The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and The Episcopal Church (TEC) filed a complaint in Fresno County Superior Court on April 24 "to reclaim possession of the real and personal property belonging to the diocese."
Bishop Jerry Lamb, who was affirmed as provisional bishop of San Joaquin by a March 29 special convention of the diocese, said the diocese and TEC have a canonical, fiduciary and moral duty to protect the assets and property of the church for the church's mission.
"While it is regrettable that legal action is necessary, the diocese and the Episcopal Church have no other viable option but to seek the intervention of the court to recover the property and assets of the diocese," Lamb said.
He emphasized, however, in a letter sent to all congregations that "there are no legal actions underway at this time that involve individual church properties."
Lamb, in that letter, also invited clergy and church wardens "to enter conversations with me about their status in the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. There are no conditions for these conversations."
Concurrently, the wider Episcopal Church -- the other named plaintiff in the case -- seeks to enforce its rights to have the proper leadership and structure of the diocese recognized and to see that all property of the diocese is used for the mission of the larger church.
The complaint was prepared jointly by the office of the Presiding Bishop's chancellor, David Booth Beers, and the chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, Michael Glass.
Lawsuit seeks return of diocesan property
Glass said the decision to sue became necessary after Lamb's request for the return of diocesan property was ignored.
"The primary defendant is John-David Schofield, the former bishop of the diocese who was recently deposed from the episcopate by the Episcopal Church on March 12, 2008," Glass said.
Also named as defendants are the Episcopal Foundation of San Joaquin and the Diocesan Investment Trust, along with their officers and board members, listed as "Doe defendants 1-300."
At issue is control of assets included within "corporation sole … which administers property owned by or under the control of the diocese in accordance with the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church and diocese," according to court records.
The lawsuit does not specify a monetary value, but seeks recovery of: "personal property, bank and brokerage accounts, monies, valuable chattels, personnel records, financial records, real property records and deeds and historical records of the diocese held in the name of "The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of San Joaquin, a corporation sole, " the Episcopal Foundation and the Investment Trust.
On April 3, 2008, according to the lawsuit, Lamb asked Schofield to vacate diocesan offices at 4159 E. Dakota Avenue in Fresno, via letter, 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 lawsuit seeks to reclaim "the substantial assets" of corporation sole—including real and personal property of the diocese, Episcopal missions or parishes within the diocese, and property held by the Episcopal Foundation and the Investment Trust.
Those properties "are now under the control of defendant Schofield, an individual who is not affiliated with the Episcopal Church and who is using these assets to advance the ministry and mission of a different church," the lawsuit alleges.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori deposed Schofield on March 12, after the House of Bishops agreed with the findings of a Title IV Review Committee that Schofield had abandoned the communion of the church.
Schofield, at odds over the ordination of women and gay clergy, had urged the Central California Valley diocese to disaffiliate with TEC and to realign with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.
At the time, he said hoped TEC would allow him to retain diocesan property, telling reporters that he was monitoring court decisions in other property disputes. He cited the ongoing dispute in Los Angeles where the diocese is awaiting a California Supreme Court decision in its efforts to reclaim the property of four congregations in which a majority of members voted to affiliate with overseas Anglican provinces.
Schofield had characterized such litigation as being "like cannibalism, like Christians eating each other. Christians should not be taking Christians to court," he said. Regardless of the outcome in Los Angeles, the future remains murky because that decision involves "churches, not dioceses." Schofield concluded that any litigation "will be a fairly long, drawn-out process."
"I have not abandoned the faith," Schofield said in a response to the House of Bishops decision, posted on the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin's website. "I resigned from the American House of Bishops and have been received into the House of Bishops of the Southern Cone," he said.
"Both Houses are members of the Anglican Communion. They are not, or should not be, two separate Churches. It is the leadership of The Episcopal Church that is treating itself as a separate and unique Church. They may do so, but they ought not expect everyone to follow teaching that serves only to undermine the authority of the Bible and ultimately leads to lifestyles that are destructive," he said.
'Anyone is welcome back'
At its December 8, 2007 convention, 42 of the diocese's 47 congregations voted to follow Schofield to the Southern Cone, which includes 22,000 members in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.
Subsequently, some of those congregations have reconsidered the move and remain with the continuing Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, said Nancy Key, diocesan communications coordinator.
"There are 18 congregations in the diocese at this time" including two newly created ones. She declined to assess the value of the property sought in the lawsuit. But she added that, "anyone is welcome back, any congregation. We are hopeful that all congregations will join the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. Our goal is to correct the actions that were illegal."
Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that Schofield breached fiduciary responsibilities by attempting to divert the diocese and its property for the use and benefit of another church in violation of TEC's constitution and canons, causing irreparable harm.
It asks the court to order Schofield and other defendants to surrender control of the diocesan corporation sole, investment trust and to prohibit defendants from diverting, alienating or using the assets of the diocese except as provided by TEC's constitution and canons. It also seeks to enjoin Schofield from using the symbols and trademarks of the diocese, including, but not limited to the bishop's seal.
Schofield has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit or risk a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor.
Meanwhile, the continuing Episcopal diocese is moving forward with its goal of creating a culture of reconciliation, Key said. They are preparing for a three-day faith-based reconciliation seminar in June and further rebuilding efforts at its October diocesan convention.
She said the diocese is open to the possibility of reconciliation for all congregations. "The rest of them could come back and declare themselves as part of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and we welcome them and hope they do so."
-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the dioceses of Province VIII. She is based in Los Angeles.