California court ruling favors Episcopal Church and Diocese of San Joaquin

Posted on July 26, 2009

[Episcopal News Service: July 25, 2009] After months of deliberation, a California Superior Court judge in Fresno has rejected a breakaway group's attempts to remove the Diocese of San Joaquin from The Episcopal Church and affirmed Bishop Jerry Lamb as the leader of the diocese.


"It is beyond dispute that the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church," concluded Judge Adolfo M. Corona when issuing his July 21 ruling. He rejected such arguments by defendants, including former bishop John-David Schofield, that the hierarchical nature of the church is something to be determined on a "case by case basis."


Corona also ruled void the attempts by the breakaway group, led by Schofield, to amend the diocesan constitution and canons to disaffiliate the diocese from the Episcopal Church and to reaffiliate with another province. An overwhelming majority of the diocese's congregations voted to realign with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in December 2007 but attempted to retain diocesan property and assets.


"If the Constitution of the Diocese incorporates and accedes to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, which require accession, then the Constitution of the Diocese cannot be amended to remove such language," Corona wrote in the 21-page decision.


Bishop Jerry Lamb hailed the ruling, the full text of which may be found here .


"I am very, very pleased with this decision," said Lamb, who was elected Provisional Bishop of San Joaquin at a March 29, 2008 special convention.


"The judge was extraordinarily clear on the fact that we are the Episcopal diocese, that I am the Episcopal bishop and that we control all of the properties that are now part of The Episcopal Church or were part of The Episcopal Church before the separation occurred nearly two years ago," Lamb said in a telephone interview late Friday.


He said the ruling is a first step toward regaining disputed property worth "millions of dollars" including the diocesan offices in Fresno, at least 30 church facilities, and the diocesan camp and conference center.


"We are going to be making efforts to have people sit down and start to talk to us about how to go forward," Lamb said. "More importantly, we're talking about people who want to worship as Episcopalians," he added.


Lamb retired as bishop of the Sacramento-based Diocese of Northern California in 2007 and served as an assisting bishop in the Diocese of Nevada prior to being elected Provisional Bishop of San Joaquin.


The diocesan website currently lists 20 continuing Episcopal congregations, including St. Paul's, Modesto which several years ago affiliated with the Anglican Mission in North America. The property was returned to the diocese July 1; Lamb said he currently maintains diocesan offices at St. Paul's but hopes to eventually return the diocesan headquarters to the Fresno location occupied by the disaffiliated group.


Diocesan chancellor Mike Glass said he received news of the ruling late July 23. "The court confirmed the integrity of our church's polity, and unequivocally rejected the attempts of the defendants to remove the diocese from the Episcopal Church," he said in a telephone interview July 24.


"With these issues clearly resolved in favor of the church and the diocese, it is the hope of the diocese we can expedite the recovery of assets of the diocese to further its mission and work."


The office of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in New York released a statement, noting that Corona ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of San Joaquin on all issues presented to it and that the ruling resolved most of the legal issues in litigation involving the identity and property of the diocese. 


The court also concluded that "former Bishop John-David Schofield is no longer the bishop and has no claim to any of the corporate offices," according to the statement.


The court also ruled that the continuing Diocese of San Joaquin is "not a new organization" created Schofield attempted to remove the diocese from the church, but that the diocese "is the older organization from which (Schofield and the other) defendants removed themselves."


Bishop Edwin [Ted] Gulick, diocesan bishop of Kentucky and provisional bishop of Fort Worth, also applauded the decision.

"This California decision joins other courts in Texas and other states in affirming the legal positions asserted by the continuing Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, its Diocesan Corporation, and the Episcopal Church in litigation filed on April 21, 2009 in the 141st District Court in Fort Worth against former bishop Jack Iker and others who left the Episcopal Church but still claim the right to exercise authority on behalf of the diocese and to control diocesan property," according to a statement released by the diocese..


Attempts to reach Schofield late Friday were unsuccessful.


The Episcopal Church is a constituent member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which encompasses more than 80 million worshippers in 44 regional and national member churches in over 160 countries across the globe.



-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Provinces VII and VIII and the House of Bishops. She is based in Los Angeles.