It is perhaps not the worst of times, but it is certainly not the best of times.
I first encountered Stockton, California in 1972, when the woman I would later marry brought me home to meet the parents. (“Home” at the time was actually Lodi, which is effectively a Stockton suburb, and she had lived in Stockton until her mid-teens.) For the next 22 years, it was on my personal radar screen as a place we visited (or at least drove through) regularly as we lived first in Santa Barbara, then in the Salem, Oregon area, then in Wisconsin and Louisiana. In 1994, I accepted a call to become Rector of St John the Evangelist, the historic downtown Stockton parish, and the city became my home for the next 13 years. My mother-in-law still lives there, as do other members of my extended family-by-marriage, to say nothing of a host of friends and former parishioners. It’s still very much on my personal map.
Stockton is part of the “unknown California.” In the Midwest, where I live now, people tend to carry the visceral impression of California as one big beach town, where you can catch rays 365 days a year. The vast central valley—larger than all of New England, draining the San Joaquin River from the south and the Sacramento River from the north—tends to fly under the radar, even to many coastal Californians. Only a few days ago I had a conversation with a resident of Orange County who referred to Stockton as the “armpit of California,” assuming, from its name, that it was a center of the cattle business, imbued with fetid slaughterhouse odors. In fact, Stockton, with its environs, is a population center housing more than 350,000 people. In my now home state of Indiana, it would be the second largest city. There is a highly-acclaimed private university there, a fine symphony orchestra, and a bunch of other cultural amenities. Yes, lately, it’s also been Foreclosures R Us, but that’s a passing factoid.
St John’s Church is (was?—that’s kind of what this post is about) the third-oldest Episcopal congregation on the west coast, founded in 1850. In 1911, the San Joaquin Valley was spun off by the Diocese of California (centered in San Francisco, 80 miles to the west) and became the Missionary District of San Joaquin. Some fifty years later, San Joaquin became a full-fledged diocese of the Episcopal Church, and St John’s was long its northern anchor (St John the Baptist, Lodi being the actual northernmost congregation), which stretches 200 miles south to Bakersfield and then over the Sierras to the Nevada border, encompassing such isolated communities as Bishop, Lone Pine, and Mammoth Lakes.
In the arena of secular politics, the San Joaquin Valley has tended to swim against the larger California tide. California may be solidly a “blue” state, but there are a great many “red” counties in the interior (though San Joaquin County, with its seat in Stockton, went narrowly for Obama in the 2008 election). This general agrarian cultural conservatism has been generally reflected in the life of the Episcopal Church there. Bishop Victor Rivera, who served from 1968 until 1988, was in harmony with the critical mass of his diocese, which tended to stay the course theologically as the much larger coastal dioceses moved steadily to the left. Bishop Rivera’s successor, John-David Schofield, continued this direction and gave it a steroid shot. The majority of clergy and laity within the diocese grew steadily more disenchanted with the general direction of the Episcopal Church during the 1990s and into the new century, a rising tide of discontent that was not caused by the bishop’s leadership, but was certainly fueled by it.
Nonetheless, for most of this time, clergy of varying theological and ideological perspectives managed to maintain cordial and cooperative relationships with one another in pursuing local ministry and mission. In my own deanery, the eight (at the time) congregations pooled resources (from each according to its abilities) in 1997 and called a full-time youth minister, an arrangement that had some marked success during the years it lasted. I met regularly for lunch with my colleagues, the Rectors of St Anne’s, Stockton and St John the Baptist, Lodi. We were friends. We respected and liked one another. The youth of our congregations began to form relationships across parish lines.
Of course, there was always thunder rumbling in the distance. I distinctly remember calling attention to this thunder at one of our lunch meetings eleven or twelve years ago. In one of those makes-the-blood-run-cold moments of prescience, I compared that moment to a shared repast between young U.S. Army officers in, say, the late 1840s, some being from New Jersey and Massachusetts, and some being from Virginia and South Carolina. You can see where I was going with that, although the analogy doesn’t play out with complete accuracy, because, by the time of the actual split in December of 2007, all three of us had moved away from the diocese. Yet, both of their parishes are today connected to the Episcopal Church, while mine stayed with Bishop Schofield and is now a parish in the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, en route, no doubt, to becoming part of the emerging Anglican Church of North America.
So, today, there are two Anglican congregations in the city of Stockton. One is the mother of the other; St Anne’s on the north side was begun in 1950 as a parochial mission of St John’s downtown. Over the decades, parishioners have moved between the two of them at various times for various reasons—some noble and some petty. Divergent cultures evolved in each parish, but that was seen largely as a good thing, providing a sort of safety valve for those who felt stifled by the predominant conservatism of St John’s or insecure in the predominant liberalism of St Anne’s. Until the most recent unpleasantness, both wore the label “Episcopal” comfortably, even proudly.
But St John’s and St Anne’s are now, using the idiom of this era, walking apart. The differences don’t seem huge at first. Both buildings look the same as they did before the 2007 convention, save for a new sign at St John’s striking “Episcopal” and replacing it with “Anglican.” Both use the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in their worship—as far as I know still, Rite I early on Sundays and Rite II late—and both still sing from the Hymnal 1982, supplemented by more contemporary sources. Both retain a corporate memory of being linked to one another—sometimes joyfully and sometimes uneasily—cooperating in diocesan camping programs, sharing services (and choirs) on Ascension or All Saints, being part of the same extended family.
But no more. Last month, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church elected to hold its regular winter meeting in Stockton, for the express purpose of demonstrating solidarity with those congregations that chose not to follow the majority to the Southern Cone. Some, at least—and I would suspect most if not all—of its members worshiped at St Anne’s over the Sunday of the meeting. It was a decision rich with irony, since, until the split, one of the members of the Executive Council was a resident of Stockton and a member of St John’s. Yet, before the split, it would never have occurred to the Presiding Bishop or the President of the House of Deputies to schedule a meeting in Stockton, or anywhere else in the Diocese of San Joaquin. That was considered “enemy territory.” Yet now, members of Executive Council have blogged about their discovery of Stockton, what a wonderful place the San Joaquin Valley is, and how excited they are about the continuing ministry of the Episcopal Church in that area. One wonders whether such a visit—say, ten years ago—not with the intent of intimidating but with the intent of listening, might have contributed to an atmosphere of trust that could have forestalled the secession of a diocese. I’m glad the leadership of the Episcopal Church has discovered Stockton. But I’m afraid their visit was an exercise in shutting the barn door long after the horses are nowhere in sight.
Last Saturday, my successor was installed at St John’s. He shares the theologically and morally conservative views of his parishioners, but lest anyone think these are in any way generational issues, it is worth pointing out that he’s 29 years old, and, trust me, there are a lot more young Anglicans where he came from, so to speak. The preacher on the occasion was the Bishop of Fort Worth—not the newly rehabilitated entity that continues in union with General Convention, but the ongoing entity that is also now part of the Southern Cone.
So the “walking” continues, and the “apart” is now a whole lot further.
These two tales of one city are, I believe, microcosmic. They are part of the same narrative that we can find all over the ruins and remains of what was once a united Anglican presence in this country. We seem to be able to interminably parse the meaning of schism—what it is and what it isn’t, exactly, and whether or not it’s worse than heresy. I don’t have any additional wisdom today on those questions. What I do have is a heavy heart about the damage that has already been done in the last several months—damage done for very principled reasons by both sides, I realize, but real damage nonetheless, damage that was accomplished as quickly as “calling the question” at a convention, or signing a deposition notice or a legal complaint.
And I suppose I also have a hope—not a visceral hope, but an intentional hope, in the sense of affirmatively cultivating a virtue—that, as we try to figure out the way ahead for Anglican Christianity, people on both sides of the divide might endeavor to do as little damage as possible to the institutional infrastructure of our common life, that, if we must walk apart, that we try to walk apart a little closer together, not so far apart that we have to shout to be heard, and occasionally, perhaps, close enough on parallel paths that we are still able to join hands as we walk. As the ACNA emerges, may its members foster a culture of generosity toward their Episcopalian neighbors. It now matters more how we walk apart than that we walk apart. And in the light of the latest communique from the Primates, and the report of the Windsor Continuation Group, may a similar generosity of spirit emerge in the Episcopal Church—at 815, and especially at General Convention this summer.
If we can do that much, it will be a far, far better thing that we do than we have ever done.