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San Joaquin Valley churches move on after splits on values

San Joaquin Valley churches move on after splits on values

By Ron Orozco
The Fresno Bee
Aug. 5, 2011

Some national church denominations have changed their standards in recent years - stirring debate among congregations about whether to stay or find a new path.

In the central San Joaquin Valley, some congregations have chosen to leave their denominations because, they say, it doesn't represent their traditional values. The goodbyes have worked out for the churches, but they have been difficult.

The trend has reached three major denominations - the U.S. Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA) and most recently the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Immanuel Lutheran Church in Easton is the latest church to disassociate with the ELCA, citing differences in doctrine. The Easton church follows similar pullouts by other small Lutheran churches in Kingsburg, Madera, Auberry and Tulare.

"All across the country, people get to a point where they are deciding what is most important to them - and they are going out and doing it," says the Rev. Gary Gould, a visiting pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church, which is without a full-time pastor. Gould retired as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Madera, which voted three months ago to leave the ELCA over differences in hiring Gould's replacement.

"Some are sticking with a particular group, but others think sticking with a particular group isn't as important as what God is calling them to do," Gould says. "If that group isn't going along with what you want to do, some leave."

In the Valley, some churches part on friendly terms. After leaving, Valley congregations within Presbyterian Church (USA) have retained church property and agreed to fulfill financial pledges for ministries run by the denomination they were leaving. Both settlements were worked out by the Presbytery of San Joaquin, which governs the Valley congregations.

Valley congregations within ELCA also are retaining church property after leaving, if they move on to another Lutheran denomination. Immanuel Lutheran Church is in the process of joining the North American Lutheran Church.

"We will be praying for their success as they move forward," says Bishop Mark Holmerud of the Sierra Pacific Synod, which governs the Valley congregations.

But departures can be bitter. In 2007, the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, based in Fresno, seceded from the U.S. Episcopal Church over debate about same-sex blessings, consecration of a partnered gay priest and how to interpret the Bible over such issues. It resulted in a breakaway Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, which is now part of the Anglican Church in North America. Locally, the Episcopal and Anglican dioceses are still waged in a court fight over property and assets.

Gould say it is a hard decision that some churches make leaving a denomination.

"Oh, it's very painful to leave something," he says. "You've been with them for 50 years. It's kind of scary - you don't know what you're getting into. You know that you may have more freedom to do things than what you've had in a long time, but you don't know for sure. You have to weigh all that stuff."

To better understand how the changes have played out, The Bee checked in with St. Mary's Anglican Church in Fresno and Fowler Presbyterian Church, who have experienced the transition, and Immanuel Lutheran Church.

St. Mary's Anglican

The rift in the U.S. Episcopal Church - played out over the past eight years - still lingers at St. Mary's on East Kings Canyon Road.

Some property is still being contested by the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. The lawsuit can "loom like a black cloud," says the church's pastor, the Rev. Michael Sclafani.

But, he says, church members aren't letting the lawsuit get them down.

"It's something we think about from time to time, but it's nothing that interferes with us day to day," he says.

The split, he says, no longer is on people's minds.

"It's in the past," he says. "Nobody is dwelling on it. Nobody is stuck in the past."

Rather, the church is experiencing a sense of renewal in the Anglican tradition - and concentrating on the church's mission - reaching out to others.

The church has 102 active members from 60 families. They are busy with church ministries. Many helped as volunteers at the church's recent Vacation Bible School program, when 170 children attended. The church partnered with five other southeast Fresno churches to hold the event.

Sclafani says, "People here are focused on the church being the body of Christ, a family of believers, as opposed to the church being the 2-by-4s, the stained-glass windows and the pews."


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