A small Loudoun County church has become the first to formally sever ties with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia over the national church's elevation of an openly gay bishop in 2003.
Members of the South Riding Church, which has 90 adult members and worships at an elementary school, voted to make the break last week, said the Rev. Phil Ashey, the church's pastor. Of those who opposed the move in secret balloting, only two decided to leave the congregation, he said.
Ashey, the son of an Episcopal priest and the grandson of a major lay leader in Massachusetts, said the congregation has joined the Anglican Church of Uganda, another branch of the worldwide 77 million-member Anglican Communion and one of several international groups that have been critical of the American church.
The congregation chose to leave after two years of struggle and conversation, Ashey said, because they became convinced that calls for reconciliation would not change the church's direction.
"The dissonance between the leadership of the Episcopal church and the gospel it is preaching and the values we are sharing from the Bible to our neighbors and our children is so great that it has become a drag on our mission," he said.
The departure marks a turning point for the 90,000-member diocese, the largest in the nation.
Nationally, a handful of other Episcopal churches have split from their regional dioceses and placed themselves under the protection of international branches of the Anglican church, including a large congregation, St. James Church, in Newport Beach, Calif., where Ashey's father once served as rector.
Locally, however, none has left the Diocese of Washington, which includes the District and suburban Maryland. The pastor of a Prince George's County church who opposed ordination of women, gay men and lesbians was forcibly removed by the bishop in 2001.
Several Virginia churches have been at the forefront of a national effort to change the church's positions from within -- angered that Virginia Bishop Peter James Lee voted to approve the election of a gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, at the church's national convention in 2003.
But none had left the diocese, in part because doing so would mean surrendering diocese-owned church land and buildings, some of them occupied by the same congregations for 100 years or more.
The South Riding Church, established in 2000, did not face such complications. Under church rules, it was a "planting," a start-up group without a permanent home. Earlier this week, Ashey turned over a list of every item the church had purchased since its founding, from computers to crayons, and offered to return any the diocese wants.
Still, Lee said the diocese had invested $350,000 to help launch the group, and members were disappointed.
"Sadness is my overall response to this," he said. "We have a strong commitment to planting new churches and a lot of respect for different points of view. I'm very sorry this group of people have decided they have to leave."
Because the church had no formal status, Lee said, their departure is the equivalent of a group of individuals choosing another religious path. By church rules, Ashey, however, could not transfer to the Ugandan church without Lee's approval. Lee said the priest may face disciplinary action, which could include being defrocked as an American Episcopal priest.
"I'm really not eager to go after Mr. Ashey in some kind of hostile way," he said. "But church law does not permit you to walk away from the ministry without some consequences."
Members of the South Riding Church said their congregation was built and nurtured not by the diocese, but by Ashey, a charismatic leader who entered the seminary at age 29 after a career as a prosecutor in Orange County, Calif.
The church caters to thousands of families who have moved into new homes in the massive South Riding subdivision, south of Route 50 in eastern Loudoun. But membership remained tiny, and the church went through two pastors before Ashey arrived in 2002.
Paul Branch, chairman of the church's finance committee, said the congregation has grown rapidly, but said further expansion was difficult given the upheaval in the Episcopal Church. "We were finding that we were stymied," he said.
Others questioned the timing of the move. Last week, a group of international archbishops who opposed Robinson's elevation met in Pittsburgh to encourage disgruntled American congregations to break away.
Ashey said his church's move was long in the works, but Jim Naughton, director of communications for the Diocese of Washington, suggested that the move was an attempt to keep the dissent of a minority group in the news.
"What they've been very good at doing is keeping up a drumbeat of what seems like further signs that the Episcopal church is declining," Naughton said. "But what does this change on the ground? The answer is not much."
Lee said the diocese remains committed to starting an Episcopal church in growing South Riding. An 8.6-acre piece of land purchased by the group will be reserved for a new congregation.
But the move is a symbol that conflict within the church remains as deep as ever, said the Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax City, a leading conservative church that has chosen to remain in the diocese.
"The attitude in the Diocese of Virginia was that the conservatives would all get over it. Now it's two years later, and we have not gotten over it," he said. "This problem has not gone away."