[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.