HANFORD -- Like other Episcopalians, Steve Bentley of Stockton has been struggling since most members of his diocese voted to leave the U.S. Episcopal Church.
On Saturday, he and dozens of others gathered at the Church of the Saviour here to discuss how to keep going amid a religious dispute that has gained attention nationwide.
"I'm beginning to hear there's hope," said Bentley, youth director at St. Anne in Stockton. "It's beginning to sound better than in the past."
About 250 people came to worship and to hear representatives of the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Fresno-based Remain Episcopal organization. The message was clear: Don't feel abandoned.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
"You are not alone," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a video message shown during the gathering. "God is always with you."
Delegates of the Diocese of San Joaquin voted at an annual convention in December to leave the U.S. Episcopal Church largely because of differences with the national body's approval of same-sex blessings, ordination of gay bishops, the role of women in the church and how to interpret the Bible over such issues.
Among the diocese's 48 congregations in 14 counties, fewer than 10 remain Episcopal.
Initially, the split left remaining Episcopalians feeling isolated, said Bentley, who traveled to Saturday's gathering aboard a chartered bus with 40 others representing St. Anne, John the Baptist in Lodi and St. Francis in Turlock -- all churches with delegates who voted against the split. But now, he said, people are getting a better sense that the U.S. church is behind them and will continue to provide support.
"If we wish to stay in the diocese and want it to be healthy, we have to stay in it for the long fight," he said.
Bentley said he also wants to work toward reconciliation with those whose viewpoints differ from his.
Kate Turpin said she also has struggled with trying to remain an Episcopalian while others in the diocese have voted to align with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of South America, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"You feel a little alone in Fresno," said Turpin, who attends Holy Family Episcopal Church, the only Fresno congregation that voted against the split. "During the skepticism, it was hard to know who your friends were. We have to show a united front."
Turpin's friend, Amanda Folliard, said she came seeking a sense of comfort after the vote to split.
"We've had a dramatic thing happen -- how do you recover from that?" asked Folliard, who also attends Holy Family.
The speakers' messages Saturday focused on reconciliation.
People should "reach out" to others "without anger and rancor," said the Rev. Canon Bob Moore, appointed by Jefferts Schori to provide pastoral care in the diocese.
People also need to approach the challenges with "grace and humility" because the whole process is "not going to be easy," said Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies of the U.S. Episcopal Church.
After a break for lunch, the meeting reconvened with speakers addressing church insurance and property, then questions and answers. The media wasn't allowed at the afternoon session.
No representatives of the Diocese of San Joaquin in Fresno were at Saturday's meeting.
"We wish them well," said the diocesan spokesman, the Rev. Bill Gandenberger. "We're moving on."