Two North County Episcopal churches, both over 60 years old, were told last week that due to declining attendance and compounding red ink, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego has decided to fold them.
The land and the buildings that house St. Anne’s in Oceanside and All Saints in Vista will be sold.
A letter dated October 25 from the Rt. Rev. James Mathes, who oversees the San Diego Episcopal diocese, said that after 15 months “of discernment by clergy and lay leaders of the congregations themselves,” a sale was forthcoming. “The costs of maintaining separate properties, [and] compensated clergy and staff…is beyond the capacity of the congregations themselves and the diocese.”
Bishop Mathes was not available for comment because he was attending the installation ceremony of the presiding bishop for the American Episcopal Church at the national cathedral in Washington DC.
Hannah Wilder, spokeswoman for the San Diego Episcopal diocese did comment. When I noted that it was surprising that this news hadn’t yet been mentioned in other media, she responded: “The fact that church attendance is dying in America isn’t news. It’s just not that surprising.”
Wilder said she was not sure who would end up buying the historic churches, saying “…they have not yet been listed,” but that they probably would be sold to another church based on recent history.
She said that six years ago St. Elizabeth Episcopal in Linda Vista was sold to a group that transformed it into an Antiochian Eastern Orthodox church.
Bishop Mathes oversees all 48 churches in the San Diego Episcopal Diocese, which includes Imperial and Riverside counties and Yuma. The American Episcopal Church is aligned with but not a part of the hierarchy of the worldwide Anglican communion whose roots go back to the Church of England.
Wilder said the drop in attendance at St. Anne’s and All Saints in recent years made them financially reliant on the San Diego diocese, which decided it could no longer keep those parishes solvent. She pointed out that it is a completely different story at nearby St. Michael’s in Carlsbad, which has a robust congregation and easily maintains solvency.
Parishoners who attended St. Michael’s on Sunday (November 1) said no mention was made during the service about the folding of its two sister parishes. Rev. Tom Morelli of St. Anne’s likewise said there was no mention during church service that the end was near.
“The congregation was notified in writing the previous Sunday,” said Morelli.
The fate of St. Anne’s was hinted at when its conservative parishioners revolted at the progressive tilt that the American Episcopal church was taking with the ordination of female priests and the announcement in 2003 of its first openly gay bishop. That conservative core, which constituted the majority of St. Anne’s congregation, essentially commandeered St. Anne’s in 2006 and announced it was breaking the Oceanside church off from the American Episcopal Church and aligning with an Anglican church in Bolivia.
A court ruling said that St. Anne’s in fact belonged to the San Diego Episcopal Diocese and the conservative members had to turn the keys back over to the local diocese it denounced. That breakaway congregation then temporarily moved to the Carlsbad Community Church until it opened its own church on Oceanside Boulevard in 2011. The Grace Anglican Church of Oceanside now celebrates communion with a reported congregation of 225.
Attempts to find someone who would comment on the possibility that this spin-off church may make a move to buy its old church were not successful.
An insider familiar with Oceanside planning law said that it would be difficult for the St. Anne’s campus — which is located in a residential area immediately east of South Coast Highway — to be used for something that is not “same or similar” to its current use as a church. All Saints is adjacent to Vista city hall and older homes.
In his letter, Bishop Mathes also announced the dissolution of Santa Rosa Del Mar in the city of Imperial (north of El Centro). He noted that that church had not gathered as a congregation for 18 months.
Bishop Mathes wrote that the announced closing of the three churches is not unique.
“Many Americans have genuine spiritual hunger, but fewer and fewer receive nourishment through traditional religious communities predicated on one building, one or more clergy, and one congregation…. I anticipate additional actions and unifications in the coming months.”
He cited recent Episcopal collaborations between St. Paul’s Cathedral in La Jolla and St. Luke’s on 30th Street as examples.