Diocese will leave Episcopal Church

The Diocese of San Joaquin on Saturday voted overwhelmingly to change its constitution to leave the Episcopal Church USA and align with the Southern Cone of the worldwide Anglican Communion because of long-simmering theological issues.

It is the first diocese in the country to take such action.

The constitutional vote was 70-12 (85 percent) by clergy and 103-10 (91 percent) by laity at the diocese's annual convention in Fresno. A 75 percent vote was required in each group. A subsequent vote to accept the Southern Cone's oversight was passed by similar margins.

"It's important to remember that we've separated from our brothers and sisters, but we're also joining our brothers and sisters in the Southern Cone (South America)," said the Rev. Tom Foster, who served at St. Paul's in Modesto and Christ the King in Riverbank before retiring. He now conducts Sunday services at St. Andrew's in Mariposa.

"I feel like the Israelites when they came out of Egypt with Moses -- I've been set free," Foster said in a phone interview from Fresno. "There is great rejoicing by most people here. We're full of joy for what has taken place. It's a very strong feeling."

Strong feelings are what has led to this action. Most Protestant denominations -- Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and others -- split years ago over theological issues. The Episcopal Church has remained united except during the Civil War.

But in recent decades, disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, the ordination of women and whether the Bible is the inerrant word of God has led to division in the church, culminating in 2003 when V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, was ordained as a bishop in New Hampshire and in 2006 when Katharine Jefferts Schori, a liberal theologian, was elected to lead the national church.

Saturday was a huge victory for Bishop John-David Schofield, a staunch conservative who has been trading barbs with the ECUSA since 2003, when he stopped sending it financial support.

"The (Episcopal) church will inevitably leave the Bible behind," he told clergy members Friday.

After the vote, Jefferts Schori released a statement, restating her intention to replace Schofield:

"We deeply regret their unwillingness or inability to live within the historical Anglican understanding of comprehensiveness. We wish them to know of our prayers for them and their journey. The Episcopal Church will continue in the Diocese of San Joaquin, albeit with new leadership."

But whether she can do so under the church's abandonment clause is doubtful, said Van McCalister, public relations officer for the diocese.

"The abandonment clause was put in (to canon law) in case a priest turned back to the Catholic faith or decided to leave the Christian faith," he said. "I don't think it was ever envisioned that the abandonment clause would be used the way it has been recently. And I don't know how they can charge (Schofield) with abandonment since he's transferred to the Anglican Communion; he hasn't left the faith."

Something 'to get used to'

There was little talk of abandonment at the convention this weekend, said Jan Wysong, a member of St. Paul's in Modesto.

"There was a very good discussion," he said. "A lot of people had questions and needed clarification on some things, and they got it. I think it's something we're going to have to get used to -- let the dust settle and see where we are."

Some people are less satisfied. A group called Remain Episcopal, reportedly with about 125 members in the diocese, met after the convention to discuss the future.

One member from Turlock, when reached by phone, said she was too sad to comment.

Schofield has said any parish that wants to leave and be assigned to a different Episcopal diocese may do so if it is not in debt to the San Joaquin Diocese. After the vote, one Fresno parish gave Schofield an application to do that.

But others, such as the Rev. Wolfgang Krismanits of St. James in Sonora, are "ecstatic" with the outcome. He said he plans to tell his congregants this morning what happened at the convention.

"We're just going to praise the Lord and thank him," he said. "The outcome was better than I hoped for. It's still somewhat hard to believe, but as I said to someone when we were making our votes, making our stands, God is with us. I think it's going to be a shot heard round the world from this little diocese."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached or 578-2012.