Episcopal Church faces possible major defection
CHICAGO – The U.S. Episcopal Church faces major tumult this week when an entire California diocese with more than 9,000 members decides whether to secede in an unprecedented protest over gay issues.
The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, based in Fresno and consisting of nearly 50 churches in 14 counties, would be the first diocese to bolt from the U.S. branch of the 77-million-member global Anglican Communion if Saturday’s final vote passes.
The U.S. church and Anglicanism generally have been in upheaval since 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop known to be in an openly gay relationship in more than four centuries of church history.
Dissent over that as well as the blessing of same-sex unions practiced in some congregations has caused a number of defections by traditionalists in the U.S. church.
The 2.4 million-member U.S. church says that out of 7,600 congregations 32 have left, meaning that a majority of members of those congregations have departed and the churches are now considered closed. Another 23 have voted to leave, meaning that significant number of members have said they want to leave.
None of the church’s 110 dioceses, however, has taken the final step to depart so far. Dioceses in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Fort Worth, Texas, have also taken preliminary votes to leave, but their final decisions are a year away.
Bishop John-David Schofield, head of the San Joaquin Diocese, says leaving the U.S. church is “a sensible way forward” and one that could later be reversed if “circumstances change and the Episcopal Church repents.”
In the meantime his diocese has received what he calls a “welcome” invitation to realign itself, should the vote be affirmative, with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of South America headed by conservative Archbishop Gregory Venables of Argentina.
That, he said, will allow members to remain part of the global Anglican church.
A year ago the San Joaquin Diocese’s preliminary vote to leave the Episcopal Church was overwhelming. The process requires two votes year apart.
But a secession would not be unanimous. An organization called “Remain Episcopal” is opposing it and says its members will remain in place as the duly recognized Episcopal Church even if the bishop, some clergy and other congregants leave.
Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, urged Schofield in a letter earlier this week not to pull his flock out, saying “the church will never change if dissenters withdraw from the table.”
She also made it clear what would happen if he did: A process that could eventually allow her to “depose” the bishop, declare the diocese vacant and allow those who want to remain to form a new church leadership.
The Episcopal Church also says it has control over all property and once a congregation leaves it has to find another place to worship. That contention has been challenged in several court cases, including one in Virginia where property dating back to Colonial times and worth millions of dollars is in dispute.