Loyal to Episcopal Church

Times Staff Writer

One day after the Diocese of San Joaquin became the first in the country to break ties with the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Keith Axberg sought to reassure and cheer up his congregation, the only one in this city that is expected to remain with the national church.

“There are things that are going to take time and much we don’t know,” said Axberg, rector of Holy Family Episcopal Church in northeast Fresno. “But our purpose is to gather here to worship God . . . and I’m thankful you are here.”

Delegates to San Joaquin’s annual convention finalized Saturday an earlier decision to remove all references to the Episcopal Church from the diocese’s constitution, the latest twist in a bitter, years-long dispute about theology and the role of gays in the church. The conflict between liberals and conservatives escalated sharply in 2003 when the church consecrated an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire.

In another unprecedented step, the convention delegates, made up of clergy and lay leaders from area churches, also formally accepted an invitation from Anglican Archbishop Gregory James Venables of Argentina to place their Fresno-based diocese under his authority.


The dual actions thrust all involved -- church leaders and parishioners, theological liberals and conservatives alike -- into uncharted waters, many said, with the immediate future far from clear.

However, at least five of the breakaway diocese’s 47 parishes, including Holy Family and others in Lodi, Stockton and Hanford, have distanced themselves from the decisions and said they planned to remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

At Holy Family, a simple, modern church with white walls and a peaked roof, a larger-than-typical crowd attended Sunday morning services, including visitors and newcomers who said they were drawn by the congregation’s loyalist stance.

“I felt I needed to be here today to support Episcopalians,” said Joan Pitcock, a former professional golfer who said she usually attended another Fresno Episcopal church, St. Columba, but was considering switching to Holy Family. “It’s nice to have this church to go to.”

Elly Row, whose Episcopal church in Madera was closed by the diocese in 2004, has attended Holy Family ever since. She said she was saddened by the split, but glad her new church would remain with the national body.

“I can’t believe all the churches that are going the other way,” Row said. “We all believe in God and I can’t believe that he would look down on people who aren’t just exactly alike. This church welcomes everyone.”

Richard Jennings, a vestry board member at Holy Family, said he knew many in the parish were anxious about the future. But he said he found himself surprisingly relieved Sunday that the vote, after months of anticipation, had been taken, even though he and others had deeply opposed its outcome.

“It’s like a boil that’s been there a long time and you have to lance it to heal,” said Jennings, a dentist. “Now we can do that.”

Another parishioner, George Wade, agreed. “The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin is very much alive, despite what everyone thinks,” Wade said. “We’re going to be growing in fertile ground now that the weeds are gone.”

San Joaquin Bishop John-David M. Schofield, who led the secession movement, said before Saturday’s vote that all clergy in the diocese would automatically be affiliated with Venables and his province, the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of America, which includes the Anglican churches of Argentina and five other countries. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of Anglicanism.

But Schofield also said that the priests and congregations that chose to stay with the national church could do so, and that the diocese would not try to force them out or claim their property.

In recent months, the leader of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, has said that individuals unhappy about its policies are free to leave, but that its buildings and other property are held in trust for the church and will not be released.

In the wake of San Joaquin’s vote, the church is expected to file suit to retain property in the San Joaquin diocese, as it has against individual parishes that have previously sought to depart.

Before Saturday’s vote, Jefferts Schori had also warned Schofield, as well as other bishops contemplating similar actions, that if he proceeded, his office could be declared vacant and new leadership appointed. Members of remaining congregations in San Joaquin would then be organized into a reconstituted, smaller diocese.

But any such actions were expected to take time, with Schofield likely to be given two months to change his mind, followed by a hearing before the church’s House of Bishops, church officials have said.

Meanwhile, Axberg, Holy Family’s rector since 2003, urged his congregation Sunday not to worry about the future. He told them about the convention votes and answered a few questions about steps likely to be taken by the national church.

Finally, he asked them to pray for all involved in the diocese’s continuing struggle, including for Schofield.

First one, then all, rose to applaud their priest.