Split widens in U.S. church

Episcopal diocese in California votes to secede

December 09, 2007|By Rebecca Trounson | Rebecca Trounson,Los Angeles Times

FRESNO, Calif. -- The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin in California became the first in the nation yesterday to secede from the Episcopal Church, taking the historic, risky step as part of a years-long struggle within the church and global Anglican Communion over homosexuality and biblical authority.

Delegates to San Joaquin's annual convention then also formally accepted an invitation to align the largely rural 14-county diocese with a conservative Anglican leader overseas, Archbishop Gregory James Venables of Argentina. The diocese serves about 8,500 parishioners in 47 congregations in central California.

The actions came after years of growing tension within the Episcopal Church over the U.S. church's comparatively liberal views on issues of sexuality and theology. In 2003, the divide between theological liberals and conservatives deepened sharply when the Episcopal Church consecrated a partnered gay priest, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

Episcopal and Anglican advocates for accepting gay relationships say they are guided by biblical teachings on social justice and tolerance. Traditionalists believe that gay relationships violate Scripture.

The overwhelming approval by convention delegates to break ties to the Episcopal Church could set the stage for dissident Episcopalians to try to set up their own rival national church in the United States. And it could push the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest Christian denomination, to the brink of fracture.

In the past four years, about 55 congregations within the Episcopal Church, out of more than 7,000 around the country, have acted to sever ties with the national church. Yesterday's approvals, however, on a series of constitutional amendments that confirmed initial actions a year ago, marked the first time that an entire diocese has chosen to walk away.

Three other dioceses have taken initial steps toward splitting from the U.S. church. They are Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill.; and Pittsburgh.

As the results were announced, a majority of the nearly 200 delegates in a hall of St. James Cathedral applauded, shouted congratulations to one another and rose in a standing ovation.

But toward the back of the room, faces were glum, and a gray-haired woman wiped away tears.

The diocese's leader, the Rt. Rev. John-David M. Schofield, said he was elated by the decisions.

"I'm thrilled, thrilled," he said, saying the vote was about freedom for theological traditionalists to find a new home.

The leader of the Episcopal Church, meanwhile, expressed sorrow.

"The Episcopal Church receives with sadness the news that some members of this church have made a decision to leave this church," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a statement. "We deeply regret their unwillingness or inability to live within the historical Anglican understanding of comprehensiveness. We wish them to know of our prayers for them and their journey. The Episcopal Church will continue in the Diocese of San Joaquin, albeit with new leadership."

The decision is almost certain to spark a court fight over control of the diocese's multimillion-dollar real estate holdings and other assets. Courts have mostly ruled against allowing breakaway congregations to take their property when they go.

Rebecca Trounson writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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