Diocese of San Joaquin seeks return of property held by breakaway congregation

Diocese of San Joaquin seeks return of property held by breakaway congregation

By Pat McCaughan, February 10, 2010

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin went back to court Feb. 8 in an attempt to regain parish property held by a breakaway congregation, according to a diocesan press release.

“Unfortunately, such litigation became necessary after the invitations of the diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Jerry Lamb, to discuss the orderly return of the Churches were largely ignored,” according to the Feb. 10 release.

“It is particularly disappointing given the recent and unequivocal decisions of the California Supreme Court and Court of Appeals’ rulings that the properties and assets are held for the Episcopal Church and its Dioceses,” said Diocesan Chancellor Michael Glass in the same release.

The litigation is focused on returning the property for the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. Glass confirmed that the litigation does not initially seek monetary judgments against individual defendants (former vestry members) “unless it becomes evident that such defendants have diverted parish assets to other purposes or parties.”

“We are hoping that those that have inappropriately claimed property held in trust for the Episcopal Church will recognize that they misunderstood the intent of the canons and the state property laws, and will quickly and reasonably return the property to the Episcopal Diocese,” said the Rev. Canon Mark Hall, diocesan canon to the ordinary.

Hall said the diocese will welcome back any member of these congregations who wish to continue worshiping within the large tent of the Episcopal Church.

“We realize that many people have been misinformed about the legal and pastoral issues surrounding the former bishop’s attempt to separate much of the diocese from the Episcopal Church,” he added in a Feb. 10 telephone interview. “In many ways, we have all been victimized by poorly informed decisions. We are looking forward to healing the diocese and getting on with the mission of Christ in reconciling the world.”

The latest round of litigation is in addition to the pending lawsuit brought by the Episcopal Church and the diocese against former bishop John-David Schofield.

That lawsuit is now before the Fifth District Court of Appeal for review of the trial court’s determination that: (a) Bishop Lamb is the bishop of the diocese and incumbent of the corporation sole and other diocesan entities; and (b) the attempts to modify the diocesan constitution and canons and articles of incorporation of the corporation sole to disaffiliate the diocese from the Episcopal Church were null and void, according to the press release.

The appeal stems from the July 21, 2009 court ruling affirming the Episcopal Church’s authority over the diocese and the diocese’s choice of Bishop Jerry Lamb as leader of the Central California Valley unit of the Episcopal Church.

That ruling, by Fresno County Superior Court Judge Adolfo M. Corona, validated Lamb’s authority and said he controlled the diocese’s properties and assets. It was considered a first step toward eventual resolution of a multi-million dollar dispute over ownership of diocesan property still occupied by the breakaway group, including the diocesan offices in Fresno, at least 30 church facilities, and the diocesan camp and conference center.

Corona also ruled void the attempts by the breakaway group, led by Schofield, to realign with another province. A majority of congregations had voted to realign with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in December 2007 but attempted to retain diocesan and parish property and assets.

Schofield was deposed as head of the Fresno-based diocese, and Lamb was elected provisional bishop at a March 29, 2008 special meeting of the diocesan convention. On April 3, 2008, Lamb asked Schofield via letter to vacate diocesan offices at 4159 E. Dakota Avenue in Fresno and to relinquish “all real and personal property held by the Diocese, the Episcopal Foundation, and the Investment Trust.” He requested a response by April 9.

When the request went unheeded, Lamb filed corrected articles of incorporation with the California Secretary of State, which Schofield allegedly had altered by removing references to the Episcopal Church (TEC). The corrected articles clarify that “the name of the corporation sole is ‘The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of San Joaquin, a corporation sole.'”

The Court of Appeal has not issued a decision.

Bishop Lamb reiterated that regardless of whether or not litigation is pending, “the Diocese remains committed to working with any parties to facilitate the return of the properties so that we can all be about the work that Christ has called us to undertake in his name.”

This report was published by the ENS here.