The Episcopal Diocese of Forth Worth in Texas voted on Saturday to withdraw from the national church body, garnering the first of two approvals needed to re-align with an overseas Anglican leader.
Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker said the decision "marked a firm resolve about moving forward together, recognizing that there are parts that are not fully behind the path we've chosen, but the debate is always characterized by respect and honesty."
The conservative diocese is the fourth to approve constitutional amendments and remove language that states the diocese accedes to The Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons. The dioceses of Pittsburgh, San Joaquin in California, and Quincy in Illinois have also taken the first steps to remove themselves from The Episcopal Church – U.S. branch of Anglicanism – and realign with a conservative province in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The dioceses contend the national church has departed from scriptural authority and traditional Anglicanism. The national church had widened rifts when it consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003.
Members of the Forth Worth diocese met at their 25th annual convention and expressed their wishes "to remain within the family of the Anglican Communion while dissociating itself from the moral, theological, and disciplinary innovations of The Episcopal Church," according to the Episcopal News Service.
Iker noted that the decisions are preliminary and will be up for final approval at next year's convention.
Before the vote this past weekend, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori had sent a letter to bishops who have threatened to lead their dioceses out of the national church. Jefferts Schori called upon conservative bishops to retreat from the course of withdrawal and warned that disciplinary action may be taken should they leave.
In response, Iker said that he "must object to the claim that the presiding bishop has any canonical authority in this diocese or any legitimate power over the leadership of this diocese."
"She has no authority to bring Forth Worth into line with the mandates of a so-called 'national church,'" Iker told delegates at the convention, according to The Associated Press. "There is no such thing as 'the national church.' We are a confederation of dioceses, related to each other by our participation in General Convention."
Recently, Jefferts Schori addressed a small church in San Jose and asked congregants to be patient as the church body passes through an arduous time.
Perhaps, she said, if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could "hold their truths more lightly," they might yet find a way forward – together.
"I believe we only know the fullness of God's truth at the end of time," she said, according to The Los Angeles Times. "And in the meantime, we have to be careful about being so sure that we understand it all."
She also urged Episcopalians to look beyond the issues that divide them and focus on what she said should be the Church's main mission – ministering to people in need.
Last year, Jefferts Schori became the first woman to be elected to head The Episcopal Church. She has expressed support for the "full inclusion" of gays and lesbians, including gay ordination and blessing same-sex "marriage." The presiding bishop also stirred controversy when she questioned Jesus Christ as the one way to God in a 2006 interview with AP.
Next month, the Diocese of San Joaquin could be the first Episcopal diocese in the country to take a final vote and leave the national church. The conservative dioceses received a formal invitation to affiliate with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone in Argentina.