FRESNO – The Diocese of San Joaquin voted on Saturday to cut ties with the Episcopal Church, the first time in the church’s history a diocese has done so over theological issues and the biggest leap so far by dissident Episcopalians hoping to form a rival national church in the United States. Fissures have moved through the Episcopal Church, the American arm of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members, and through the Communion itself, since the church ordained V. Gene Robinson, a gay man in a long-term relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Traditionalists at home and abroad assert that the Bible describes homosexuality as an abomination, and they consider the Episcopal Church’s ordination of Robinson as the latest and most galling proof of its rejection of biblical authority. In the last four years, the Anglican Communion, the world’s third largest Christian body, has edged closer to fracture over the issue. In the United States, several dozen individual congregations out of nearly 7,700 have split with the Episcopal Church. But Saturday’s vote was the first time an entire diocese chose to secede. “The church will inevitably leave the Bible behind at point after point,” said Bishop John David Schofield of San Joaquin to the diocesan convention on Friday, “but since on this view the Bible is the word of fallible men rather than of the infallible God, leaving it behind is no great loss.” No one is certain now what will follow, though few expect changes to occur immediately. But over the coming months, tensions could rise in the greater Communion because the San Joaquin Diocese also voted to align itself with a foreign Anglican province, or regional church. Other dioceses may feel emboldened to also cut ties with the Episcopal Church. And on the local level, the church would probably file suit against the diocese over property, lay people and clergy. “It will be a huge, huge legal battle,” said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading Episcopal conservative and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. “The costs involved will bleed the Diocese of San Joaquin and the Episcopal Church, and it will lead only to bad press. You have to wonder why people are wasting money doing this and yet claiming to be Christians.” San Joaquin’s delegates voted overwhelmingly last year to change the diocesan constitution to erase mention of accession to the Episcopal Church, but such amendments require a second vote, which occurred Saturday. Two-thirds of the laity and clergy needed to accept the changes, and the approximately 200 delegates passed the measures again by huge margins. Two other dioceses, Pittsburgh and Fort Worth, out of 110 in the Episcopal Church, held their first votes this fall. Schofield estimated that another six or seven might follow suit, though he declined to name them, and that together they would form a new Anglican province of North America, marginalizing the Episcopal Church. In response to such moves, presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the chief pastor of the Episcopal Church, has written to bishops warning them to stop and to be aware of “potential consequences.” The Episcopal Church has said that people can depart, but they must leave their property, which, it contends, is held in trust for the church. The church and loyalist dioceses are already involved in several lawsuits against breakaway congregations that have insisted on keeping their property. The Diocese of San Joaquin, with 47 parishes and 8,800 members, has long been different from the rest of the Episcopal Church. It is one of three dioceses that does not ordain women priests. It stopped sending money to the Episcopal Church budget after the consecration of Robinson. Its cathedral runs a ministry for those struggling “with sexual brokenness,” Schofield said, which includes homosexuality. The drive to leave the church began just after Robinson’s consecration. About three to eight parishes are likely to remain in the church, said the Rev. Van McCalister, spokesman for the diocese, and among them will be Church of the Saviour in Hanford, a small town amid the vast farmlands south of Fresno. The move to leave the Episcopal Church risks roiling people’s lives in the diocese, beyond the expense and strain of potential lawsuits. Secessionist priests could be defrocked and might lose their pensions. Loyalist congregations, if they owe any debt to the diocese, may themselves lose their buildings. People might leave parishes whose views they disagree with, and if a legal fight between the diocese and the Episcopal Church grows ugly enough, parishioners might leave the Anglican faith entirely. The split also threatens to draw in the rest of the Communion and the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the Communion’s spiritual leader. The diocese accepted an invitation from the archbishop of the Anglican province of the Southern Cone in South America to join his region temporarily. Bishop Frank Lyons of the diocese of Bolivia, part of the Southern Cone, said that Williams had told his archbishop the arrangement “was a sensible way forward.” But Radner said the Southern Cone’s invitation showed the willingness of some provinces in Africa, Asia and Latin America to create an alternative Communion structure that would bypass the Episcopal Church and even the archbishop of Canterbury himself. That could eventually create a new church.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!