Episcopal unit may quit U.S. church

Times Staff Writer

For Bishop John-David Schofield, the question is central to the future of the church he loves: Does the American Episcopal Church believe the Scriptures are the revealed word of God?

In a recent vote, a majority of his flock answered with a resounding “no,” and that is why Schofield is leading his San Joaquin Diocese in an unprecedented effort to pull away from the Episcopal Church.

Although parishes have left the national church, primarily over the ordination of gays and lesbians, this is the first time that an entire diocese has sought to align itself with more conservative members of the Anglican Communion overseas.


His supporters view Schofield as their chief defense against what one diocese priest called “the plague of heresy infecting our churches and homes.”

Schofield’s diocese, which had been largely ignored for decades by top Episcopal leaders, is sharpening the national debate over church identity and mission. Although the Fresno-based diocese has focused on its differences with the national church, Episcopal leaders have stressed their commonalities, such as core beliefs about the salvation promised by Jesus Christ.

The diocese of about 47 churches in 14 counties voted in December to leave the church. A second vote at the 9,500-member diocese’s October convention would finalize the split.

Schofield’s goal is to place the diocese under the jurisdiction of a conservative prelate, possibly one in South America or Africa.

“When you hear that we’re some little Fresno fringe group, think of this,” he said. “We identify with the worldwide Anglican Communion of 77 million members. Compared to that religious body, the American Episcopal Church of about 780,000 members is a tiny drop in the bucket.”

Schofield, 69, has been bishop for 19 years. He strikes friends as jovial and cheery but has little patience for detractors, who have been banned from publishing articles in the diocese’s newsletter, the San Joaquin Star, which serves as a forum for his own messages -- often lengthy.

Schofield, once a monk in a Roman Catholic order, is a lifelong student of opera and culinary arts.

In accordance with his reading of Scripture, the diocese does not ordain women. But in some cases, the diocese has directed women to other dioceses where they could be ordained and find work as priests.

Schofield sees homosexuality as wrong, and a problem that might be corrected by counseling.

Critics have characterized the diocese as misguided and Schofield as intransigent, out of step with the times and homophobic.

“Bishop Schofield’s greatest achievement,” said Keith Axberg, pastor of Holy Family Episcopal Church in northeast Fresno and a leader of a group opposed to the split, “is the destruction of a diocese.

“The activities of the bishop continue to divide people,” Axberg added. “The heartbreak is within congregations that are asking, ‘Do we go with our bishop of 19 years, or not?’ ”

Four bishops, including the one from Los Angeles, have said Schofield should be tried in a church court for defying national church doctrine. Three liberal parishes in his diocese, organized as Remain Episcopal USA, predict that the national church will fight Schofield in civil court for control of diocesan property.

The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, recently sent a letter to Schofield urging him not to withdraw from the church.

But as Schofield tells it, his group -- not the national church -- is dedicated to remaining true to the “Bible, which itself is a revelation that comes to us through the Holy Spirit from the very heart of God.”

And he is prepared to fight. “I’m not going anywhere,” Schofield said, “because I’m standing on the truth.”

The Rev. Van McCalister, a diocesan spokesman, put it another way. “To paint us as homophobic is a lie,” he said. “This is not about homosexuality. It’s about the core principles of what it means to be Christian, the authority of Scripture, and the willingness to deal with sin and not pretend that it doesn’t exist.”

In a message to his congregations in December, Schofield said the Episcopal Church’s departure from doctrine began in 2003 when for the first time it consented to allow an openly gay man to be elected bishop.

Later, church leaders failed to challenge a retired Episcopal bishop who published a book denying the virgin birth and questioning the divinity of Jesus. Then in November, Jefferts Schori, a supporter of same-sex unions, became the first woman to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion’s roughly 500-year history.

“Something had to give,” McCalister said. “A growing number of priests, including myself, were saying enough is enough. It got to the point where people would see me wearing a collar someplace, then walk up and ask, ‘What religion are you?’ I’d say Episcopalian and they’d roll their eyes and sarcastically respond, ‘Oh. A real believer.’ ”

Now, the diocese is preparing for a showdown in civil court with national church leaders over control of property, including its wood-paneled headquarters in the heart of Central California’s farm country.

In previous property disputes hundreds of miles to the south, a Superior Court judge dismissed lawsuits filed by the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese against three conservative breakaway parishes in Long Beach and Newport Beach claiming to be the owners of their churches. The diocese has appealed those rulings.

However, late last year a different Superior Court judge allowed the diocese to proceed with a lawsuit filed against a breakaway Episcopal church in La Crescenta. That suit also seeks a declaration that the property is owned by the diocese.

“It’s the Wild West out there,” Jan Nunley, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church headquarters in New York, said of California. “If the leadership of the [San Joaquin] diocese declares it is no longer part of the national organization, the question is this: Does that leadership stay or have its positions replaced by others?”

Schofield said he plans to stay in his post. He also would allow dissenting congregations to keep their churches, provided that they do not leave the diocese saddled with debt.

“Let them have their freedom, and a bishop more in harmony with their theology,” Schofield said. “If someone wants to go their own way, God bless them.”

As for the influence of the church’s presiding bishop, he said, “This is an autonomous diocese. For Katharine Jefferts Schori to function in this diocese, she needs my permission.”

In the meantime, opposing forces in Fresno have challenged the biblical passages the diocese cites to support its positions on various issues, such as gays and the role of women in the church. They also quote the Bible, saying it preaches compassion and acceptance.

The Rt. Rev. Richard Matters, pastor of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Lodi and a co-founder of the Remain Episcopal group, said, “We are striving to practice being the authentic church which embraces the holiness and sacredness that Bishop Schofield is motivated to deny, and at the same time demonstrate the inclusivity and tolerance that shocked people at the time of Jesus.”

People opposed to a divorce from the national church plan to rally in Lodi on Feb. 10. Bonnie Anderson, president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, is expected to lead the rally.

But Schofield said he was more interested in the outcome of another gathering in February. Anglican primates from across the globe will meet in Tanzania, and some orthodox clergymen have proposed that Jefferts Schori be sidelined at that meeting. Schofield supports such a move.

“It is my goal,” he said, “to remain true to the church as it has always been through the ages. It is the radical fringe that has seized control and driven a wedge into the Anglican church.”