SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (AP) An Episcopal diocese in central California voted on Saturday to split with the national denomination over disagreements about the role of gays and lesbians in the church.
Clergy and lay members of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin voted 173-22 at their annual convention to remove all references to the national church from the diocese's constitution, according to spokeswoman Joan Gladstone.
The Fresno-based congregation is the first full diocese to secede because of a conservative-liberal rift that began decades ago and is now focused on whether the Bible condemns gay relationships.
The diocese, in a later vote, accepted an invitation to join a conservative South American congregation of the Worldwide Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. member of the global Anglican Communion.
The decision is almost certain to spark a court fight over control of the diocese's multimillion-dollar real estate holdings and other assets.
The head of the U.S. denomination had warned Bishop John-David Schofield of the Fresno-based diocese against secession.
``I do not intend to threaten you, only to urge you to reconsider and draw back from this trajectory,'' Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the U.S. denomination, wrote in a letter to Schofield earlier this week.
Schofield responded that the Episcopal Church ``has isolated itself from the overwhelming majority of Christendom and more specifically from the Anglican Communion by denying Biblical truth and walking apart from the historic Faith and Order.''
The Fresno diocese has explored breaking ties with the American church since 2003, when Episcopalians consecrated the church's first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The resulting uproar throughout the world Anglican fellowship has moved the 77-million-member communion toward the brink of schism.
San Joaquin is one of three Episcopal dioceses that will not ordain women. Last year the Episcopal Church elected Jefferts Schori as its first woman primate.
Christian advocates for accepting gay relationships, including Jefferts Schori, say they are guided by biblical teachings on social justice and tolerance. But Schofield and other conservatives believe Scripture bars same-sex relationships.
After the vote, Jefferts Schori said the church was saddened by the decision of some members to leave.
``We deeply regret their unwillingness or inability to live within the historical Anglican understanding of comprehensiveness,'' she said in a statement. ``We wish them to know of our prayers for them and their journey. The Episcopal Church will continue in the Diocese of San Joaquin, albeit with new leadership.''
Some worshippers fought to persuade the diocese to resolve its disputes internally without fracturing from the U.S. church.
``I'm very disappointed but not totally surprised,'' said Nancy Key, 59, a member of Holy Family Episcopal Church in Fresno and co-founder of Remain Episcopal, a group formed in 2003 to combat the secession.
``This has been threatening to split our diocese apart for a long time,'' she said. ``We feel like what we want to do is follow Christ, who included all, and used all of us for his ministry. And that didn't happen today.''
Key said the Remain Episcopal group has grown to 125 members and has many more supporters within the diocese.
The diocese's holdings include 48 church buildings, including its Fresno headquarters, a series of mission-style buildings surrounded by olive, Chinese elm and cherry trees. Its total assets are worth millions, said the Rev. Van McCalister, a diocesan spokesman.
About 55 conservative Episcopal parishes have split from the church in the last few years and some have affiliated directly with Anglican provinces overseas, according to national church statistics. But the courts have mostly ruled against them.
San Joaquin is one of four full dioceses out of 110 in the nation, along with Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Illinois, and Pittsburgh that has taken steps toward breaking with the U.S. church.