State

Episcopal diocese sues to get Red Church back

The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin filed a lawsuit last week against St. James Anglican — the historic Red Church — in Sonora. It was news to St. James' priest, the Rev. Wolfgang Krismanits, on Monday afternoon.

"We've had no word whatsoever," he said. "I've seen nothing yet. I didn't get an e-mail. I didn't get a phone call."

When told that a news release dated Friday said a lawsuit had been filed against his congregation, Krismanits replied with frustration: "This is what (the Episcopals) are doing. They're telling everyone else, but they're not contacting the congregation until after it's done."

Episcopal Bishop Jerry Lamb was at his home in New Mexico and unavailable for comment.

St. James, started in 1860, is the fifth incorporated parish in the San Joaquin Diocese to be sued by Lamb since the 2007 diocesan split from the national church over differences of biblical interpretation, such as whether Jesus is the only way to salvation and whether homosexuals should be ordained. Anglicans hold to a traditional interpretation, while Episcopals tend toward more a more liberal theology, as evidenced by the 2003 ordination of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man.

About 40 parishes in the San Joaquin Diocese followed Bishop John-David Schofield to oversight under an Anglican province in South America. About six parishes remained Episcopalian.

Most of the parishes that left the Episcopal Church are owned by the diocese and were included in an earlier lawsuit by Lamb. But about eight parishes are incorporated — they, not the diocese, own their property deeds. Those parishes, including St. James in Sonora and St. Francis in Turlock, are thus not covered under the lawsuit against Schofield and the Anglican diocese and instead are named in separate actions.

The lawsuits seek to gain control of the parishes' property, bank accounts and other assets. The Episcopal church has spent millions of dollars on more than 55 similar lawsuits across the country. The church argues that the properties were established as Episcopalian and should be restored to the church.

The lawsuits are necessary, according to Friday's news release, because the churches "have sought to affiliate with a different denomination."

Not true, according to the parishes and dioceses that have switched to Anglican oversight. They say they are still part of the worldwide Anglican Communion to which the U.S. Episcopal Church belongs and, therefore, part of the same denomination.

The incorporated properties add another argument: Their congregations — not the diocese or the national church — paid for their property and buildings and should be able to keep them.

California courts so far have favored the Episcopal argument. A Superior Court judge in Fresno ruled last year in favor of the Episcopals and ordered Schofield to turn over all of the diocese's property to Lamb. That decision has been taken to the 5th District Court of Appeal.

A ruling by the state Supreme Court in January 2009 also favored the Episcopal Church over three individual Anglican parishes in Southern California. However, the San Joaquin case is the first in the country where nearly an entire diocese left the Episcopal Church, and Anglicans hope for a different outcome in those cases.

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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