Two of the biggest Episcopal parishes in Virginia are poised to break from the denomination to join overseas Anglicans forming a conservative U.S. rival to The Episcopal Church.
Members of the Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church will tally the results Sunday after a week of voting. Six other conservative parishes are deciding whether to cut ties with the Diocese of Virginia but not all will reveal their decisions at the same time.
The ballots are part of a crisis over the Bible and sexuality that is battering The Episcopal Church and threatening its role as the U.S. wing of the global Anglican Communion.
The feud erupted in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Supporters argued that the biblical ban on gay sex does not apply to monogamous same-gender couples. However, most overseas Anglicans disagree and have been pressuring the American church to follow traditional Christian teaching.
Struggling to bridge the divide, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, has said that the 77 million-member communion may have to create a two-tier system of membership, with branches that ordain partnered gays given a lesser status.
Many conservative Episcopalians and Anglicans are not waiting for a negotiated solution.
If they vote to leave The Episcopal Church, the Truro and Falls Church parishes will become a major U.S. foothold for Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, a fierce conservative who has called growing acceptance of gay relationships a "satanic attack" on the church.
The archbishop hopes to create a U.S. alliance of disaffected parishes called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Truro rector Martyn Minns was consecrated a bishop in the Church of Nigeria earlier this year to lead Akinola's American outreach.
Under Anglican tradition, Akinola's move into Episcopal territory amounts to an invasion. Archbishops agree not to evangelize outside the borders of their own regional churches.
In a statement Friday, Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, said that the archbishop of Canterbury has not "indicated any support" for the mission.
Within the 2.2 million-member U.S. denomination, conservatives are a minority, although their protests have had an impact.
Truro and Falls Church parishes are worth millions of dollars and together claim more than 4,000 members. A lengthy and expensive property fight could follow any attempt to break away.
Episcopal researchers estimate that at least one-third of the nearly 115,000 people who left the denomination from 2003 to 2005 did so because of parish conflicts over Robinson.
However, seven dioceses that have threatened to break from the denomination have so far stayed put. The closest any have come to leaving was a vote earlier this month in the Diocese of San Joaquin, in Fresno, Calif., endorsing a first step toward seceding. But the diocese must take a second vote next year before they can formalize a split.
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