NEW YORK -- A third theologically conservative diocese has broken away from the liberal Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, in a long-running dispute over the Bible, gay relationships and other issues.
The Diocese of Quincy, Ill., took the vote at its annual meeting that ended Saturday.
Two other dioceses - San Joaquin, based in Fresno, Calif., and Pittsburgh - have already split off. Next weekend, the Diocese of Fort Worth will vote whether to follow suit.
The three breakaway dioceses are aligning with the like-minded Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, based in Argentina, to try to keep their place in the world Anglican Communion. The 77-million-member Anglican fellowship has roots in the missionary work of the Church of England.
Meanwhile, National Episcopal leaders are reorganizing the seceding dioceses with local parishioners who want to stay in the church. Complex legal fights have already started in San Joaquin over control of millions of dollars in diocesan property and assets.
The head of the New York-based denomination, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said in a statement Saturday: "We lament the departure" in Quincy.
The Quincy diocese, based in Peoria, has 24 churches and missions, and about 1,800 members. Clergy and lay delegates approved withdrawal with a 95-26 vote.
"This decision was not made lightly," said the Rev. John Spencer, a diocesan spokesman. "We have talked and prayed about this for a very long time."
Episcopalians and their fellow Anglicans have been debating for decades over how they should interpret what Scripture says on issues ranging from salvation to sexuality.
Tensions erupted in 2003 when the denomination consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, pushing the Anglican family toward the brink of schism. The majority of overseas Anglicans hold traditional views of Scripture and believe the Bible bars gay relationships. Many have pushed for the ouster of the Episcopal Church from the communion.
Within the U.S. church, the outlook is different. Most of the 2.2 million Episcopalians don't consider their theological differences cause to leave the denomination.
Still, several Episcopal conservative leaders have concluded they could no longer remain and have begun building direct links with sympathetic Anglicans in other countries.
The Anglican Church of Nigeria has formed a Virginia-based network of Episcopal breakaway parishes, called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Some individual Episcopal parishes have separately aligned with Anglican provinces in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.
Bishop Robert Duncan, head of the breakaway Diocese of Pittsburgh, is among leaders trying to form a North American province for Episcopal traditionalists that would rival the U.S. church.
More: Diocese of Quincy, dioceseofquincy.org/
Episcopal Church, http:/www.episcopalchurch.org/