The Episcopal-Anglican battle in Stanislaus County got very personal this week when the Episcopal faction filed a lawsuit against St. Francis Anglican Church in Turlock.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in Stanislaus County Superior Court by the Rev. Jerry Lamb, bishop of the Modesto-based Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. It names the Rev. Gerald "Gerry" Grossman and nine members of the church's vestry, or ruling body, as well as the St. Francis parish as defendants.
St. Francis is the first parish in the diocese to face an individual lawsuit in the dispute that has split Episcopal churches across the country, largely over Scriptural interpretation, such as whether Jesus is the only way to salvation and if homosexuals should be ordained.
"The diocese has never given us money," Grossman said. "The national church has never given us anything. Why do they think they have a right to this property?"
No monetary damages are mentioned. Instead, the lawsuit seeks "to return control of the parish premises and other parish assets to the plaintiffs in the matter."
"I received a 'courtesy call' from (Episcopal attorney Michael) Glass on Monday," Grossman said Thursday. "He said, 'We're going to do our best to keep this out of the press because it could be embarrassing to both sides.' "
Instead, Lamb sent out a news release Wednesday, announcing a "new round of litigation."
The reason the Turlock parish was targeted is complicated by church and legal rules, but it boils down to this:
The diocese to which it is loyal — led by Bishop John-David Schofield — was the first in the country to leave the national Episcopal Church in December 2007 and align itself with the larger worldwide Anglican Church.
In the wake of the split, the Episcopal Church installed Lamb as its bishop over a parallel diocese. He has been charged with recovering the property — parishes and Fresno's diocesan headquarters — under Schofield's control.
Within the 40 parishes loyal to Schofield are 10 that are incorporated — they own their property and are not owned by the diocese. So while most parishes are included in a lawsuit filed in 2008 against Schofield, the incorporated property must be handled individually.
In this case, Lamb said, the first lawsuit was filed against St. Francis because it is the closest parish to Modesto.
St. Paul's left, too
St. Paul's of Modesto was another incorporated parish that left the Episcopal Church. More than 90 percent of that congregation walked away from its $2 million-plus property on Oakdale Road last June and meets as Wellspring Anglican Church in a rented facility in downtown Modesto.
Lamb never filed a lawsuit against St. Paul's, which faced different legal challenges because it had left both the national church and the original diocese, aligning itself with another Anglican group.
Turlock property worth $1 million
Grossman, who arrived at St. Francis in May 2008, said that unlike St. Paul's, his congregation isn't considering handing over its property, valued at $1 million at the beginning of 2009.
"We feed homeless children in this neighborhood. We're on a mission in this community. Our sign says, 'Lives Change Here,' and that's what we're about," he said Thursday morning, sitting in the sanctuary built in 1948 that features wooden pews and stunning stained glass windows picturing the life of Christ. "We're about God's business here in this town."
What about the 20-plus St. Francis members who Lamb claims were "forced out" by the split and now meet in another church's property?
They weren't forced out, Grossman said.
"They left this parish before the diocese left the Episcopal Church," Grossman said. "We have the letters to prove it. They resigned from the corporation."
But, he said, he has no hard feelings toward the departed members, and in fact said he gave them an altar table they wanted, loaned them other items and had coffee with their priest, the Rev. Kathryn Galicia.
"What bothers me is we're churches," he said. "The money (spent in lawsuits) is better spent feeding the homeless, serving the community.
"To me, this is the worst-case scenario: If this property were taken over and they don't have the number of people to support this, it will be sold and two congregations will be out of a church."
National officials won't say how much money has been spent nationwide on the 50-plus lawsuits filed by the Episcopal Church to recover property. Lamb said he doesn't know even how much has been spent locally.
$70,000 to $80,000 raised
He did say his diocese contributed about $70,000 to $80,000, which was raised by individuals and parishes loyal to the national church. The rest of the legal costs have been paid by the national church, he said.
Grossman said he doesn't have any idea what it will cost to defend the church against the lawsuit. But, he added, he has been told the Anglican diocesan attorneys will represent them.
"What's next for us as a parish is to continue on — to make the main thing the main thing," he said. "This isn't going to distract us from the mission of this parish: to work in the community and to see changed lives because of Jesus Christ.
"This isn't about real estate. It's about doing what's right."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or email@example.com.