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South Carolina Episcopalians break away from U.S. church

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A majority of parishes in the conservative Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina voted on Saturday to leave the U.S. Episcopal Church over disagreements on issues including the national church's ordination of gay clergy and acceptance of same-sex unions.

The South Carolina diocese is the fifth Episcopalian diocese in the United States to leave the church's national body.

The vote at a convention in Charleston followed the U.S. Episcopal Church's certification last month that South Carolina Bishop Mark J. Lawrence had abandoned the church's doctrine, discipline and worship.

"This has never been about who is welcome or not welcome in our church," Lawrence said at the convention, attended by about 200 people. "It's about what we shall tell them when they come."

But Steve Skardon, a member of a Charleston church that, contrary to the action of its statewide branch, plans to remain in the national church, said of the majority: "They want to tell gay people they're wrong."

Congregations in San Joaquin, California; Quincy, Illinois; Fort Worth, Texas; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have also left the U.S. Episcopal Church in recent years.

In July, the national church approved a liturgy for clergy to use in blessing same-sex unions, including gay marriages in states where they are legal, becoming the largest U.S. religious denomination to approve such a ritual.

The U.S. Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, is the 14th-largest U.S. religious denomination, with about 2 million members, according to the National Council of Churches.

In 2003, American Episcopalians elected their first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. Five years later, disaffected conservatives declared they were founding a rival Anglican province in North America.

Theological conservatives in the Communion say the Bible condemns homosexuality, while liberals say the text is open to interpretation.

The dispute between the South Carolina bishop and the national church has been going on for several years.

On Saturday, the diocese presented a rewritten constitution that removed all references to the Episcopal Church, and declared itself an "extra-provincial" diocese with Lawrence as its bishop.

"We preceded The Episcopal Church," said Bryan Hunter, a spokesman for Saturday's convention. The Diocese of South Carolina formed in 1785 and joined other early dioceses to form the U.S. Episcopal Church in 1789, he said.

"It's similar to the Articles of Confederation," Hunter said. "The states were sovereign states before they were in the United States."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Todd Eastham)

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