Central Valley

Episcopal war heating up with lawsuit over property

The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin is suing Bishop John-David Schofield, who in December led the diocese out of the U.S. branch of the denomination.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court, accuses Schofield of breaching his duties to the church and demands he vacate his of- fices in Fresno and turn over all diocesan property, plus bank accounts, trust funds and other investments.

In December, Schofield led the San Joaquin Diocese's convention of clergy and lay leaders to a vote to leave the Episcopal Church USA over issues relating to the literal interpretation of Scripture. The group also voted to align itself with the similarly conservative Anglican Church of the Southern Cone in South America.

In the wake of those decisions, two parallel dioceses have arisen, both called the Diocese of San Joaquin.

"While it is regrettable that legal action is necessary, the diocese and the Episcopal Church have no other viable option but to seek the intervention of the court to recover the property and assets of the diocese," said Jerry Lamb, who was installed recently as the interim Episcopal bishop for the diocese aligned with the U.S. branch.

The Rev. Van McCalister, Anglican diocesan spokesman, said the lawsuit was not a surprise.

"(Schofield) of course is going to defend people who overwhelmingly voted for him to go to the Southern Cone," McCalister said.

Schofield, who had just returned from a trip to Chicago, was not available for comment. But in March, he characterized such litigation as "like cannibalism, like Christians eating each other. Christians should not be taking Christians to court." He also predicted that any litigation "will be a fairly long, drawn-out process."

Property worth millions

While the lawsuit seeks a return of all property, it does not mention a monetary amount. McCalister said the value of the estimated 40 parishes loyal to Schofield and the diocesan headquarters in Fresno would be worth several million dollars.

The Anglican diocese, under Schofield's leadership, is made up of parishes and missions stretching from Stockton to Bakersfield, with headquarters in Fresno.

The second diocese, under the Episcopal Church USA, is under Lamb, with headquarters in Stockton. According to U.S. Presiding Bishop Katha-rine Jefferts Schori, about 18 parishes and missions, including two new ones, have pledged to remain Episcopal. These include Christ the King in Riverbank and St. Anne's in Stockton.

There were about 48 parishes and missions in the old diocese. Some parishes now are claimed by both sides as churches have split over the issue, such as those in Turlock and Atwater.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. arm of the worldwide Anglican Communion. International headquarters are in Lambeth, England, under the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who oversees the Church of Eng-land and is the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion. Unlike the Catholic pope, however, he holds no authority over individual churches or their members.

On March 12, the U.S. House of Bishops consented to depose Schofield, who had resigned from the U.S. body. The arguments are these:

Schofield said he has merely switched oversight and still is part of the Anglican Communion. Therefore, he says, he can't be thrown out by another part of the church.

The Episcopal Church disagrees, saying Schofield has abandoned his loyalty and vows and therefore has lost the right to his headquarters and parish property.

Meanwhile, the 2003 ordination of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson that started much of the dissension took a new twist. Robinson said Thursday he and his partner of 20 years were planning a civil union ceremony in June. Robinson denied timing the union to further inflame conservatives just before the Anglican Communion gathers in England in August for the Lambeth Conference, which happens once every 10 years. Robinson has not been invited to the conference.

On the Net:

For information about the Anglican diocese under Schofield, visit www.sjoaquin.net. Information about the Episcopal diocese under Lamb can be found at www.diosanjoaquin.org.