Two Southern California Episcopal parishes announced Tuesday that they had broken with the national church over the issue of homosexuality, placing themselves under the jurisdiction of a conservative Anglican bishop from Africa.
The announcement by All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. James Church in Newport Beach escalated a confrontation in the Episcopal Church over the role of gay clergy and the interpretation of Scripture.
The move marked the first time any of the 147 parishes in the six-county Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese had made good on threats to pull out of the 2.3-million-member national Episcopal Church. Conservative leaders in Washington and South Carolina said Tuesday that the Southern California developments had broad implications.
"It's only the beginning," said the Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon, a theologian in the Diocese of South Carolina who has frequently defended the cause of "biblically orthodox" Episcopalians.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 94 words Type of Material: Correction
Episcopal Church -- An article in Wednesday's California section about two churches severing ties with the national Episcopal Church over the issue of homosexuality said the churches were breaking with the worldwide Anglican Communion. As the article stated elsewhere, the two churches broke only from the Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion. The article also said the churches were the first two parishes in the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese to leave the denomination. Four parishes broke with the diocese in the 1970s, although not over the issue of homosexuality.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Episcopal churches -- Articles in the California section Wednesday and Thursday about two Episcopal parishes breaking with the national Episcopal Church and placing themselves under the jurisdiction of a conservative Anglican bishop in Uganda misspelled Bishop Evans Kisekka's surname as Koseka.
In Washington, Cynthia Brust of the conservative American Anglican Council estimated that 45 to 50 and perhaps as many as 100 Episcopal parishes nationally had left the church in one way or the other. There are 7,305 parishes in the United States.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which claims 77 million members. Debates over homosexuality have increasingly split the communion, with many churches in the United States and Western Europe accepting gay clergy and same-sex weddings, while churches in Asia and Africa uphold the authority of biblical verses that condemn homosexual relations.
The latest move could lead to a legal battle, including a dispute over who owns the church buildings and property -- the parishes themselves or the diocese.
The move by the two churches caught Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno by surprise, he said. Bruno said Tuesday that he had served notice in a letter to the African bishop, the Rt. Rev. Evans Koseka of the Diocese of Luweero in Uganda, that he had violated church law by intervening in the affairs of the Los Angeles Diocese. Bruno also said he was not ceding his authority over the two parishes.
"I have informed the presiding bishop [of the U.S. Episcopal Church] and have taken and sought counsel" from church lawyers, Bruno said in an interview. In the letter to Koseka, "I am advising him that I'm not releasing these parishes," Bruno said.
The split is the latest development in a widening theological fight that opened last year after the Episcopal Church's highest legislative body approved the ordination of an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. At the same time, the church's General Convention gave tacit approval for local bishops to authorize blessings of same-sex unions.
After the General Convention decisions, his parishioners kept asking him, "Why are we waiting? This is bad! We must go," said Father William Thompson, rector of All Saints. He also mentioned Bruno's decision in June to officiate at the same-sex blessing of one of the bishop's priests, the Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd, and Boyd's partner of 20 years.
Father Praveen Bunyan said he heard the same things from his parishioners at St. James.
"St. James has been a clear voice for biblical orthodoxy for years," he said. "It came to a point when people began to ask me, particularly after last year, 'Father Praveen, why are we still affiliated with the church we so clearly differ from and the church that has departed from the authority of Scriptures that we say we want to uphold?' "
The 12-member boards of directors, or vestries, of both parishes voted unanimously to break with the Anglican Communion, the two priests said. Then, in meetings they described as joyous, parishioners backed their vestries' decisions in overwhelming votes Monday night.
Thompson said the vote at All Saints was 131 to 10, with three abstentions. Bunyan said the vote at St. James was 280 to 12, with possibly one abstention.
"People broke into 'praise God' hymns on their own," Bunyan recounted. "Many times the congregation stood up in standing ovations, raising their hands, with tears rolling down their cheeks."
Fountain Valley resident Jane Irvine, 60, a member of St. James for eight years, was among those in a celebratory mood.
"It's an answer to my prayers. I've been upset where the Episcopal Church has been going for some time now," she said.
"The church was running away from us. Many of us had prayed the church would come back to the Scripture faith," she said. "The consecration of the gay bishop was like a line in the sand. You could see this direction was not going to change, and we could not go any further."
Members of St. James, including Eric Evans of Costa Mesa, said they saw the developments not so much as leaving the Episcopal Church as remaining within what they called the Anglican mainstream.
"The Episcopal Church has left the traditional values to chase after a liberal agenda and stay within a pagan religion. We have freedom from an oppressive church for oversight by a Bible-believing, born-again bishop," Evans said.
The decisions by the two parishes came despite an appeal by the chairman of an international Anglican commission appointed by the archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Robin Eames, Anglican primate of Ireland, had asked all churches to delay any major decisions until his panel could report next month.
The panel, known as the Lambeth Commission, has been taking testimony from opposing sides in the dispute over homosexuality in an effort to head off a schism within the communion.
But the two Southern California parishes said that they could wait no longer in view of what they called the Episcopal Church's continuing decisions undermining biblical authority.
Times staff writer David McKibben contributed to this report.