ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

And entire diocese in California voted today to split from the Episcopal church - this is after years of disagreement over gay and women's rights. The San Joaquin Diocese voted to align itself with conservative Anglicans in South America.

The election of an openly gay bishop in 2003 sparked dissent, and San Joaquin is one of three Episcopal dioceses in the U.S. that will not ordain women. The church's top prelate is now a woman - Katharine Jefferts Schori. She said the church received today's news from California with sadness.

David Steinmetz, a professor of the history of Christianity at Duke University says today's news is big.

Professor DAVID STEINMETZ (Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of the History of Christianity, Duke University): The Church of Canada is already splitting, so it's not merely limited to the United States. And in the United States, it's not merely one bishop from overseas who is sponsoring Anglican churches in this country, but there are quite a number of them - the archbishop of Nigeria as the primate, the archbishop of Rwanda, the archbishop of Kenya, and so forth, as well as the archbishop of the Southern Cone, Gregory Venables, who is offering protection to the American churches that split today.

This must involve a great many more than just these churches because on - tomorrow, Bishop Minns, who is the missionary bishop consecrated by Nigeria at oversea congregations in this country for Nigeria, is now going to consecrate four other bishops because the church has gone from 12 parishes to 60, but it's a fight that involves the whole Anglican communion.

SEABROOK: These kinds of divisions that you're talking about extend to the entire community of Christians in the United States. Isn't that not right? I mean…

Prof. STEINMETZ: Yup. It's right. At the present moment, I think one could say that the Presbyterian church and the Lutheran churches are teeming on the edge of making a decision that might be similar to the decision made by the Episcopal church, but because of the difficulties in the Episcopal church, they're kind of holding fire and trying to work out a local option that would please everybody, but for the most part, pleases nobody much.

SEABROOK: Does the Bible say anything about communities of worship, and whether they should stick together through differences or split apart?

Prof. STEINMETZ: The Anglican communion itself has had a really good record of holding together through thick and thin. They've managed, one way and another, to survive together and to live together until now, and generally speaking, it is so contrary to the mindset of the Anglican that most of us really didn't think that it would ever come to this, that it would ever become a split.

SEABROOK: As I understand it, the Anglican church in England, for example, has a far wider range of beliefs, even about doctrine, than we're seeing here in the United States. And I wonder if it's somehow American for churches to split and split and split, and so you end up…

Prof. STEINMETZ: Oh, an American specialty. The trouble is the Episcopal church is so bad at it, I mean, they take lessons from the Baptists about how you go about doing this sort of thing. But the question you're really asking is about whether or not there's an American disposition to split, and the short answer is there certainly is. If you're not happy with your church, just found another one down the block - it's simple to do - but if you're asking a question, is this anything that is recommended, no, except, you know, sometimes agreement is no longer possible, and in those situations, people with consciences on both sides of the issue may find they can no longer live together - at least for a while.

SEABROOK: David Steinmetz is a professor of History of the Christianity at Duke University. He joined us from his home.

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