General Convention

October 1, 2013

Episcopal Property Wars: Musical Chairs in San Joaquin

(This is the second in a series of blog entries about the fate of disputed properties in the Episcopal and Anglican Churches. To read about two northern Virginia congregations, click here.)

Transfer of a disputed church property from Anglicans to Episcopalians has also resulted in moving, merging, dissolving and re-constituting congregations in one central California town.

The change at St. James Church in Sonora is in some ways a microcosm of messy Anglican realignment and both the stark theological differences and litigation that usually accompany it.

The historic “red church” of St. James in the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin was turned over to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin in July. Known for bold color and architecture, St. James is also the oldest standing Episcopal Church building in California, constructed in 1859.

The congregation of St. James’ joined the majority of the Episcopal (Now Anglican) Diocese of San Joaquin in departing the Episcopal Church in 2007 over theological differences and the direction of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. After temporarily coming under the oversight of the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone (South America), San Joaquin Anglicans later helped establish the Anglican Church in North America in 2009.

While it was a part of the Episcopal Church, San Joaquin was one of the most staunchly traditionalist dioceses in the denomination, one of three to decline ordaining women to the priesthood. Soon after the split, continuing Episcopalians in San Joaquin quickly embraced the national church’s liberal direction, embracing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups while litigating against departing Anglicans over church properties and assets.

When the church building was turned over to the continuing Episcopalians this summer following a legal settlement, St. James’ existing Anglican congregation merged with St. Michael & All Angels, an Anglican mission also in Sonora.

Upon assuming control of the historic red church, the Episcopal diocese closed nearby St. Mary of the Mountains in Jamestown, moving that congregation four miles to occupy the historic red church, now reconstituted as St. James’ Episcopal Church.

The former St. Mary’s is a tiny mission best known as the church of Deacon Carolyn Woodall, the first transgender person ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. Woodall was prominently featured in Integrity USA’s “Outside the Box” video promoting policies to uniquely affirm transgender persons in the Episcopal Church. At the denomination’s 2012 General Convention in Indianapolis, Woodall and other transgender Episcopalians were spotlighted at the Eucharist celebration of the unofficial LGBT caucus.

Prior to the move, 2013 had already been a time of transition for St. Mary’s/St. James Episcopal Church. The mission’s priest-in-charge retired at the beginning of the year, replaced by a new priest-in-charge in April. St. Mary’s/St. James Episcopal Church reports a 2012 membership of 22 persons and an average Sunday attendance of 13.

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