Calif. court’s preliminary decision: return 27 properties to Episcopalians

By Pat McCaughan
Posted May 16, 2014

[Episcopal News Service] In a preliminary decision, a California court has ordered the return of 27 properties held by a breakaway group to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and has said that dioceses cannot opt to leave the Episcopal Church.

St. James Cathedral, the former diocesan offices, the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center near Yosemite National Park, the diocesan investment trust and 25 other church properties, valued at about $50 million, are included in the May 5 decision.

In the 41-page opinion in a case  brought by the Episcopal Church and its Diocese of San Joaquin, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald S. Black also said that “because a diocese is a geographical construct of the Church, it makes no sense that a diocese can ‘leave’ the Church; it does not exist apart from the Church.”

While individuals may exercise their right of freedom of religion to leave and form a new church in another religious denomination, “they cannot tell the Church that it no longer has a diocese in a particular geographical area such as San Joaquin,” Black concluded.

He also noted that church property is held in trust for the mission and ministry of the wider church. A former bishop lacked authority to transfer church property into the “Anglican Diocese Holding Corporation”, an entity created for the express purpose of preventing the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin access to it, according to the decision.

San Joaquin Bishop Provisional David Rice said that while the ultimate result of the litigation “will inform and influence our exploration, our discernment, and yes, our prayers, it will not completely define who we are, nor how we respond missionally.”

Rice, who was elected bishop provisional March 29, 2014, added that: “We are diligently working on deeper understandings of what it means to be welcoming, inclusive and reconciling.

“We are exploring and discerning and praying through the ways in which we are being called to serve in our communities and to join God in what God is already doing in people’s lives. We have much to do as Episcopalians throughout this place called San Joaquin.”

Diocesan chancellor Michael Glass said he believed Black’s decision to be one of the clearest and most comprehensive judicial explanations as to why a diocese cannot leave the Episcopal Church, “which we hope will be helpful to our fellow Episcopalians in the Diocese of Ft. Worth, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and the Diocese of Quincy.”

“The court said the diocese did not and could not disaffiliate, because the accession of a diocese to the Church may not unilaterally be retracted,” Glass said. “It’s very clear that once you’re a diocese and you’ve acceded to the canons of the church, there’s no going back.”

The decision will become final within the next sixty days or so, depending on whether the defendants will seek to have the trial court modify the decision from its tentative form, he said. Once the decision is finalized, the defendants will have approximately sixty days to file an appeal with the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno.

The Rt. Rev. Eric Menees, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, in a statement posted on the diocesan website, called for a May 17 meeting to discuss those options.

“Please understand that, should this tentative ruling be formalized into a judgment, we will not have to immediately vacate our properties,” according to the statement. “Under these circumstances there will be time for an orderly departure.

“Even if we were to accept the ruling and choose not to appeal, we believe there would be a window of time to negotiate the timing and manner in which the churches of the Diocese would surrender their property, allowing time for us to make plans for the future.”

Glass said that the Episcopal diocese remains open to discussions with the defendants to address any pastoral concerns in any transitions resolving the property disputes.

The disputes erupted over theological differences when Bishop David Schofield attempted to disaffiliate the diocese from the Episcopal Church in Dec. 2007.

The House of Bishops deposed Schofield March 12, 2008. A month later, he transferred the diocesan property into a holding company he created, according to court documents.

Meanwhile, property disputes involving three incorporated parishes have yet to be resolved. Trials are scheduled in two of the cases, concerning St. Paul’s, Visalia and St. John’s, Porterville, for November 20l4. A third property, St. Columba’s, Fresno, does not yet have a trial date.

Other disputed properties have been returned to the diocese as a result of favorable court rulings, including: St. Michael’s, Ridgecrest; St. Paul’s, Bakersfield; St. John’s, Stockton; St. Francis, Turlock; Hope-Redeemer, Delano and St. James, Sonora. Another church, St. Paul’s, Modesto, was returned prior to litigation.

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. 


Comments (5)

  1. Peter Cabbiness says:

    A clear, concise, linear well thought out judicial decision.

  2. Alda Morgan says:

    Either way the ultimate decision goes, there will be an enormous pastoral task laid upon all the members of the break-away church and the Episcopal Church. It sounds as if Bp. Rice understands that. I don’t know about the Anglican Church. This has been such a painful, ugly story. Compassion and attention to the Lord of the Church and his mercy are desperately needed. For the rest of us, we can do no better, it seems to me, than to pray for all sides that God’s will be done.

  3. Stewart David Wigdor says:

    Let me express something, if a gardner works at a private estate can he claim he owns all the property? He is keeping it beautiful. And can the estate owner claim the wages of the gardner for he is workng his horticulture on the estate owner’ s land. Thus the gardner is the church seeking to breakaway from the Mother Church but not to forgo its Anglican worship. And the estate is the entire Episcopal Church of the United States. So I believe if the judgement says the church cannot breakaway from the National Episcopal Church and must surrender its lands and buildings the Mother Church has to pay the money value of the church building and lands of the parish to it before claiming new ownership. I ask the Courts to study this. There is no theocracy like in England. A church is the Body , Head and Bride of Jesus Christ. therefore it must stay Beautiful from his Holiness.It is His Creation , not even the greatest ideal of humanity could imagine It.

  4. Lee Johnson says:

    This is all very sad. No one is the winner, except, perhaps the attorneys involved. The money that has been spent by both sides could have well been used to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, given shelter to the homeless…all thing we were told to do by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus has little regard for property or for money…he was interested in the salvation of the world. We seem to have lost some focus in the midst of all of this. It is all very sad.

  5. Anne Bay says:

    The Judge’s ruling is very clear and concise. My hope is that the property is returned quickly and that the group that left the Episcopal Church can move forth with their relocation plans. Patience on both sides needs to be demonstrated, and it sounds like Bishop Rice and the original Episcopal Diocese will do whatever they can to do that. Being a lifelong Anglican, the Judge’s ruling is no more than I would expect-anyone who understands how the Episcopal Church is set up would not be surprised.

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