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California bishop is on front line of Episcopal divide

San Joaquin Diocese's leader was a powerful force in conservative flock's vote to secede.

December 24, 2007|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Bishop John-David Schofield's tone was urgent this month as he exhorted delegates from his Central California diocese to leave the Episcopal Church.

For more than 20 years, Schofield said, he had watched in dismay as the national church strayed from Scripture and made controversial decisions about theology and sexuality, including the role of gays in the church. Now, he told delegates to his diocese's annual convention, it was time to act.

"God's timing is essential!" the bishop declared, his voice rising. "Delayed obedience to Scripture is seen as disobedience when opportunities and blessings are lost."

Schofield has emerged as a pivotal player in the drama surrounding the future of one of the nation's most influential denominations. At the meeting of delegates from across the Diocese of San Joaquin, he displayed the strong-willed personality that has won him both admirers and detractors.

There was no time to lose, he told the delegates. The national church could put new rules in place to prevent such secession attempts. The moment might never come again, he said.

The measures passed, by huge margins.

San Joaquin, a Fresno-based diocese of 47 parishes, had elected to become the first diocese in the nation to break with the Episcopal Church over theological issues and align with a conservative Anglican province in South America. And Schofield, according to supporters and critics alike, had played the central role in those historic Dec. 8 decisions, propelling his largely conservative flock along a path that could prove risky for all concerned.

A charismatic figure who can be as jovial as he is forceful, Schofield, 69, has led his 8,800-member diocese for nearly two decades. And like many strong leaders, he engenders strong opinions.

Admirers say he is a man of deep, unwavering belief, committed to defending his faith and flock from what he calls the Episcopal Church's unholy "innovations" of recent years, including the ordination of female priests and consecration of a gay bishop. He recently described his diocese, adjacent to others that are more liberal, as a haven for traditional Anglicans.

"He is the most godly man I have ever met," said Susan Richards, a longtime friend and lay counselor who is married to a priest in the diocese.

"He has incredible intelligence, he's a wonderful theologian, and he's totally committed to God and makes no apologies for it," she said.

The Rev. William Gandenberger, a priest who is the bishop's longtime canon and assistant, put it this way: "He stands on the Bible and he serves the Lord with gladness."

Fluent in Spanish and a fan of opera, Schofield entertains frequently, throwing dinner parties mainly for priests and lay leaders of the diocese, yet he also rises each day at 4 a.m. to pray, attend early church services and visit the widely scattered parishes he leads.

But critics say Schofield has created a divided, dysfunctional diocese, where doubts about his leadership and policies run much deeper than the convention's recent votes would suggest.

"He's a man of deep faith, but he's lost touch with reality," said Marion Montgomery, a Fresno stockbroker and former member of one of the diocese's governing committees. "He's gone so far off on his mission that he's left the rest of us behind."

The Rev. Mark Hall, rector of St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Stockton and a frequent critic of Schofield, said the bishop over the years had tried to push out and replace priests who disagreed with his views.

"He's brought in a bunch of carpetbaggers who've changed the tenor of the diocese," Hall said. "It was always conservative -- this area just is -- but we also had a very diverse group of clergy. We don't now."

Schofield, who spent his childhood in Massachusetts and his teenage years in the San Francisco Bay Area, returned to New England for college, graduating from Dartmouth in 1960 with a degree in philosophy. After receiving his master's of divinity degree from New York City's General Theological Seminary, he was ordained in 1964 in a San Francisco church where he had been serving as an assistant to the rector.

In 1969, after relatively brief stints at churches in England and France, he returned to California, becoming vicar and retreat master at a small parish in the Marin County community of Inverness.

While serving his parish, Schofield, who had been drawn for several years to the charismatic renewal movement, received permission from his bishop to spend time at a Roman Catholic monastery, where he eventually took vows as an external member of the order.

In 1988, Schofield was elected bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin, which runs through the agricultural heart of California from Sacramento to Bakersfield. From the beginning, the bishop and his diocese seemed a good fit, said Donn F. Morgan, president and dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley.

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