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[U-T San Diego, OCEANSIDE] — The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego reclaimed its Oceanside church on Sunday with its first service since a conservative faction seized control of the building four years ago.

“It’s like a homecoming,” church member Jack Plummer said Sunday as he stood outside St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. “In the Old Testament, you read about a time of jubilation, and it’s one of those times.”

In 2006, a majority of the congregation at St. Anne’s voted to break off from the Episcopal Church while maintaining possession of the building because of objections over the direction the denomination was taking nationally to ordain gays and women, among other issues.

In 2006, Plummer and his partner of 27 years, Nico Estacio, held services in their living room for several months. As the court battles dragged on, members began attending churches in Vista and Carlsbad. Early this year, the bishop encouraged them to reunite with services in a tiny chapel at an Oceanside cemetery.

On Sunday, a sign in the church foyer read: “Welcome Home St. Anne’s.” Sun filtered through a skylight and illuminated the stained-glass image of Jesus in red and blue behind the altar. Roses bloomed in the memorial garden adjacent to the neat front lawn.

Ann Gregg, a congregation member since 1991, stood outside the doorway to greet people with hugs.

“After all of the strife and everything, it’s such a joyous occasion,” she said. “We’ve got our buildings back, and now we need to rebuild our congregation.”

More than 80 people attended the service. Fewer than a dozen were “original” members, however. Others came from San Diego, Fallbrook and Carlsbad to support the returning Episcopal congregation.

Lee Rowe, who attends an Episcopal church in Carlsbad, said, “We wanted to support Bishop Mathes and the people who were brave enough to stay (in the church).”

Mathes said that while he accepts the split-off group’s decision to leave, he grieves for them and encourages them to return. “It’s always regrettable when people decide to leave a church community, one that they loved,” Mathes said.

The San Diego diocese has about 22,000 members today. Officials estimate that about 1,600 people in the San Diego area left to join Anglican groups.

The Rev. Joe Rees, leader of the breakaway group in Oceanside, said in a telephone interview that his congregation of about 225 people worships in the front sanctuary at Carlsbad Community Church. The group is called Grace Anglican Church.

“We’re happy right where we are right now,” Rees said. He said the group members are “very content that they have honored God with their obedience and have upheld the authority of Scripture.”

Rees said he believes the national church has been heading “down the slippery slope of disobedience to obey the word of God and to honor the will of Christ for his church.”

Rees said his congregation will pray for the people in the Episcopal Church.

“We harbor no grudges against anyone there and especially the people who may have wanted to remain at that church because of their attachment to that church for so many years,” he said.

Before relinquishing the building, the Anglican congregation wrote prayers on pink slips of paper and left them tucked in the hymnals. They were removed by church officials before Sunday’s service. One read, “May God continue to bless everyone who worships in this church forever.”

Plummer said the notes were a step toward healing for both groups.

The Oceanside church’s rector announced in January 2006 that St. Anne’s would leave the diocese and come under the jurisdiction of Anglican Bishop Frank Lyons of Bolivia. The group planned to keep the church building at 701 West St. and rename it St. Anne’s Anglican Church.

The diocese argued in court that it owned St. Anne’s and said its buildings had been under the auspices of the Episcopal Church since the 1950s.

The the two sides recently agreed to a settlement after a Superior Court judge sided with the diocese in November, saying the “local parish owns local church property in trust for the greater church.”

Similar disputes played out in Fallbrook and Ocean Beach, with the diocese prevailing. The Fallbrook congregation reclaimed its building in April 2009. The diocese is allowing an Anglican group to continue meeting in the Ocean Beach church until the end of the year.

In his sermon Sunday, Bishop James Mathes of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego focused on continuing the church’s mission of inclusiveness and healing from the dispute that separated friends.

“This has been a tough process these last few years,” Mathes said. “Many of you have been wounded by others. And those who disaffiliated four years ago, they, too, have been wounded by this strife.”

Plummer, the chalice bearer at Sunday’s service, struggled to hold back tears several times as Mathes spoke. He said that when he had to leave the church building in 2006, he grieved, but “then there came a point where it wasn’t the physical building, it was the mission of Christ that mattered.”

Read the news story on UT San Diego.com.