PITTSBURGH (AP) — Nearly 100 lay leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh signed an open letter supporting their bishop's plan to split the diocese from the national church.

The letter was in response to another letter written last month to Bishop Robert Duncan by 12 clergy outlining their opposition to the diocese's plan to break away from the national Episcopal Church, the Anglican body in the U.S.

But lay leaders said in their letter that the diocese "can no longer travel with a national Episcopal body that is departing from its foundations." In 2003, Episcopalians caused an uproar in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The communion, a worldwide fellowship of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England, is now on the verge of schism.

The Pittsburgh diocese in November took the first of two steps toward breaking off and aligning directly with a like-minded Anglican province overseas.

Last month, the national church leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, told Duncan that she had sought permission from an Episcopal committee to inhibit him, which would bar him from performing religious duties.

The committee blocked the penalty, but the Episcopal House of Bishops is expected to consider imposing the punishment later this year.