Skip to comments.Bakersfield, CA: Local churches may face schism
Posted on 06/30/2006 5:40:14 PM PDT by sionnsar
The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin asked Wednesday to be overseen by someone other than the U.S. church's presiding bishop, an action that could set off a domino effect that drastically impacts local Episcopal churches.
Battles over priests' pensions and church property may loom on the horizon, church leaders say.
"I fully support our bishop in the action he has taken," said Jack Estes, pastor of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Bakersfield. "I am excited that we are moving toward a separation (from the national church)."
The San Joaquin diocese believes church leaders are not following the letter of the Scripture in regard to the role of gays and women in the church. While the subject has long been a hot topic within many mainline Protestant denominations, none has reached the fury that has engulfed the Episcopal community.
The San Joaquin diocese is one of three in the country that refuses to ordain women.
If the San Joaquin diocese - which oversees 50 Central Valley churches, including three in Bakersfield - leaves its national body, it would be an unprecedented move with unknown consequences.
"It is possible," Estes said, "it could turn into a legal blood bath over property and pension."
The Rev. John Riebe, of All Saints Episcopal Church in Bakersfield, was not optimistic about avoiding a church schism.
"We really are two churches under one roof," Riebe said of the national body. "The differences seem irreconcilable."
Most within the 2.3 million national body favor electing gays and women into church leadership roles. But a smattering of conservative dioceses and churches across the country oppose the elections, invoking Scripture as authority.
The issues came to a head at the Episcopal Church General Conference, which ended in Ohio June 21.
Delegates rebuffed Anglican pleas to temporarily stop electing gay bishops in the wake of the election three years ago of Gene Robinson, who lives with his same-sex partner. The election of presiding U.S. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was the final straw for many conservatives.
One day after her election, the Fort Worth diocese in Texas asked the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, to be placed under the care of the archbishop of a foreign Anglican province.
Then on Wednesday, the dioceses of South Carolina, Pittsburgh and San Joaquin requested to be placed under the authority of someone other than Schori.
"Conservatives left the convention saying nothing has changed and that it's time to appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury," said the Rev. Van McCalister, spokesperson for the San Joaquin diocese.
While McCalister wouldn't speculate on what might happen if the diocese leaves the national body, Bakersfield Episcopal priests said the outcome could cause protracted legal battles.
The Very Rev. Mark Lawrence, of St. Paul's Episcopal Parish downtown, said the U.S. Episcopal Church has made statements suggesting that they might treat harshly any diocese that leaves.
Church property and priests' pensions could be issues, Lawrence said, but because a diocese has never left a church body, nobody knows for sure.
"We are on very stormy seas," Lawrence said.
Claiming roots in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is the U.S. arm of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members. The Episcopal Church oversees more than 7,600 congregations and 111 dioceses.
Tensions within the New York-based national church began in the 1960s between the conservatives - who view Scripture as divinely inspired and unerring - and the progressives - who view God's word as an evolving revelation.
In 1976 further internal discord developed when the church ordained a woman into the priesthood. The 2003 election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire was a huge blow to conservatives.
Reacting to Robinson's election, about 30 congregations left the Episcopal Church, including Bakersfield's Quest Church, which since January has been part of the Anglican Diocese of Pusan in southern South Korea.
Quest Pastor Kevin Higgins said the move cost him his future contributions to his pension and that no church property was seized. His case, however, involved a church leaving a diocese, not a diocese leaving a national church.
Prior to the Episcopal General Convention, 10 dioceses and 900 congregations were said to be considering splitting with the national church.
The outcome of the convention was a bitter disappointment for the Rev. Wes Clare of St. Jude's In-The-Mountains Episcopal Church in Tehachapi.
Even though on the convention's last day Schori called for "restraint" when electing gay bishops, Clare said he wasn't fooled, citing her history of gay advocacy.
"The national church is drifting and becoming part of Western culture," Clare said. "Rather than lead the culture, it is being led by the culture."
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