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Episcopal bishop elected in disputed California diocese

LODI, California (Reuters) - A bishop loyal to the U.S. Episcopal Church was elected on Saturday to replace the deposed leader of a California diocese that was the first to break away over the church’s support for gay and women’s rights.

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At a special convention at St. John the Baptist Church in Lodi, local delegates voted Bishop Jerry Lamb, 67, head of the divided 47-church San Joaquin diocese, which stretches from Stockton to Bakersfield in California’s central valley.

Lamb immediately named three women priests -- the region’s first -- and called for “dialogue” with church members about including gay and lesbians in local congregations as part of what he said would be his policy of “opening the doors wide.”

“I believe that this church needs to be an inclusive church, open to all people,” Lamb told a news conference after the vote.

The diocese voted overwhelmingly in December to leave the 2.4-million-member Episcopal church, which has been in turmoil since 2003, when the national body named its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Episcopalians are part of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.

Former San Joaquin bishop John-David Schofield led the move to align the 8,800-member diocese with the conservative Anglican Church of the Southern Cone in Argentina. Episcopal leaders have ruled Schofield is no longer part of the church.

Schofield and a spokesman for the dissident Diocese of San Joaquin in Fresno were unavailable to comment on the vote.

In an interview, Lamb said he would be working both to welcome back dissident parishes while also figuring out how to include gays and lesbians in the church. “We will have to look at that and it is going to take some time,” he told Reuters.

Lamb said the vote making him bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin was unanimous among the roughly 70 delegates voting on behalf of the 18 congregations who, so far, have pledged loyalty to the U.S. Episcopal Church.

Lamb, former bishop of the adjacent Diocese of Northern California based in Sacramento, was recommended to the position by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the leader of the U.S. Episcopal Church, who was present at Saturday’s vote.

He told reporters he would focus on healing the rift with individual parishes and that he was in discussion with other congregations about returning to the diocese. “My expectation is that, as things stabilize here, many others will return.”

Writing by Eric Auchard; Additional reporting by Kimberly White; Editing by Philip Barbara