The progressive leader of the US Episcopal Church has played down fears of a split over gay rights after two influential parishes broke away and aligned themselves with an ultra-conservative African archbishop.

Two high-profile parishes in Virginia chose this week to link with Nigeria’s outspoken Anglican archbishop Peter Akinola, who has called approval of gay relationships a satanic attack.

Several other parishes also voted this week to leave the Episcopal Church, three years after it alienated conservatives by ordaining an openly gay bishop.

Four others have already left, some aligning with other conservative African Anglican leaders, The New York Times reported. Three more US parishes are due to reveal their intentions soon.

About 35 parishes have broken away since 2003, when the Episcopal Church ordained gay bishop Gene Robinson. Since 2003 about 36 other churches have left, according to the Episcopal News Service.

But the Episcopal Church’s progressive leader, presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, rejected suggestions the latest departures would cause a permanent schism.

This is a handful of congregations of a total of nearly 7,200, the vast majority of which are engaged in healthy and vital ministry, Jefferts Schori told Associated Press.

She also dismissed concerns Archbishop Akinola’s influence could overshadow the mainstream US Church.

I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

The worldwide Anglican Church has faced a split over homosexuality since Robinson’s ordination and some Canadian churches’ blessing of same-sex unions.

Last year North American Anglican leaders were asked to leave the worldwide Anglican Consultative Council until 2008 because of their pro-gay stance.

The controversy has also touched the church’s international leader. Conservatives have accused the archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams of not speaking out strongly enough against gay inclusion.

And in August Williams was criticised by progressives when he said gays and lesbians needed to accept traditional church teaching that opposed homosexuality.

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