With its towering stone steeple, marble steps and crimson doors, Pittsburgh's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral looks every bit a "mighty fortress" of faith.

But the 226-year-old cathedral is a house divided, like the denomination that built it.

Since October, Trinity's priests have been saying Sunday Masses for two warring dioceses: the older one composed of 28 theologically moderate or liberal parishes, and one newly created of 66 breakaway conservative parishes. Each claims to be the true "Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh." Each is dug in.

The cathedral parish has not taken sides. "They're both in our prayers," said the Rev. Canon Catherine Brall, Trinity's rector.

Quarrels and schism have been hallmarks of the 2.1-million-member Episcopal Church USA since the mid-1970s, when it began ordaining women and modernized its prayer book. Those changes, coupled with its acceptance of gay clergy in the 1990s, have pulled in new members and driven away traditionalists, including at least three entire parishes in the Philadelphia region.

During the last five years, more than 300 of the approximately 7,000 congregations nationwide have departed the mother church for theological reasons; about two-thirds of those left during 2008 alone.

Just in the last 14 months, the bishops and most of the congregations in four dioceses - Fort Worth, Tex.; Peoria, Ill.; San Joaquin, Calif., and Pittsburgh - have "disaffiliated." Led by the Rev. Robert Duncan, Pittsburgh's longtime bishop and now head of the schismatic diocese, they plan to reunite as a new, more conservative denomination called the Anglican Church in North America.

"The Episcopal Church is disintegrating," Duncan said in an interview Thursday.

This week, when archbishops of the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican communion meet in Egypt, Duncan said, he will be in Alexandria to seek their imprimatur for his new "province."

On the Main Line, an Episcopal parish is headed by a rector, the Rev. David Moyer, who not only has switched to conservative Anglicanism but become a bishop.

For years, there have been rumblings of defection by the 450-member Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont. The wealthy congregation, which opposes female and gay ordination, has not formally broken from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, but has refused to pay the diocese's assessment or allow its bishops to visit.

In 2002, Moyer was deposed for "breaking communion" with the Episcopal Church by considering an offer to become an Anglican bishop. Once deposed, he did.

Both Moyer and church officials declined to discuss the parish's future course.

While such disputes are rooted in scriptural authority, the conservative exodus is increasingly taking a secular turn - right into courtrooms.

Defecting parishes and dioceses are claiming a kind of squatter's right to their properties and other assets, resulting in a growing wave of litigation across the country.

The Episcopal Church USA has vigorously fought to retain its holdings. Individuals are "free to associate with whom they wish," said the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop, but those who choose to leave must leave empty-handed.

As a result of Schori's tough stand, disputes over property worth tens of millions of dollars are playing out in New York, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia and California.

In the past, defeat for defectors would have been an almost foregone conclusion.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that denominations whose bylaws assert ownership of congregational properties can keep all assets when a flock departs. Afterward, the Episcopal Church USA adopted that rule and used it to win a landmark case in Philadelphia in 2005.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that the breakaway St. James the Less parish in the East Falls section could not keep its historic buildings on West Clearfield Street. The parish vestry held title to them, the justices wrote, but only "in trust" for the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

The litigation lasted more than four years, virtually bankrupting the 75-member parish. The congregation, led by the Rev. David Ousley, was obliged to relocate. It now holds services in the chapel of Laurel Hill West Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

Ousley said he tells breakaway congregations that the legal fight is "not worth it. I'm not sure they believe me."

Lately, they have more reason to hope.

Increasingly, courts not only consider a denomination's bylaws but also state statutes, case law, deeds and special agreements, according to Valerie Munson, an authority on church property law at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

Today, she said, they "look at everything" - with widely varying rulings.

In December in Virginia, a Fairfax County judge used a Civil War-era statute in deciding that three defecting Episcopal parishes could keep their properties, including Falls Church, where George Washington was a warden.

But early last month, the California Supreme Court decreed that nine defecting congregations had to leave their properties behind.

Perhaps nowhere is the ecclesial divorce as messy as in the 11-county Diocese of Pittsburgh, where 66 of 94 parishes - about two-thirds of the 19,000 members - voted in October to defect from the Episcopal Church USA.

The schism was fomented by Duncan, 60, Pittsburgh's bishop from 1999 until September, when the national church deposed him for his divisive ways.

In 2003, he had led a walkout from the House of Bishops after a majority ratified the election of the openly gay Rev. Eugene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. That vote took the Episcopal Church "outside Christian practice," Duncan said.

Weeks after Robinson's elevation, Duncan called a special convention in the Pittsburgh diocese to declare that each parish's property was its own. Fearing that Duncan was greasing the skids for schism, a liberal parish challenged the action.

In 2005, Allegheny County Court decreed that any assets, including $20 million in endowments and investments, had to stay with the diocese, even if most parishes defected. It also said that if property is disputed, both sides must enter mediation. Should that fail, the court decides.

Nonetheless, Duncan took his 66 parishes out of the mainstream church - without removing himself or his staff from diocesan offices overlooking the cathedral.

The original Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, founded in 1865, is reduced to 28 parishes. Without a diocesan bishop, its staff scattered, "we're a virtual diocese," communications director Rich Creehan lamented.

But the "virtual diocese" is fighting back. Last month, it asked Allegheny County Court to declare it and the Episcopal Church USA the rightful owners of the endowments, plus assets such as mailing lists, that the breakaway diocese is claiming.

In a few weeks, the court also will be asked to decide ownership of the breakaway parish properties, whose value has not been divulged.

At Schori's insistence, legal challenges are being mounted, as well, against the other defecting dioceses.

The Rev. Canon Charles Robertson, her assistant, said Schori is driven in part by her belief that some foreign Anglican provinces - incensed by the ordination of women and gays - want to displace the Episcopal Church USA.

Several Anglican bishops from Africa and South America have traveled to traditionalist U.S. parishes to preach and confirm, and have quickly recognized the breakaway dioceses.

"The time comes when a marriage is no longer a marriage, and you have to recognize it," said the Rev. Douglas Venables, archbishop of the Argentina-based Anglican Church of the South Cone.

Duncan said his new province's constitutional convention is scheduled for June in Bedford, Texas.

According to his spokesman, the Rev. Robert Frank, Duncan expects 100,000 members by then - "almost everyone who has pulled out of the Episcopal Church."

Who Owns What

Who owns a religious congregation's buildings, land and endowments if it wants to break away from its denomination and take those assets with it? Civil courts have typically, but not always, sided with the denomination if its bylaws or constitution states it owns all congregational property.

Denominations that assert such centralized ownership include:

Episcopal Church USA

Roman Catholic Church

Presbyterian Church USA

United Methodist Church

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)

African Methodist Episcopal Church

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Quakers)

Seventh-day Adventist Church

Religious associations that are not highly centralized and do not claim ownership of congregational properties include:

Southern Baptist Convention and most other Baptist denominations

Jewish Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements

Most Islamic mosques. But some are held in wakfs, or trusts, that pledge their perpetual use for religious or charitable purposes

Assemblies of God (Pentecostals)

Church of God in Christ (Pentecostals)

United Church of Christ

Calvary Chapels

Mennonite Church USA

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Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.