Episcopal fight in San Joaquin Valley headed toward finish

The Modesto BeeMay 18, 2014 

St. James Anglican Cathedral in Fresno is seen in this photo with trees showing their fall colors in December 2009. The church property is part of a legal battle with the national Episcopal Church and the Anglicans.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

The battle between the national Episcopal Church and the theologically conservative Anglican diocese that departed from it has been compared to the epic Bible story of David and Goliath. But in this case, the shepherd boy was no match for the giant -- the mammoth national church with its deep pockets.

Although legal challenges remain, it appears that newly elected Bishop David Rice of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin has arrived just in time to accept the spoils of the eight-year war: 29 parish properties, the diocesan headquarters in Fresno and frozen assets worth more than $7.25 million. Three parishes remain in litigation.

Earlier this month, a judge issued a tentative decision giving all properties and money to the Episcopal bishop and diocese. In a letter posted on the Anglican diocese's website, Bishop Eric Menees wrote, "I understand that this news and its potential implications may produce feelings of concern or even fear for you. However, I urge each one of you to trust in the Lord. He will never leave us nor forsake us, and no matter the fate of our buildings, we will be victorious in him!"

Menees will hold an informational meeting for "all clergy and lay leaders who would like to meet to talk about these things" at 4 p.m. May 25 at St. James Anglican Cathedral in central Fresno.

Meanwhile, Rice said he will hold future meetings for his Episcopal parishioners in the various geographic areas of the diocese, which stretches from Stockton to Bakersfield, to "see what's in people's hearts and consult them as to what we will do from here, so when decisions are made, they are as inclusive as possible."

He acknowledged that the Episcopal diocese owes a great deal of money to the national church, which has underwritten part of the diocesan yearly budgets to cover operating and legal expenses. How that will be repaid has yet to be determined, he said.

Because the ruling is still tentative and no discussions have yet occurred with parishioners, Rice didn't want to comment on the possible future sale of some of the returned property. He did, however, say that if a parish property were to be sold, he wouldn't rule out selling it to the Anglican congregations that will be relinquishing possession of it, if the national church would approve such a sale.

In the past, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has expressed her opposition to that possibility.

Mainly, Rice said, "the thing we have to remember about what they (parishioners on both sides) have lived through and what I've inherited is that there are no winners. What we have to work through is how we move on. The task is not about buildings, but how we're going to serve in this place called San Joaquin. There are so many needs here."

Rice called himself a "missional bishop" who wants to focus on ways his parishioners can improve their communities.

"I'm meeting with all of the mayors in our diocese. That's part of what I do," he said. "The reason is that I and the Episcopal Church need to know what's going on in our communities, with a view on exploring how we can work together."

Since he wasn't even in the country or part of the Episcopal Church when the theologically conservative Anglicans broke away, Rice said, "I would not pretend to understand what caused the split. The (divisions) were probably deeper than what people even talked about. What I do sense is there's been great pain, great sadness, great hurt. Those are the things I hope can be reconciled."

He said he hadn't yet talked with Menees since his arrival in March.

The Anglican bishop, who like Rice inherited the diocesan leadership after the split, said he and his legal team will no doubt challenge at least part of the tentative ruling. But Menees said he would accept the final decision gracefully.

"I've said all along that I came with my eyes wide open, not sure which way the courts would go," he said. "We will be victorious one way or another, with our buildings or without. I truly believe that."

He said he will remain as the Anglican bishop. The diocese, along with hundreds of other parishes in the United States and Canada, are under the umbrella of the Anglican Church in North America. Much of the worldwide Anglican Communion already has recognized the organization, although the international leader of the church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has not, he said.

"This (ruling) is over material possessions, but if this goes through, we'll stay together and we'll look forward to places where we can worship Christ and shine the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the San Joaquin Valley," he said.

Because its assets were frozen, the diocese had to cut back on office staff and other budget matters, but has managed to operate in the black for the past three years since he came on board, Menees said. They also had to pay for about $500,000 in legal fees during that time, and "perhaps $1 million" overall.

When asked if it was worth the time and money if the result is to lose all properties and funds, Menees didn't hesitate.

"Yes, in this sense," he said. "Had we been able to work out a negotiated settlement, that would have been so great. But I think we had the responsibility for the people who built these places to defend them to the best of our ability -- to preach the gospel of Christ and use the platforms that these people's parents and grandparents labored to build."

As to whether the diocese will appeal the ruling, he said, "We'll be praying and fasting, asking for the Lord's direction."

For the moment, he said, "I look to what's happened across the country, all these different parishes and congregations who have had to leave former properties and start brand new. I take great comfort that I'm part of a movement of orthodox Christians who are sharing the gospel of Christ."

Until the ruling is made permanent and subsequent decisions have been made about a possible appeal, Menees said there is no time line in place regarding the handover of properties.

"That's something I'll have to discuss with the Episcopal Church," he said. "We'll have to talk to their bishop. I have every expectation that that will be a smooth and orderly transfer."

Episcopals vs. Anglicans

Who are they? The worldwide Anglican Communion consists of about 80 million people and includes the Episcopal Church USA. The departing theologically conservative people in the United States and Canada call themselves Anglicans.

What's it about? The San Joaquin diocese, with 47 parishes, split into two factions: The Episcopalians kept about six parish properties and established other small parishes, while the departing Anglicans left the national church with about 40 parishes and the vast majority of the parishioners. There are two parallel San Joaquin dioceses, one Episcopal and one Anglican, and each has its own bishop.

The great divide: The national Episcopal Church became more liberal in its theology, ordaining gay clergy and with national leaders stating that Jesus is not the only way to salvation/heaven and that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. Hundreds of theologically conservative parishes and four dioceses across the country disagree and decided to leave the national church. Unlike all other major Christian denominations, which have splintered more than once over similar issues, this is the first split of the Episcopal Church.

The argument: The Episcopal Church has sued all departing parishes and dioceses, saying that the property was established to serve as Episcopalian bodies. The Anglicans said the property was held under the bishop's ownership and that under California's neutral property laws, the bishop and parishes had the right to leave the national church and take the property with them.

By the numbers: The Episcopalian diocese said it has 19 parishes and slightly more than 2,000 parishioners. The Anglicans report 42 parishes with more than 5,000 members and an average Sunday attendance of about 3,000.

Postscript: The Rev. Gene Robinson was installed as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. He was the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, and his elevation to that post sparked the nationwide split. On May 5, the Episcopal News Service reported that Robinson, now retired, announced that he and his partner, Mark Andrew, are getting a divorce.

If you go

Menees will hold an informational meeting for "all clergy and lay leaders who would like to meet to talk about these things" at 4 p.m. May 25 at St. James Anglican Cathedral, 4147 E. Dakota Ave. in Fresno

The reporter can be reached at (209) 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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