MODESTO — The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin was handed a small setback in court Wednesday, but it is quietly winning the legal battle against incorporated Anglican parishes that split from the national church in 2007.
The impact will be felt in Turlock and Sonora later this spring.
Negotiations are under way to return two parish properties St. Francis in Turlock and the historic "red church" in Sonora to the Episcopal Diocese. That was confirmed Thursday by Rusty vanRozeboom, attorney for the Fresno-based Anglican Diocese.
That means parishioners who sided with the Anglicans soon will have to find a new place to worship. Conversely, the Episcopal parishioners who left almost six years ago will regain their churches.
"We shall be out no later than June 1," confirmed the Rev. Gerry Grossman, rector of St. Francis Anglican Church. He said his congregation intends to hold serv-ices in an as yet undisclosed Turlock church beginning May 19.
The Rev. Kathryn Galicia, who became rector for the small number of St. Francis congregation members who remained with the Episcopal Church, said she isn't allowed to comment on the move back into the church, which for decades was known as St. Francis Episcopal Church.
"I've not even been allowed to tell my congregation about the case," she said, adding that she also could not tell The Bee how many members she has.
Calls to Episcopal Bishop Chester Talton and to diocesan attorney Michael Glass were not returned Thursday afternoon.
The church in Sonora, St. James Anglican, lost its rector, the Rev. Wolfgang Krismanits, in late November when he and his wife, LaDonn "Doni" Krismanits, were killed in a car accident near Hollister. Other priests have been filling in, but no one at the church was available Thursday to comment about the upcoming change.
There is no impact in Modesto. Most of the congregation at St. Paul's voted to leave the Episcopal Church, but decided to forgo the expense of lawsuits and gave up its property at Briggs-more Avenue and Oakdale Road to the Episcopal Diocese in 2009. Its members formed Wellspring Anglican Church and have been renting space in downtown Modesto.
Six years ago, the San Joaquin Diocese, headed by then-bishop John-David Schofield, became the first in the nation to split from the Episcopal Church over theological issues. Those included the ordination of a gay bishop and the interpretation of Scripture.
Forty of the diocese's 47 parishes and missions from Stockton to Bakersfield, including St. Paul's, St. Francis and St. James, joined Schofield in leaving the church in late 2007. The remaining seven, including Christ the King in Riverbank, stayed with the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church belongs to the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has been highly critical of the U.S. church's social policies, such as blessing same-sex unions. Schofield, four other U.S. dioceses and hundreds of individual parishes across the country formed the rival Anglican Church in North America, a theologically conservative group that maintains ties to the worldwide church.
The Episcopal Church set up a new bishop and San Joaquin diocesan office, now based at St. Paul's, and filed suit against the departing diocese, its member parishes and the nine incorporated parishes, such as St. Francis and St. James, that own their own property.
Burden of proof not met
In the court case Wednesday, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton issued a tentative ruling in the Episcopal Diocese's lawsuit that seeks to regain the diocesan headquarters and parish property kept by the Anglicans.
He rejected the Episcopal Diocese's summary motion, writing that the diocese "bore the burden to present evidence establishing every element necessary to show defendants' conduct in retaining the property owned by the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin as of December 7, 2007, was unlawful as a matter of law. They have not done so."
Hamilton will hear oral arguments Wednesday. If his ruling is upheld, the case either will go to an appeal or move to trial, scheduled to begin in January.
The Rev. Eric Menees, who succeeded Schofield as bishop of the Fresno-based Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, said he was happy with the ruling.
"From the very beginning, we put this in God's hands and continue to do that and trust that we'll prevail in the sense of no matter what happens, if we win or lose in the courts, everything's been about being able to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ," he said. "It's not about the property."
VanRozeboom, his attorney, gave less weight to the ruling. "We didn't win, but they didn't win," he said. "The case goes on."
Separate lawsuits against two incorporated churches in Kern County were decided in favor of the Episcopal Diocese earlier this year. VanRozeboom said there are no plans to appeal those decisions, and that negotiations are proceeding to return those properties to the Episcopal Diocese. He called those talks "reasonable and accommodating."
That has not been the experience of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Stockton, which also is an incorporated parish. In that case, unlike the churches in Turlock and Sonora, there is not an Episcopalian congregation waiting to get back in.
"So far, it's been, 'We'll see you in hell,' " said the Rev. Lee Nelson, describing his church's attempted negotiations with the Episcopal Diocese. "I would gladly hand them a big check to settle this thing right now. I'm not out to get anything from these people. Nothing. I'm just out to defend what these people, who have been here all their lives, have given."
The fight has taken a big toll, he acknowledged.
"We are in the midst of spending thousands and thousands of dollars that people gave us for ministry and for the kingdom of God, and we're literally throwing it away. Sometimes it's $30,000 a month," he said. "I just don't think the Gospel is all about that. My goal in all of this is to end it as soon as possible."
John Ellis of The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.
A CHURCH DIVIDED
In 2007, the Diocese of San Joaquin left the Episcopal Church, claiming the national church turned its back on the gospel on issues such as homosexuality and the literal interpretation of Scripture. The Episcopal Church later sued the departing diocese over property and money.
Wednesday, a Fresno judge said in a tentative ruling that the Episcopal diocese did not present enough evidence to win a summary motion against the Anglicans who kept their property after they left the national church. The case will be back in court next week.
Thursday, an Anglican attorney revealed that negotiations are under way to return two incorporated properties, St. Francis in Turlock and St. James (the historic Red Church) in Sonora, to the Episcopal diocese.
Two incorporated Anglican parishes in Kern County were ordered to return their property to the Episcopal diocese.
In Stockton, an Anglican church said it is ready to give the Episcopal diocese money to let them stay in their property, but said the diocese has refused to negotiate. A court ruling is expected next month.