America's Episcopal Church: A House Divided

Dec. 17, 2006 — -- Two of the most historic and largest Episcopal congregations voted overwhelmingly today to sever ties from the Episcopal Church of America.

The denomination, which has two million members nationwide, has been in turmoil ever since the 2003 ordination of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Washington of New Hampshire.

Today, both Truro Church and The Falls Church in Virginia agreed to secede, with six other Virginia churches expected to follow suit. The diocese of Virginia is the country's largest Episcopal diocese.

The two churches that broke away today can trace their roots back to colonial times and our founding fathers. George Washington was once a church leader in the Truro parish.

But members say a feud has been brewing for years over the church's policies, including allowing female priests and same-sex weddings.

To many, the ordination of the first openly gay bishop was the final nail in the coffin of the traditional Episcopal Church as they knew it.

"It started before then," said longtime member Lawson Sperapan, "but I certainly felt that was egregious."

Still, Sperapan called it a difficult decision, saying "we have no guarantees."

A long and lengthy battle is expected over the property of the church, worth millions.

Sperapan added, "We may not have this church were I was married, where my children were baptized, where my children have gone to preschool."

The ramifications are enormous. Some three dozen Episcopal churches have left to become part of the worldwide Anglican community. The churches want to align themselves with the more conservative dioceses overseas in Asia and Africa, which support a strict interpretation of the Bible and hold conservative views on homosexuality.

For instance, one Nigerian Anglican archbishop has called the growing acceptance of gay relationships a "satanic attack" on the church.

The breakaway churches are sending a shudder through the Episcopal Church.

"If these churches choose to affiliate with another Anglican church around the world," said the Rev. Ian T. Douglas with the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., "then that sets up a dynamic of competing churches."

But that may indeed by the ultimate goal of the breakaway churches. With today's latest defections, this new conservative American wing of Anglican churches could gain enough power to rival the Episcopal Church.

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events