The fight split in half St. Mark’s Episcopal Church — which has since dropped the “Episcopal” from its title. It has strained friendships, some of which have only recently begun to heal. And it played a part in one man’s decision to convert to Catholicism.
“I got tired of all the fighting,” said Marvin Barth, 78, who enrolled in catechism last year and since Easter has attended St. Bernard’s Catholic Church. “I just wanted to be part of a church with a more conservative theology.”
So did Bishop John David Schofield, who led the ecclesiastical divorce, calling the U.S. Episcopalian Church too liberal.
The Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori in 2006 was voted into a nine-year term as presiding bishop of the entire U.S. Episcopal denomination. For Schofield — who had never in his decades of church leadership appointed a woman to a high rank in the church — Schori’s election was the last straw.
When Schofield broke off from the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin around Christmas in 2007 because he opposed the denomination’s decision to appoint women as bishops and support of same-sex marriage, a handful of churches split with him.
They called themselves Anglican after the schism and claimed membership with a newly formed Fresno-based diocese led by Schofield. Church leaders deemed too liberal by Schofield within the separated diocese were slowly replaced with more conservative leaders.
St. Mark’s, though, was left in the lurch. It took more than a year for the congregation to find a priest. The instability drove away many members and took an emotional toll on those who stayed.
“A deep, dark depression settled over everyone at first,” said Carolyn Barth, 74, Marvin’s wife and a senior warden for the Anglican side of St. Mark’s. “It took a while for us to move on from that.”
In San Joaquin County, St. Ann’s in Stockton and St. Mary’s in Manteca sided with Schofield. About one-third of St. Mark’s congregation stuck with the national Episcopalian denomination, while the rest turned Anglican.
But Schofield’s side kept the Tracy church building and tried to claim some right to a $1.3 million trust fund. That’s where the disagreement turned into a legal fight. His claim to ownership came under fire in Fresno County Superior Court soon after the secession.
The San Joaquin diocese sued its newly formed Anglican counterpart for holding onto church buildings bought with money donated to the Episcopalian denomination.
A judge favored the Episcopalian diocese in a preliminary hearing this week. Both sides are due back in court in August for a final ruling, unless the judge agrees to a final adjudication before then.
At stake is which side gets to keep the trust fund and church buildings — the Episcopal diocese that bought them in the first place, or the Anglican diocese several churches defected to.
St. Mark’s in the middle
In the meantime, many members of the Anglican side of the St. Mark’s congregation say they’re worried about whether they’ll get kicked out of the building, which sits on a 5-acre lot off South Central Avenue. Church leaders believe that fear — combined with the constant turnover of pastors — shrunk the congregation.
“People for a long time have felt that they (the Episcopalian diocese) wanted us out of the property,” said Carolyn Barth. “Some left because they just didn’t want the stress of being in a church that was hanging by a thread of being lost.”
The Episcopalian faction now meets at First Presbyterian Church. Father David Pina leads the group of 25 or so churchgoers who stuck with the San Joaquin diocese.
Pina said he asked the new Anglican church if the groups could share the St. Mark’s building, despite the litigation.
The splinter group never officially responded. A member of the congregation had to deliver the message for him, because the church leaders refuse to communicate at this point except in court or through lawyers.
Pina said he plans to ask again.
“I’m not going to give up,” he said.
The schism angered and saddened members of both congregations, Pina said, adding that he believes if each congregation could share the building and meet in it at different times, it might help heal the rift.
“I think it’s tragic,” he said of the separation. “They’re called schisms in the church, and they have occurred for years, and it’s pretty healthy when people want to start a new mission or start something positive, but when the church starts deciding who is really Christian and who is not, we get into the dark side of our faith.”
Though the divisiveness hurt the Tracy congregations, members said they’re beginning to see some growth again.
The more conservative St. Mark’s Anglicans appointed a new priest last summer — Kenya-born Edward Dondi, a part-time hospital chaplain.
Dondi brought stability to a church that went through several interim ministers during the past two years. Dondi has also attracted new members, many of them Kenyan families with children, which nearly doubled the size of the congregation.
“Most of our growth has come from the families and the children that recently became a part of our church,” Carolyn Barth said. “Father Dondi calls the youth ‘my hope,’ and he’s right — these children are our future. We used to be a mostly older congregation, so they’re like a new beginning for us.”
Leaders of the Anglican offshoot have decided to act like the 5-acre property is theirs forever, just to give the congregation some peace of mind, Carolyn Barth said.
“We’ll fix it up and take care of it as if we’d never lose it,” she said Friday. “I think it helps us cope, just personally, with all the drama.”
And since last year, members of one side have begun to meet up with those from the other for a weekday Bible study. Most hesitate to talk about it, though — they worry it could be construed as underhanded.
But Pina said he believes the crossover could help people move on from what for many was a painful split.
“These are people who have known each other for years,” he said. “It hurt them to have to choose sides, so it’s nice to see them come together again.”