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FRESNO, California (Reuters) - An entire California diocese of the U.S. Episcopal Church voted to secede on Saturday in a historic split after years of disagreement over the church's expanding support for gay and women's rights.
Clergy and lay representatives of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, based in Fresno in central California, voted to leave the church, which has been in turmoil since 2003 when U.S. Episcopalians consecrated their first openly gay bishop.
"We've seen a miracle here today," Bishop John-David Schofield said after the vote. "We are already outside the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church."
The head of the U.S. Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said the church had received word of the decision "with sadness."
"We deeply regret their unwillingness or inability to live within the historical Anglican understanding of comprehensiveness," she said in a statement.
There are about 2.4 million members of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the 77-million-member global Anglican Communion, as the worldwide church is called.
Delegates voted 173-22 for secession, far more than the two-thirds majority needed. They later voted to align the 8,800-member diocese with the conservative Anglican Church of the Southern Cone, based in South America.
Amid the dissent of recent years, the Episcopal Church said 32 of its 7,600 congregations had left, with 23 others voting to leave but not taking the final step.
San Joaquin, with 47 churches in 14 counties, is the first of the church's 110 dioceses to complete the split.
Last year it voted overwhelmingly at its annual convention to split with the U.S. church, but held off on a final decision until Saturday's meeting.
Divisions and schisms have plagued Christianity since its earliest days, but the airing of differences through the media and Internet on hot-button social issues such as gay rights and the role of women have given prominence to disputes once debated behind closed doors.
In recent years, the Episcopal Church has faced dissent over the consecration of the openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire and the blessing of gay unions practiced in some congregations.
There is also disagreement over the role of women. San Joaquin is one of only three U.S. dioceses that do not consecrate female priests.
The Episcopal Church represents less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet its members have long had a disproportionate influence on American political and societal life.
Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson went to Episcopal churches. In the 20th century, U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt, George Bush, the father of the current president, and Gerald Ford were Episcopalians.
Dioceses in Pittsburgh and Fort Worth, Texas, have also taken preliminary votes to leave, but their final decisions are a year away.
"They are going to be watching this quite closely to see what the Episcopal Church does," said Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I don't see this as suddenly becoming a landslide."
Schofield said he hoped others would follow San Joaquin's lead.
"This will give encouragement to dioceses that want to go but haven't had the courage to make that first step," the bishop said.
A few liberal parishes within the diocese are expected to stay with the church.
"It's a giant step toward the past," said the Rev. Charles Ramsden, a vice president of the church-owned Church Pension Group, who was a nonvoting observer. "It's about property, it's about millions of dollars and it's about power."
Both sides are prepared for a protracted and expensive legal battle over church assets and other issues.
Editing by Xavier Briand