San Joaquin votes to leave Episcopal Church, realign with Southern Cone

Some delegates vow to 'Remain Episcopal'; Presiding Bishop comments on action
December 7, 2007

Delegates attending the 48th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin on Saturday, December 8, overwhelmingly voted to leave the Episcopal Church and to align with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.

San Joaquin Bishop John-David Schofield asked for a moment of silence in deference to those who opposed the change, reminding the gathering that he "knows what it feels like to be a minority" before the vote tallies were read. The results, by orders were: 70-12 clergy and 103-10 vote in the lay order to effectively remove all references to the Episcopal Church from its constitution and describe the diocese as "a constituent member of the Anglican Communion and in full communion with the See of Canterbury."

"The Episcopal Church receives with sadness the news that some members of this church have made a decision to leave this church," said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. "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."

"This is a historic moment...a vote for freedom," Schofield had told the gathering of about 88 clergy and 113 lay delegates meeting at St. James Cathedral in Fresno. He reminded the gathering that the diocese as a whole was realigning and said that clergy who rejected the move had time to discern whether or not to accept the invitation to join the Southern Cone.

The vote was taken after about 30 minutes of emotional debate, often interrupted by applause.

Samantha Bland, a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Riverbank called upon delegates to focus on teen pregnancy, soaring foreclosure rates, methamphetamine addiction and dwindling resources plaguing Central Valley congregations "instead of this distraction."

"I have yet to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury say the Episcopal Church is not part of the Anglican Communion. I have not heard that we as an Episcopal Church have not reported back" about the Windsor Report. "I ask for us to look into our hearts and take care of our communities and remember the parishioners we're here to represent."

Another congregant, who asked not to be named, said the vote was ironically "a good thing. We can get on with our ministry, now that this diocese is free of this poison," she said, referring to the rancor surrounding the issue of leaving.

To vote otherwise, Schofield told delegates in his convention address a day earlier, would effectively signal his retirement within two years, by General Convention 2009 "with no reasonable hope for an orthodox successor" and a return to "where we were before last December's convention. Canon laws will be introduced to make it impossible for dioceses and persons to leave."

Although the move makes San Joaquin the first diocese in the nation to complete a legislative process seeking separation from the Episcopal Church, Schofield predicted that more dioceses will follow. Flanked by Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan and Bolivia Bishop Frank Lyons from the Southern Cone province, Schofield told a gathering of reporters December 7 that the consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003 was merely a "flashpoint" for those who had had "enough because of the liberal theology of the Episcopal Church."

"Those who want to remain Episcopalians but reject the biblical standards of morality, the ultimate authority of the Bible, and the biblical revelation of God to us in His Son the only savior of mankind, will in the end be left solely with a name and a bureaucratic structure," he said.

The central California-based diocese represents about 8,500 Episcopalians in 47 congregations, at least five of whom Schofield predicted will opt to remain with the Episcopal Church.

Nancy Key, a co-founder of 'Remain Episcopal,' said those who wished to remain in the Episcopal Church have felt marginalized and maligned.

"It feels like spiritual violence," said Key, a parishioner at Holy Family Church in Fresno, which has chosen to remain within the Episcopal Church. "All we want to do is be in the Episcopal Church that actively ordains women and is inclusive," she said. San Joaquin is among three dioceses that refuse to ordain or deploy women priests. The others are Fort Worth and the Peoria, Illinois-based Diocese of Quincy.

Schofield characterized Venables' invitation to align with the Province of the Southern Cone as a "Godsend" for Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, allowing for disagreeing factions to still remain within the Anglican Communion. The Province of the Southern Cone has about 22,000 members and encompasses Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

Lyons also told reporters that Williams approved of the new affiliation and described it as "a sensible way forward."

But, the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, Anglican Communion secretary general, disagreed. "I would be surprised to hear that the Archbishop would formally support such a development which is contrary to the Windsor Report," he said in a November 27, 2007 letter to a Fort Worth delegate who had asked for verification of similar assertions Lyons made during the Texas diocese's November 17 convention.

Delegates to the Fort Worth diocese's 25th convention also gave the first of two approvals to dissociate from the Episcopal Church. Similarly, Pittsburgh delegates on November 2 voted for realignment. Delegates at Quincy's October 20-21 annual synod, however, chose to remain with the Episcopal Church, at least for the immediate future.

Schofield said San Joaquin congregations wishing to remain with the national church may retain their property, as long as they don't owe the diocese money. "I just wish the Episcopal Church was as generous in the other direction," he said.

He said that nothing will change immediately as the diocese waits to see what, if any, action the Presiding Bishop will take. "On Monday, the doors won't be locked."

After chancellor Kenneth VanRozeboom's lengthy report to convention detailing the legal implications of the move, Schofield said the diocese is monitoring the decision in the property disputes between the Diocese of Los Angeles and four breakaway churches, awaiting a hearing before the California Supreme Court.

He characterized such litigation as being "like cannibalism, like Christians eating each other. Christians should not be taking Christians to court," he said. Regardless of the outcome in Los Angeles, the future remains murky because that decision involves "churches, not dioceses." Schofield concluded that any litigation "will be a fairly long, drawn-out process."

In June, the Executive Council, the governing body of the Episcopal Church between meetings of General Convention, warned that actions by Episcopal Church dioceses that change their constitutions in an attempt to bypass the Church's Constitution and Canons are "null and void."

During an exchange of letters prior to convention, Jefferts Schori had advised Schofield that approval of the constitutional changes would "implicitly reject the Church's property and other canons."

Regarding the diocese's intention to affiliate with the Southern Cone, she said: "If you continue along this path…it will be necessary to ascertain whether you have in fact abandoned the communion of this church, and violated your own vows to uphold the doctrine, discipline, and worship of this Church."

If Schofield is considered to have abandoned the communion of the church, he would have two months to recant his position. Failing to do so, the matter would be referred to the full House of Bishops. If the House were to concur, the Presiding Bishop would depose the bishops and declare the episcopates of those dioceses vacant. Those remaining in the Episcopal Church would be gathered to organize a new diocesan convention and elect a replacement Standing Committee, if necessary.

An assisting bishop would be appointed to provide episcopal ministry until a new diocesan bishop search process could be initiated and a new bishop elected and consecrated.

A lawsuit would be filed against the departed leadership and a representative sample of departing congregations if they attempted to retain Episcopal Church property.

And that's how Nancy Key and other "loyalists" intend to proceed, she said. The group, "Remain Episcopal" will convene immediately after the close of San Joaquin's convention to strategize.

"We are prepared to work with the Episcopal Church to reconstitute our diocese," she said. "I feel this is what we are called to do. I am so convinced of this."