese we have come to a fork in the road," Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan told delegates during the diocese's annual convention. "Indeed, it has become clear that our understandings are not only different, but mutually exclusive, even destructive to one another."
Some opposing separation said it would create chaos for the diocese.
"I think it was tragic," said Joan Gunderson, president of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh and a lay deputy who voted against the resolution, according to The New York Times. "I'm concerned what will follow."
But the vote was necessary, Duncan said, because the more liberal bishops now in the majority in the national church "have hijacked my church, and that's how most of the people here feel," as reported by The New York Times. "What we're trying to do is state clearly in the United States for the authority of Scripture."
Duncan believes The Episcopal Church has departed from traditional Anglicanism and scriptural teachings and has little hope the church will get back in line with the wider Anglican family. The national church had widened rifts when it consecrated its first openly gay bishop, New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, in 2003.
The Pittsburgh bishop leads the Anglican Communion Network, a conservative coalition, for those in the United States discontent with the liberal direction of the national church.
Years into division, Duncan says the global Anglican family is more polarized and clergy and lay leaders in the diocese have revealed a growing acceptance that "our differences are presently irreconcilable."
"There is no prospect of resolution, only of a mediated separation as an alternative to the public scandal of ever-spiraling litigation [over property] or canonical proceedings," he said.
Friday's vote comes just after Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori addressed Duncan in a letter of warning, telling him to retreat from his course of withdrawal, otherwise, disciplinary action may be taken.
"I call upon you to recede from this direction and to lead your diocese on a new course that recognizes the interdependent and hierarchical relationship between the national Church and its dioceses and parishes," wrote the Episcopal head.
Friday's approval to remove language in the diocesan constitution that states the diocese accedes to The Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons does not become final until a second vote of approval is made at the next convention in November 2008.
For those who may disagree with splitting from the national church, Duncan said they would try to find a way for them to stay in the diocese or be given "freedom to separate" from the diocese and align more with The Episcopal Church.
Pittsburgh's vote follows similar decisions by dioceses in San Joaquin, Calif., and Quincy, Ill., in granting preliminary approval to separate from the national church.