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Sunday, May 12 2013 04:00 AM

Episcopal Church regains control of two buildings; some Anglicans must move

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    By Felix Adamo/The Californian

    Approximately 30 cyclists gathered for the second annual Blessing of the Bicycles at St. Paul's Anglican Parish on 17th Street in this file photo.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

St. Paul's Anglican Parish in Bakersfield is looking for a new home following a courtroom decision that hands control of its church property back to the Episcopal Church.

The Anglicans are on the move following a little-noticed ruling in February that parishioners in two of several breakaway Kern churches lacked the authority to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church.

Even though Anglicans at St. Paul's and St. Michael's Anglican Church in Ridgecrest both held their own titles to church property, Kern County Superior Court Judge Sidney P. Chapin ruled that they had to vacate.

His ruling essentially dismissed the permission a former Episcopal bishop granted them to secede, saying he overstepped his authority in supporting their move to disaffiliate.

A number of other Anglican churches aren't affected, pending the outcome of a different case in Fresno.

The legal battles are part of a larger schism that led congregations in the San Joaquin Valley and across the country to leave the Episcopal Church.

In general, the parishioners who wanted to align with the Anglican Church had a number of more conservative views than the mainline U.S. Episcopal Church. A tipping point might have come when the Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire in 2003.

One such a dispute in Virginia, the Washington Post noted, also became an issue in global Anglicanism -- of which the Episcopal Church is part -- when one of the breakaway leaders was disinvited to a global Anglican meeting.

The splits also arose over concerns that the Episcopal Church had taken a more liberal stance on doctrinal issues such as the interpretation of Scripture, the ordination of women and gays and the blessing of same-sex unions.

In a similar case in Newport Beach, a judge last week reaffirmed an earlier ruling that St. James Anglican Church must return church property to the Episcopal Church's Los Angeles diocese.

 

Split in the valley

In the valley, this movement arrived in December 2007, when John-David Schofield, former Episcopal bishop of the diocese, led a majority of the diocese's churches to secede. He placed the churches -- including, in Bakersfield, All Saints Anglican Church, St. Luke's Anglican Church, St. Mark's Anglican Mission and St. Peter's Anglican Mission -- under a South American province of the Anglican Church. (These four Bakersfield churches do not own title to their property and the fate of their affiliation now rests with the court case scheduled to go to trial early next year in Fresno.)

As they have done elsewhere across the country, bishops of the U.S. Episcopal Church sued to regain control over the breakaway churches' assets on the grounds that the buildings belong to the diocese, not to the parishioners. Years of legal motions ensued.

Now the Kern judge's ruling in effect ousts the Anglicans from two churches they took over.

Schofield's successor as bishop of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, Eric Menees, said the Anglican diocese felt it had a good chance of success if it appealed Chapin's ruling but decided that would be too expensive.

"We felt, you know what, it is a higher road for us to simply hand over the property in those two particular cases to the Episcopal Church," he said in an interview.

So St. Paul's Anglican Parish leaders are talking with Olive Drive Church officials about the possibility of sharing part of its campus starting July 1, said the Rev. Karl E. Dietze, rector of St. Paul's on 17th Street.

Dietze says it would be a good fit.

"We certainly knew that they see the faith in much the same way that we do, and that they did have a large enough campus to potentially be able to help us out," said Dietze, who estimated St. Paul's average Sunday attendance at 240 to 250 worshipers.

Olive Drive officials couldn't be reached.

Upon the departure of the Anglican congregation, former St. Paul's parishioners who opted to remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church would presumably return to the campus on 17th Street.

That group, calling itself Grace Episcopal Church, has been worshiping at First Congregational Church on Real Road.

Grace Episcopal officials declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. Representatives of the U.S. Episcopal Church also declined to comment.

Father Dietze said St. Paul's is still negotiating terms of the transition. He declined to elaborate, citing sensitive legal discussions.

"I can't speak (to) how it's been, but moving forward, we're confident that this has not been about buildings," he said. "It's been about staying true to the Christian faith.

"So, moving forward, we feel confident that we're going to keep doing what we're doing now, and we're excited to see what God has in store for us."

"Obviously, we're not excited about this, because we do believe the buildings are something that we built ourselves," he said.

Dietze added that the church is doing "just fine" financially.

"We're a healthy congregation in every sense of the word," he said.

 

Other cases

The cases of the other churches in the San Joaquin Diocese are proceeding differently, apparently because the Episcopal Church failed to submit documents to prove its case.

In March, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton rejected the Episcopal Church's motion for a summary judgment, the Fresno Bee reported. It quoted Hamilton as writing that the church representatives failed to turn in certain paperwork, "and have thus failed to meet their evidentiary burden." A trial in that case has been scheduled to begin Jan. 6.

The Anglican congregations, including the four Bakersfield churches whose property titles belong to the diocese, have made clear they are still fighting for the right to worship in the former Episcopal Church buildings.

Bishop Menees, wrote in an April 29 legal update that the diocese is preparing for trial with full knowledge that the Episcopal Church has more money to spend on lawyers than the Anglican diocese has.

"But, just as David (slew) Goliath so too, with God's help, we will prevail," Bishop Menees wrote.

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