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First Episcopal Diocese Set to Take Final Vote on Split

The 9,000-strong Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin in California will vote this week on whether or not to secede from The Episcopal Church.

The diocese consists of almost 50 churches and would be the first to leave over the divide sparked by the liberal stance of The Episcopal Church on homosexuality.

The U.S. arm of Anglicanism and the worldwide Anglican Communion have been divided ever since The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop – Gene Robinson of New Hampshire – in 2003.

Concerns over the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of homosexual bishops have not gone away despite a pledge to "exercise restraint" by The Episcopal Church earlier this fall.

As many as 32 individual parishes have already left and another 23 have voted to leave the American church body as a result of its liberal pro-gay stance, but a whole diocese has yet to split.

The dioceses of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Fort Worth have all taken preliminary votes to leave but any final decision is still one year away.

According to Reuters, the bishop of San Joaquin Diocese, John-David Scholfield, said that leaving The Episcopal Church would be "a sensible way forward," but not one to be regarded as a permanent departure should "circumstances change and The Episcopal Church repents."

The diocese has been invited to place itself under the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of South America, led by Archbishop Gregory Venables of Argentina and part of the more conservative Global South movement in the Anglican Communion.

In a preliminary vote last year, the Diocese of San Joaquin voted overwhelmingly to leave The Episcopal Church. In order to leave, however, two votes a year apart are required.

According to Reuters, an organization called "Remain Episcopal" is fighting against splitting from the American church body and has said its members will stay and be recognized by The Episcopal Church should the bishop, clergy and other congregants leave.

The presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schori, called upon Schofield to stay within the church body, saying, "The Church will never change if dissenters withdraw from the table," according to Reuters.

The Episcopal head also said she would initiate a process allowing her to "depose" the bishop, declare the diocese vacant and form a new church leadership out of the remaining congregation and clergy.

The Episcopal Church has also claimed that the church buildings used by exiting congregations belong to them, and that departing congregations will need to find new places to worship. The Episcopal Church is already engaged in legal battles over church property with congregations who have left.

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