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The Rt. Rev. Robert William Duncan Jr.
Following several years of strife over the direction of the Episcopal Church and its historic appointment of an openly homosexual bishop, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh voted to leave the denomination’s American affiliation in favor an international branch of the greater Anglican Communion.
The election of the openly homosexual Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson to the position of Episcopal bishop in 2003 sent shockwaves throughout the denomination and prompted the outspoken opposition of the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert William Duncan Jr.
Earlier this year, however, the Episcopal Church issued a paper in which it declared Duncan had “abandoned the Communion of this Church” and last month deposed the bishop.
The move did not sit well with many in Pittsburgh, who were more in agreement with their former bishop than they were with the American hierarchy of the Episcopal Church.
At the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh’s 143rd annual diocesan convention this weekend, the divide in perceived direction of the church led to action, where 119 of 191 laypeople and 121 of 160 clergy voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.
“We deeply value our shared heritage and years of friendship with those still within that denomination,” said Rev. Peter Frank, director of communications for the diocese, in a statement, “but this diocese could not in good conscience continue down the road away from mainstream Christianity that the leadership of The Episcopal Church is so determined to follow.”
Assistant Bishop Henry Scriven told the Associated Press that the vote means the group is now more closely aligned with the majority of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, which is more conservative than the 2.2 million-member U.S. church.
“I am delighted,” Scriven said, “that what we have done today is bringing the Diocese of Pittsburgh back into the mainstream of worldwide Anglicanism.”
The Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy reports that the Diocese of San Joaquin in California last year also voted to secede from the Episcopal Church. Two other dioceses – one based in Fort Worth, Texas, and the other in Quincy, Ill. – are scheduled to vote in November on similar resolutions.
IRD Religious Liberty Director Faith J.H. McDonnell supports the vote and stresses that disagreement over the Episcopal Church’s appointment of a homosexual bishop is only one symptom of a greater division within the denomination.
“The Episcopal Church was hemorrhaging membership well before the controversial ordination of Gene Robinson,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Individuals are realigning with their feet. Many of the most vibrant and evangelistic parishioners are leaving, and the remaining revisionists appear unable to offer a compelling draw to potential new members.
“While Gene Robinson’s consecration heightened the issues within the Episcopal Church, it is in no way the main issue for the churches that are leaving. It provides one example of how the Episcopal Church has drifted away from its Scriptural foundations,” she said.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the U.S. church, however, criticized the vote in a statement, saying, “There is room in this church for all who desire to be members of it.”
She further warned that these kinds of divisions in the church have “frequently been seen as a more egregious error than charges of heresy.”
Alison McFarland, who voted for the split, argues that the Pittsburgh Diocese isn’t a radical group of heretical troublemakers, however, but a body trying to stay true to the faith.
“The church became as gray as the culture,” McFarland told the Associated Press. “Undefined Christianity became the problem, and now the church is indistinguishable from the world.”
The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh now plans a special convention Nov. 7-8 where it will welcome Duncan back as key note speaker and elect its next bishop.