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Breaking Away

By Greg Mellen
Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram

Monday, August 15, 2005 - LONG BEACH — When All Saints Church in Belmont Heights split from the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese in October, it became part of a rich, fractious tradition that dates back to when King Henry VIII created the Church of England and cut ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

Biblical, doctrinal and social schisms have been a part of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church ever since. So have defections.

In the late 1970s, the issue of ordination of women into the clergy rocked the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. Approval of the ordination of women, along with proposed changes to the Book of Common Prayer, spurred four Southern California parishes to take the extreme step of severing ties with the national church.

Nationally, the effect was not unlike the current debate over the ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire and the blessing of same-sex unions that led All Saints in Long Beach, St. James in Newport Beach, St. David's in North Hollywood and others to sever ties with the Los Angeles diocese and the national church. The three Southland parishes chose to remain in the worldwide Anglican Communion by aligning themselves with a diocese in Uganda.

The L.A. diocese sued the breakaway churches for their property and financial holdings, arguing that the parishes held them in trust for the diocese and forfeited them when they left the church. The same argument was used in 1977.

The four Southern California churches that left the fold in the 1970s found that their experiences tested the faiths and pocketbooks of both churchgoers and leadership.

The current breakaway churches may or may not have similar experiences. On Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge David Velasquez tentatively ruled that one of the churches, St. James of Newport Beach, is the rightful owner of the church and its property. Velasquez's final ruling is expected today at a 2:30 p.m. hearing.

The ruling will not apply to the two other breakaway parishes. Hearings haven't been scheduled on those churches but the issues are much the same, according to attorney Eric Sohlgren, who represents St. James but acts as a spokesman for all three.


The gang of four

In 1977, St. Mary of the Angels in Hollywood's Los Feliz neighborhood, St. Matthias in Sun Valley, Church of Our Saviour in Los Angeles and Holy Apostles in Glendale were moderate-sized parishes that made the monumental decision to break away from the U.S. Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Their decisions were spurred by the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 1976, which approved the ordination of women and changes to the Book of Common Prayer. All four parishes were sued by the Los Angeles diocese and went through lengthy court battles. Three won in court, but at a steep cost emotionally, financially and in terms of faith.

Of those that "won," St. Matthias of Sun Valley is now defunct and Our Saviour in Los Angeles hangs on with a rector who is also a full-time teacher. St. Mary of the Angels, the Los Feliz church that spearheaded the move, is now thriving. But in the interim it lost almost its entire congregation, most of its endowment and teetered on the edge of collapse before rebounding.

The rector of St. Mary's at the time, John Barker, whose name has become synonymous with the court case, led an attempt to have his parish accepted as a Roman Catholic Church with Anglican rites. When that failed, he left the Anglican faith, converted to Roman Catholicism and is now a priest in Murrieta. The Rev. William Brown of St. Matthias, similarly unsuccessful, also converted to Roman Catholicism and has since retired. Some members of the St. Matthias congregation later helped found St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Rite Catholic Church in Chatsworth. Despite its title, that parish is not a member of the global Anglican Communion nor affiliated with the U.S. Catholic Church.

Some remaining members of the congregation of Holy Apostles in Glendale, which lost its case, now rent space at a Presbyterian church for weekly Masses. The parish the Episcopal diocese retained was converted into a church for Spanish speakers and was renamed Iglesia de la Magdalena.

"We were young and ready to fight," said the Rev. Donald Ashman, rector of Our Saviour in Los Angeles and a member of Holy Apostles during the secession. "We didn't know how much pain would come. But don't misunderstand me: I don't regret it."

Catholic journey

For Barker and Brown, the former rectors of St. Mary's and St. Matthias, the journey was particularly painful and difficult. They bore the responsibility of leading their parishes away from the Episcopal Church, but eventually failed in their ultimate goal of forging relationships with the Roman Catholic Church.

Barker, popularly referred to as Father Jack, now presides over a flourishing Catholic congregation in Murrieta. St. Martha's Catholic Parish recently celebrated completion of an $8 million project to build a 1,400-person-capacity sanctuary. The parish now consists of 4,500 families and is growing each month.

When the subject of his time at St. Mary's is brought up, Barker politely declines to discuss it.

During the secession battles, Barker and Brown helped lead a national campaign to allow disaffected Episcopal parishes to be in communion with the Catholic Church of the United States while retaining Anglican traditions, including liturgy and married priests.

Barker and Brown were spokesmen for a portion of "Catholic-minded' Anglicans in the U.S. who saw Roman Catholicism as a safe harbor from leaders they said were making "irreversible changes to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church," according to a document Barker wrote describing the times.

For many years, there have been Episcopalians who subscribe to the so-called "branch theory." An outgrowth of the liberal Oxford Movement of the 19th century, the theory holds that Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholicism along with Anglicanism are branches of the one true church of Christ. This is rooted in the notion of apostolic succession, which holds they are the only faiths that can trace a direct lineage of bishops who have been consecrated back to St. Peter, an original apostle of Jesus. St. Peter is generally regarded as the first pontiff of Rome.

Episcopalians and Anglicans who share this belief have often sought to forge tighter affiliations with Rome. In addition to straining relations within Anglicanism, the events of 1976 threatened the Episcopal Church's relations with Rome. As a result, Barker, Brown and other disaffected Episcopal leaders met with officials of the Vatican, eventually working out an agreement that was approved by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

In 1980, Archbishop John R. Quinn announced a "pastoral provision' by which Episcopal and Anglican parishes could become Roman Catholic. In 1983-84, the clergy and parishes of five churches were accepted into the Catholic Church.

Although Barker and Brown won the war, they lost the battle.

In his paper describing the history of pastoral provision, Barker wrote that in October 1984, Catholic Bishop John Ward, on behalf of Cardinal Timothy Manning, told the clergy of St. Matthias and St. Mary of the Angels that no pastoral provision would be offered to the parishes. This happened despite what Barker said were private assurances by Bishop Bernard Law, one of the point men for the Catholic Church in the process, that the Southland parishes "would have little difficulty' being admitted into the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

After being rebuffed, Barker and Brown both left the Anglican faith and converted.

The Rev. Beau Davis, a parishioner at the time and now a curate at St. Mary's, still is angry when he talks about what he saw as underhanded treatment from Manning.

However, he remains hopeful that one day his parish will become a Catholic church with Anglican traditions. Maybe even in his lifetime.

"We still have good communication with the Roman Church," Davis said. "It's not going to happen quickly, but it will happen in God's time."

What's ahead

Given their experiences, members and clergy from the breakaway parishes of the 1970s say their prayers and wishes are with All Saints Church and the other secessionists.

Ashman said he suspects the three parishes are in better financial shape than the group that took on the church in the 1970s. And he predicts they'll need the resources.

"They're going to suffer because they're taking on a large corporation," Ashman said. "(The diocese) is stronger numerically and has more resources. A giant is going to take (the breakaway churches) to court, and it's going to be rough. I've been there and done that."

Link to original article

August 15, 2005 in Church of Uganda, Churches Not In Communion, Diocese of Los Angeles, St. James, Newport Beach, CA | Permalink


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I knew both St. Mary of the Angels and St. Matthias Episcopal churches and their clergy way back in the 50s. As a "continuing Episcopalian", I am saddened by the loss of these parishes to the Episcopal Church. I loved both places. In fact, I am wondering if anyone knows any history of the old St. Matthias in Los Angeles and/or has photos of the church? When I knew St. Matthias, the rector was Father McLean. It would be wonderful to have some photos of the church or to share stories. Thank you, Michael Haines, San Francisco

Posted by: Michael Haines | Oct 3, 2010 8:14:49 PM

A follow-up to my first post: I would also be interested in any history or photos of St. Matthias Church when it was in Sun Valley--and any stories or photos of St. Mary of the Angels when Fr. Jim Jordan was Rector. Many thanks, Michael Haines [email protected]

Posted by: Michael Haines | Oct 3, 2010 8:19:10 PM

I realized both St. Betty of the Angels and St. Matthias Episcopal chapels and their local clergy way returning in the 50s. I am saddened by the decrease of these parishes to the Episcopal Chapel. I liked both locations.

Posted by: Counseling Jacksonville Fl | Apr 2, 2012 9:02:02 AM

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