Secession, divorce in Episcopal dioceses

provincesSo the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is voting on Saturday about whether to secede from the Episcopal Church. Ann Rodgers, the ace religion reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has been all over this story for years. Whether she's covering Episcopal or Presbyterian battles, she writes interesting stories that are chock full of context and give plenty of room for all sides to weigh in. In anticipation of the vote on Saturday, Rodgers had readers visit another diocese that went through a secession vote. Last year, most of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin voted to leave the Episcopal Church and went into an Anglican province in South America. The Episcopal Church placed a new Bishop in the area to serve the area's remaining Episcopalians:

Each says it's the only true Diocese of San Joaquin.

As in a bitter divorce, each claims to be noble but wronged. One has the house, the other, at least for now, rents an apartment with help from Mom. Though children struggle with loss, each spouse is glad to be free.

"We have that kind of fervor that you would have found in the early church," said Nancy Key, spokesman for the reorganized Episcopal diocese

The other side is no less exuberant.

"We've been able to get about the gospel and doing our work as a church without being distracted by the kinds of arguments that folks seem to want to get into in the Episcopal Church. We're not about trying to change the church. We are trying to be the church as best we can and as imperfect as it is," said Rev. Carlos Raines, who has remained rector of St. James Cathedral.

Digging into the San Joaquin diocese case, Rodgers tells an instructive story about the problems and opportunities that lie ahead for both sides in the Pittsburgh dispute. Among many nice things about Rodgers' story is how she mentions gay issues up front but she puts them in context of the larger dispute:

The breaks follow years of theological disputes within the 2.3 million-member U.S. church that reached a crisis with the 2003 consecration in New Hampshire of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man.

Conservatives say their underlying concern was that some bishops no longer upheld biblical authority or core doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus. Church advocates say it has always welcomed diversity.

I realize there are space constraints but is orthodoxy vs. diversity the best way to characterize the dispute? Hold that thought for just a bit.

She includes local, regional, national and global angles as she discusses the property disputes embroiling San Joaquin. There's a lot of juiciness in the story, which is somewhat lengthy. Here, for instance:

There is little love lost between bishops. Bishop Lamb refers to "Mr. Schofield." The Rev. Bill Gandenberger, canon to the ordinary for Bishop Schofield, says, "The Episcopal Church has, without any authority, entered our diocese."

Much of the story is devoted to the people who did not leave. There's an interesting diversity in that group. San Joaquin was one of three Episcopal parishes that retained a male clergy. Now they have female priests. But that's not all: DioSJSeal

The diocese has not taken a full swing to the left. Bishop Lamb supports civil marriage for gays, but has told his clergy not to conduct gay weddings. That's crucial for St. John's in Tulare, a conservative parish that remained Episcopal.

After months of discussion, two-thirds of the church's 170 members voted to stay and nearly 40 people left for the Southern Cone. But Bishop Schofield did not try to take their building, and they are working to rebuild the church community.

"We are almost starting from scratch as a congregation," said the Rev. Rob Eaton. "We can't do business as usual. We have to reconsider who we are and how we go about telling people in the community who we are and being clear to the rest of the Diocese of San Joaquin about who we are. We see ourselves not only as a mission to the world, but even to the Episcopal Church."

Once in the inner circle of the diocese, he is now on the margins. He has told Bishop Lamb that he does not recognize him as his bishop and is fighting over access to parish funds.

So which side of the orthodoxy/diversity divide does this group fall on?

The piece ends with some words of advice from those who did depart. One of the priests who left says the most important thing is to treat each other with love and respect throughout the process. Clearly a story about a bitter breakup could have been all drama without much helpful information. This story was dramatic but also informative and civil.

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