Valley Anglicans who left the Episcopal Church to reject homosexual clergy are waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Will they lose the churches where they worship as a result of their split with the national church and Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin? The answer could come any day over the next two months.
The stakes are high after more than 40 churches from Lodi to Bakersfield and from the coast to the Nevada border left the Fresno-based diocese. They joined the Anglicans because of differences with the national Episcopal body over same-sex blessings, the ordination of a gay bishop and the authority of Scripture.
The national Episcopal Church filed the lawsuit in April 2008 to take church property back from the breakaway Anglicans.
The local court case involving church property doesn't look good for the Anglicans after a Fresno judge's tentative ruling in early May favored the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, which remains with 19 Episcopal congregations. The final ruling must be made within 90 days or by Aug. 3.
"I was obviously disappointed in the tentative ruling," says Bill Atwood of Bass Lake, an Anglican parishioner at Christ Church in Oakhurst. "I'm hopeful and prayerful the judge would give it some thought and be fair and correct -- and that he would rule in favor of the Anglicans who have departed."
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Aldolfo Corona wrote in a preliminary summary judgment that Bishop Jerry Lamb of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and the Episcopal Church would be owners of the property and buildings.
Corona cited a recent church property case in which three congregations left the Diocese of Los Angeles over disagreement with the Episcopal Church's decision in 2003 to approve the election of an openly gay bishop.
The California Supreme Court ruled the property and buildings belonged to the Los Angeles diocese and general Episcopal Church -- and not to dissident congregations.
Corona could let his preliminary ruling stand, make revisions to it, or write a new final one.
In the central San Joaquin Valley, parishioners at Anglican churches have been talking in recent weeks about the Fresno judge's opinion. If it remains the same, attorneys representing Bishop John-David Schofield of the breakaway Anglican diocese say, they will appeal.
Atwood, principal at Mariposa Middle School, says he's resigned to the fact it could be a long process.
"I'm in it for the long haul," says Atwood, adding he is trying to focus on his religious beliefs. "A church is not a building and a church is not land; it is a body of people devoted to the work of spreading the good news of the Gospel and preaching about Jesus Christ.
"The worst he can do is take away our property, and it's only stuff. He can't take away our work, our mission."
Atwood says it occurred to Anglicans that when they left the Episcopal Church, they might have to leave church property behind.
He says he believes it belongs to them because as parishioners they supported their churches with money and other gifts.
"I can't go back and say, 'I gave that robe.' It isn't mine to take back," he says. "But, as an entity, we see it as our local church. That's who has built it and cleaned it. The national church has done nothing.
"If anything, it would belong to the diocese, and the diocese has gone Anglican."
Maryann Ratchford, parish secretary at St. Mary's Anglican Church in east Fresno, says she is unhappy about the property battle.
"I actually don't understand why they're doing what they're doing," she says. "I wonder, 'If Jesus was in the picture to see what was going on, what would he do?' I doubt he would do it this way.
"Whatever happens, even if we lose everything, we still have each other, and we still have our faith."
Barbara Spear, a parishioner at Episcopal Church of the Saviour in Hanford since 1948, says the judge's tentative ruling would be correct.
"I feel church property belongs to the Episcopal Church," she says. "It was intended that way when it was acquired, and it should continue that way."
Spear says she knows it could be a long process because "properties are a sticky situation" in the courts.
"I can't believe a group that decides to leave the Episcopal Church would have the right to take property with them; I don't understand how it works that way," she says.
Another Hanford parishioner, Lloyd Christensen, says he also agrees with the judge.
"The original church owned all the property, and it seems to me that's where it should stay," he says.