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Associated Press – December 6, 2007
FRESNO, California – Headed into a critical vote, an Episcopal diocese in central California is poised to split with the national denomination over what its bishop sees as the threat of moral decay.
The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin is expected to vote by Saturday to secede from the U.S. church, becoming the first full diocese to do so because of a conservative-liberal rift that began decades ago and is now focused on whether the Bible condemns gay relationships.
An affirmative vote would place San Joaquin under the leadership of a like-minded, conservative Anglican diocese in Argentina. It is almost certain to spark a court fight over control of the diocese’s multimillion-dollar real estate holdings and other assets.
In a letter to parishioners, Bishop John-David Schofield said “those who claim they want to remain Episcopalians but reject the biblical standards of morality … will – in the end – be left solely with a name and a bureaucratic structure.”
The head of the U.S. denomination has warned Schofield against secession.
“I do not need to remind you as well of the potential consequences of the direction in which you appear to be leading the Diocese of San Joaquin,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the U.S. denomination, wrote in a letter Monday to him. “I do not intend to threaten you, only to urge you to reconsider and draw back from this trajectory.”
Schofield responded that the diocese would go forward with the vote during its annual convention, which starts Friday. He all but predicted that delegates would choose to break with the Episcopal Church, the U.S. member of the global Anglican Communion.
“It is The Episcopal Church that has isolated itself from the overwhelming majority of Christendom and more specifically from the Anglican Communion by denying Biblical truth and walking apart from the historic Faith and Order,” Schofield wrote.
Last year, a majority of the lay people and clergy who attended the diocesan convention voted to take the first step to secede from the national church. That proposal would become final if it receives a two-thirds majority vote at the meeting.
The Fresno-based congregation has explored breaking ties with the American church since 2003, when Episcopalians consecrated the church’s first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The resulting uproar throughout the world Anglican fellowship has moved the 77-million-member communion toward the brink of schism.
Christian advocates for accepting gay relationships, including Jefferts Schori, say they are guided by biblical teachings on social justice and tolerance. But Schofield and other conservatives believe Scripture bars same-sex relationships. San Joaquin also is one of three dioceses in the Episcopal Church that will not ordain women. Jefferts Schori last year became the first woman elected to lead the denomination.
The diocese’s holdings include 48 church buildings, including the lush Fresno headquarters, a series of mission-style buildings surrounded by olive, Chinese elm and cherry trees. Its total assets are worth millions, said the Rev. Van McCalister, a diocesan spokesman.
About 55 conservative Episcopal parishes have split from the church in the last few years and some have affiliated directly with Anglican provinces overseas, according to national church statistics. But the courts have mostly ruled against them, said Valerie Munson, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who specializes in religion and law.
“If the San Joaquin diocese succeeds in taking its property, it would set a precedent that would affect not only the Episcopal Church but other churches that are similarly organized,” Munson said. “It could set off a chain reaction.”
San Joaquin is one of four Episcopal dioceses out of 110 – along with Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy , Illinois, and Pittsburgh – taking steps toward breaking with the U.S. church.
“Who owns what is ultimately going to be controlled by the civil courts,” said James Quillinan, a San Jose-based estate and probate attorney. “What’s certain is that when local chapters break off from the national group, it almost always results in litigation.”
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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