In a Fresno courtroom Monday, the late Anglican Bishop John-David Schofield loomed large in the long legal battle between the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, the first in the country to break from the national church over theological differences.
Schofield, who died in October, gave his videotaped deposition in late 2011, long after he led 40 of 47 parishes to form the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. The long-delayed Fresno County Superior Court civil trial will determine who owns dozens of pieces of property – the Anglican diocese or the national Episcopal Church.
Some parish property that had been independently incorporated, such as St. Francis in Turlock and St. Paul’s in Modesto, was returned to the Episcopal Diocese in the past five years. The majority of properties, including St. Matthias in Oakdale and St. Luke’s in Merced, are held by the Anglican diocese, and those 30 or so properties are the ones at issue in the lawsuit filed in 2009 by the Episcopal diocese.
“It was framed as an all-or-nothing deal,” said Rusty van Rozeboom, an attorney representing the Anglican side. At the end of the trial, expected in about June, the judge will agree either with the Anglican argument that the diocese was free to leave the national church with its property or with the Episcopal argument that congregations were free to leave, but properties and bank accounts should have remained under Episcopalian control.
The video was played Monday on a big screen to a packed courtroom, with many of the onlookers supporters of Schofield. Among them was the Rev. Gordon Kamai, pastor of Anglican Christ Church in Oakhurst, who said he fears the national Episcopal Church will sell the property for non-Christian purposes. “It belongs to the congregation,” he said.
In December 2007, an overwhelming number of the diocese’s members voted to split from the national church because of disagreements over such issues as same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay bishops. The Anglican diocese holds to a more conservative theology.
Three months later, the national Episcopal Church removed Schofield as bishop of the diocese and selected the Rev. Jerry Lamb as his successor of the seven remaining parishes. Lamb asked Schofield to relinquish all diocese property, but Schofield declined, leading to the lawsuits.
In his deposition, Schofield said the diocese’s majority had a right to break away and take its assets. That’s because the national church never owned the diocese’s property or had legal title to it, the bishop said. But lawyers for the national church said Schofield had no right to transfer ownership of church property because he was no longer the bishop.
A year ago, Judge Jeffrey Hamilton rejected a motion by the Episcopal Church that could have meant victory over the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. Now the decision is up to Judge Donald S. Black, who gave lawyers until March 17 to file written legal briefs and responses. Black then has 90 days to rule on who is the rightful owner.
Modesto Bee reporter Sue Nowicki contributed to this report. Contact her at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.