Diocesan split has some unwilling to cut spiritual ties
BY LOUIS MEDINA, Californian staff writer
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org | Friday, Dec 21 2007 2:05 PM
Last Updated: Friday, Dec 21 2007 2:11 PM
Remain Episcopal in the Diocese of San Joaquin: The name of this faith community that has existed in the Central Valley since 2003 could not be more reflective of its purpose.
Formed well in anticipation of a concern that has come to pass -- the Dec. 8 vote by the local diocese to split from the Episcopal Church and become Anglican, placing itself under the authority of the South American Province of the Southern Cone -- the group has three main goals according to its Web site, remainepiscopal.org:
* To serve and protect those who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church in the San Joaquin Valley.
* To actively invite others into the "inclusive Episcopal community."
* To educate and promote "the ethos of the Episcopal Church."
"We feel very strongly that we're not starting a new church, but that we are maintaining the Episcopal Church. The other folks are leaving," said Remain Episcopal member Tim Vivian. "It's drawn us very close together because we all felt like outcasts."
Remain Episcopal's president, Cindy Smith, a Bakersfield resident, said she was disappointed with the diocesan decision to secede. Nevertheless, she said, "I have moved through my grief, and what I have now is a renewed hope for what the future holds.
"Our goal now is to continue on and to rebuild," she said, "to reconstitute the diocese and to get together as a faith community to worship" and "continue the affiliation with the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal presence within the valley."
According to Smith, the local Remain Episcopal group is made up of about 20 believers -- there could be as many as 400 throughout the entire valley, she said -- who did not feel comfortable at any one of Bakersfield's three Episcopal parishes belonging to the San Joaquin Diocese, or those who, having moved to Bakersfield, found that none of the local churches were a match for them.
"When they got with our group they said, 'Ah, this is what I remember. This is an Episcopal church,'" she said.
Locally, the group has been meeting mostly in people's homes on a rotation basis, Smith said. The gatherings are led by laypeople.
Making sense of the split
"If it wasn't for Remain Episcopal ,we would be out in the dark," said Pat Bentley, a local marriage and family therapist who has felt at home with Remain Episcopal when she has worshipped with the group. Until recently, she attended St. Paul's Episcopal Parish downtown.
Bentley, who was not in favor of separation, said she and her family "specifically joined the Episcopal Church nine years ago because it was presented to us as a very open, accepting church, and in the kind of work I do it was important to have universal acceptance of others."
She and her husband wanted to instill this sense of acceptance upon their boys, who are now 14 and 18. But she and her husband became concerned as they learned more about the conservative San Joaquin Diocese and its bishop, the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield, and the ever-widening rift that was developing between them and the progressive Episcopal Church, which is a province within the 77 million-member Worldwide Anglican Communion.
"This diocese is really out of step," Bentley said. "When this (friction leading to a split) all began with the church, the bishop sent out a letter, and we were assured many times that this was not about gays and lesbians," she said, referring to the most publicized theological differences between Schofield and the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.
The presiding bishop favors the ordination of women and gay priests and the blessing of same-sex unions, all opposed by Schofield.
"As a parishioner, I feel very disappointed after having read his (Schofield's) most recent letter to diocesan members because, in my eyes, it was very focused on gay and lesbian issues," she said.
Media representatives of the San Joaquin Diocese, which has begun calling itself Anglican, are away for the holidays and could not be reached for comment. The Californian was told on Monday that no one else working for the diocese, including the bishop, was available for comment.
Agreeing to disagree
Unlike the Bentleys, however, other Remain Episcopal members, as well as local parish leaders who have chosen to follow Schofield into the Anglican fold, agree that the split was not over gay issues and women priests -- but they disagree over just what precipitated it.
"I think it's a fight over how one understands the Bible and tradition of the church," said Vivian, who is an assistant professor of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield, where he has taught since 1990. "To me, the other side is not being Anglican. They're treating it as fundamentalists do. And Anglican tradition is not fundamentalist about the Bible."
For his part, the Rev. John Riebe, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in southwest Bakersfield, told The Californian earlier this month that the separation is due to "significant differences of opinion about the divinity of the person of Jesus Christ and the role of the authority of Holy Scripture."
Vivian is an Episcopal priest "canonically resident in Los Angeles," meaning he can perform priestly duties in that diocese but not in San Joaquin until he is locally licensed. Only a bishop can license him, and Smith hopes that once one is appointed, that person will do that for Vivian.
Before that, however, a lot would have to happen.
According to the Episcopal Church's Web site, episcopalchurch.org, Jefferts Schori asked Schofield in a Dec. 14 letter to confirm that he understands himself "to have departed the Episcopal Church" and to be "no longer functioning as a member of the (Episcopal) clergy."
Barring a change of heart from Schofield, once he confirms his status to Jefferts Schori and a waiting period elapses -- allowing for several levels of checks and balances to ensure that church law is being observed -- the presiding bishop will, according to Vivian, declare the diocese "vacant" and appoint an interim bishop.
"That's my understanding of what will happen," he said, "and we would petition to form a parish, and I would be the interim priest." Smith said Bakersfield Episcopal believers have the added challenge of not having a single parish or priest to turn to, unlike believers in several cities throughout the valley -- including Lodi, Stockton, Fresno, Hanford and San Andreas -- that each have a local parish that has chosen to remain Episcopal.
The Rev. Keith Axberg has been the rector of Fresno's Holy Family Episcopal Church since June 2003. He said he has seen church growth reflected in average Sunday attendance, which was 85 when he started there and is now 130.
"At our annual parish meeting in January of 2004," Axberg said, "we affirmed our desire to remain in the Episcopal church as a parish." He said that even back then, Bishop Schofield was already working to remove the diocese from the Episcopal Church.
"We've never needed to reaffirm that we are Episcopalian because that is who we are, just like we don't need to reaffirm that Jesus is Lord because he always has been. Nothing has changed," he said.
Bentley spoke about a little-mentioned group inevitably caught up in the Episcopal/Anglican schism. "The ultimate losers are our children because I've seen such disillusionment within the church in the youth sector," she said. "They're fed up with all the arguments and the constant conflict within the church." Remain Episcopal gives her hope. "At least now we do get to remain with the national church and the doctrine that we believed in when we joined the Episcopal Church," Bentley said.