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:

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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  • Brian Walden

    This article also uses the lowercase ‘C’ church where I’d expect a big ‘c.’ Is it only Catholics who use ‘Church’ when saying something about the Church as a whole like “We have that kind of fervor that you would have found in the early church,” but ‘church’ when talking about one’s local parish?

    And just because I’m interested, are there any other places in the Anglican Communion where two different Churches have declared overlapping dioceses or is this an unprecedented situation?

  • FW Ken

    There’s a significant omission to this story: the Standing Committee (sort of the bishop’s privy council, composed of elected clergy and lay persons) was seriously split over the succession from the Episcopal Church. Here’s a first hand account from a local minister’s blog. Basically, several members – a majority, I think – of the Standing Committee didn’t immediately withdraw and join the Southern Cone. That cut them out of the Anglican diocese, and they claimed to be the ecclesial authority of the remnant diocese. The canons of the Episcopal Church give them that role in the absence of a bishop; however, they were shunned by the Episcopalian bishop, who was put in place by the Presiding Bishop. Fr. Rob Eaton was a member (maybe the chair) of the Standing Committee.

    In short, it’s been a mess.

  • tmatt


    AP style does not use an uppercase C for church on second reference, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or whatever.

  • Martha

    tmatt, why doesn’t it? I mean, there’s a big difference if you’re talking about “The Catholic Church says…” and “The Catholic church says…” in a story; one is the whole entire entity worldwide, the other is the local parish church building, and there could be a real misunderstanding if you’re not sure if the story is about a dust-up in the parish between the priest and one of the parishioners about who does the altar flowers, or something that’s gone all the way to the Vatican.

  • Martha

    Okay, altar flowers is trivialising it a bit, but in a story about (say) women-priests, it does make an impression if the style is small-”c” church as opposed to big-”C” church; one makes it sound like “Okay, the local guys aren’t down with this, but there’s a legitimate area of disagreement over interpretation” versus “Nope, noway, nohow, can’t do this”.

  • tmatt


    You misunderstood me.

    It is the Catholic Church, or the Eastern Orthodox Church….

    But on second reference, it’s simply “the church” not “the Church,” is most Catholic writers would describe it.

  • pen brynisa

    And just because I’m interested, are there any other places in the Anglican Communion where two different Churches have declared overlapping dioceses or is this an unprecedented situation?

    There are overlapping Anglican dioceses on the European continent, although the situation is not the same as in the San Joaquin diocese.

    Under the jurisdiction of the Church of England is the Diocese in Europe, which was created to serve members of the Church of England who are living or visiting on the continent in countries like France and Spain. The Convocation of American Churches in Europe is under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church, and it serves Episcopalians living or visiting in Europe. These dioceses do overlap geographically.

    These dioceses are in communion with each other, and neither is a “breakaway” from the other. They are essentially missions to expatriates from England and America respectively.

  • Brian Walden

    Thanks Pen, The Catholic Church has similar setups to what you describe for members of Eastern Catholic Churches in the U.S.

    So my next question, does the Archbishop of Canterbury have any authority to step in and force a resolution to the situation in San Joaquin (or Pittsburgh or others that may pop up in the future)? It can’t be good for the Communion for other Churches to be poaching dioceses from the Episcopal Church. And it can’t be good for the Communion that the Episcopal Church is making those with traditional beliefs that are perfectly legitimate to hold within Anglicanism feel like heretics within their own Church.

  • rw

    Call it the “New Donatism”

    There are quite a few parallels to the 4th century movement.

  • FW Ken

    Donatism denied the validity of sacramental acts performed by clergy who had apostacized under persecution and repented. To my knowledge, no one on either side of the Episcopalian divide have acknowledged they have anything to repent from. Hence, the current Episcopalian situation is not donatist in nature.

  • Ann Rodgers

    With regard to the dispute over the Standing Committee, I knew all about it but had no space to explain it. My editors were very generous to give this story the space that they did.

  • FW Ken

    Ms. Rodgers,

    That’s not a surprise; it’s a really complex story that would probably glaze a lot of eyes. It certainly glazed mine more than once as I followed it on the Episcopalian blogs.

    The reason I brought it up is that it illustrates some of the ecclesiastical incoherence of this situation. The Anglican diocese simply mis-managed the process, which may be of significance in the larger story of the disintegration of the Episcopal Church. That story, in turn, is of significance to the disintegration of mainstream protestantism in the U.S., and therefore to a radical change in American Christianity.

  • Craig Saboe

    My full response is on my blog (, but my short-form comment is simply that too many Christians are too busy playing theologian rather than servant. It’s about priorities. What should be civil discussions of doctrine that are SECONDARY to our work in the world, are becoming internecine wars fought at the expense of the mission we were given in Matthew 28. Anyone want to tell me this is more important than our work spreading the Good News?