CHICAGO Conservatives who have left the U.S. Episcopal Church took the first step on Wednesday to form a separate Anglican Church in North America, following years of division over gay rights and scriptural interpretation.
Meeting at Wheaton College near Chicago, the Common Cause Partnership, referring to itself as the "Anglican Church in North America" and claiming 100,000 followers, published a constitution. Its bid for separate status requires global church approval.
The document said members were "grieved by the current state of brokenness within the Anglican Communion prompted by those who have embraced erroneous teaching and who have rejected a repeated call to repentance."
Long-standing divisions between liberals and conservatives had already fragmented the Episcopal Church by 2003 when it consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop known to be in an openly gay relationship in more than four centuries of Anglican Church history.
That act further roiled the 2.1 million-member U.S. church and the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion of which it is part. In recent months, four dioceses, out of a total of 110, have split from the Episcopal Church in California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Illinois. The church says that fewer than 100 of 7,100 congregations had left or voted to leave before the recent diocesan defections.
The dissidents who met on Wednesday want to become a province within the Anglican Communion -- on equal footing with the Episcopal Church. Achieving that status would require approval from two-thirds of the primates -- the heads of national churches -- in the Anglican Communion and ultimate recognition from the Anglican Consultative Council, another church body.
Bishop Martyn Minns, a leader of the dissidents, said earlier he thought more than half the primates would support the breakaway group.
The Episcopal Church issued a statement on Wednesday saying it did not know what would come from the meeting of dissidents but it "along with the Anglican Church of Canada and the La Iglesia Anglicana de Mexico, comprise the official, recognized presence of the Anglican Communion in North America."
It said it wanted to "reiterate what has been true of Anglicanism for centuries: That there is room within the Episcopal Church for people with different views, and we regret that some have felt the need to depart from the diversity of our common life in Christ."
The Anglican primates meet in February and, if they approve, the matter would go to the consultative council when it meets in Jamaica in May, according to church publications.
Minns, a former Episcopalian and leader of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, believes the new province if approved could count on 100,000 people as its average weekly attendance. The Episcopal Church says its average weekly attendance is about 727,000.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)