FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – In a public rebuke of the Episcopal Church, a conservative diocese voted Saturday to affirm its membership in the worldwide Anglican Communion after distancing itself from the American denomination over issues of sexuality and the ordination of women.

San Joaquin Bishop John-David Schofield called it a first step toward a formal break with the U.S. Anglican denomination, though the proposal makes just minor changes to the diocese’s status.

“We have given a signal as to what direction we intend to take,” Schofield said Saturday. “We are now in a position to take seriously any offer the archbishops around the world should come up with.”

Delegates also approved rewriting the Diocese of San Joaquin’s constitution to bring its trust fund under the bishop’s control. This move was immediately questioned by Episcopal leaders.

The denomination’s canons don’t give local dioceses sole ownership of church property, said Robert Williams, a spokesman for the Episcopal Church.

“The hope of many is that reconciling dialogue will continue,” he said.

Divisions erupted in 2003 when the Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of the 77 million-member Anglican family, consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Traditionalists contend that gay partnerships violate Scripture.

Schofield, who refuses to ordain women and gays, has publicly accused the church’s first female leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, of promoting “heresy.” Under his leadership, the Fresno-based diocese has cut back funds sent to the national church and considered a plan to affiliate with an Anglican diocese in Argentina.

The San Joaquin diocese’s proposal to distance itself from the American denomination was approved by a majority of the 204 clergy and lay delegates. It formalizes the diocese’s identity as a member of the Anglican Communion, rather than a member of the Episcopal Church, but it and other resolutions approved Saturday won’t become final unless they receive a two-thirds majority vote at a meeting at a diocesan convention next year.

The amendment was noticeably weaker than one pulled this week that proposed a formal split with the U.S. denomination, which would have set off a legal battle over the diocese’s millions of dollars in real estate throughout central California.

National church leaders had been putting pressure on Schofield and other conservatives to ease off their threats to break with the denomination. They proposed creating a leadership position called a “primatial vicar,” who would work with conservative dioceses, performing functions that normally fall to Jefferts Schori, including consecrating local bishops.

Schofield called that offer “absolutely inadequate,” but suggested a truce was not off the table.

Six other conservative dioceses also have rejected Jefferts Schori’s authority but have stopped short of secession. The 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church estimates that nearly 115,000 people left the church from 2003 to 2005. At least one-third of those departures stemmed from parish conflicts over Robinson.

AP-ES-12-02-06 2044EST

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