St. Johns Episcopal congregation holds first public service since Petaluma church split over gays

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The light of sunrise filtered through the Eucharist and silvered the white hair of the priest who held it high as Petaluma?s new St. John?s Episcopal Church celebrated its first public service at Prince Park on Easter Sunday.

?This morning we celebrate the victory of justice over injustice, the triumph of love over hate, the primacy of hope over despair,? said the Rev. Norman Cram.

Cram, 70, came out of semi-retirement last month to form the new congregation after the original St. John?s split from the national Episcopal Church in December over the issue of how gays should be treated.

The Rev. David Miller, rector of the Fifth Street church, said then that homosexuality is a sin and that he could not accept gays as priests or bishops.

?The best roof for Easter Sunday is the Lord?s roof,? Cram said to the 35 people who gathered in a corner of the big park as birds sang, soccer players called out in the distance and the fog slowly burned off to reveal the green splendor of Sonoma Mountain.

Several worshippers said they were there because they could not accept Miller?s teachings.

?I believe in our baptismal vows,? said Susan Hadenfeldt. ?Everyone was created in God?s image.?

Across town on Fifth Street, in the church that now calls itself St. John?s Anglican, nearly 200 people worshipped in the stained glass beauty of a building whose ownership may end up being determined by the courts.

?The gay and lesbian community doesn?t seem to want to settle for tolerance,? said Phil Gaaf, of Sebastopol. ?They seem to want warm acceptance of what can only be considered an aberrant lifestyle.?

Miller spoke to his congregation about a hill on which many paths lead to God, except for the ?chasm of sin,? which only Jesus Christ can bridge. He spoke of sin perhaps a dozen times.

Cram did not mention the word.

And there is the nub of the doctrinal dispute that has led some 40 parishes to separate from the Episcopal Church of the United States since 2003, when an openly gay man was consecrated as a bishop. The parishes that have disassociated themselves believe homosexuality is a sin; the mother church does not. There are 7,200 Episcopal congregations in the country.

The views of the protesting American churches are shared by a majority of Episcopal and Anglican bishops around the world. Last month, the U.S. bishops rejected a demand from the worldwide Anglican Communion to place the discontented parishes under international leadership.

Members of both Petaluma congregations say the split is regrettable.

?It?s sad that there are people who are leaving the church,? said Allie Andrews, referring to defections from the Fifth Street church she has attended since 1955. ?I hope eventually everyone will be back together under one roof.?

John Mills, a home developer who serves on the city?s Planning Commission, said there were reasons for him and others to have considered leaving the original St. John?s even before it split from the national church, said John Mills, a home developer who serves on the city?s Planning Commission.

In the early ?90s, before Miller and Cram came on the scene, women were being shunned as leaders at the Petaluma church, he said.

The Rev. JoAnne Parkhurst, who came to Petaluma from Michigan, is the deacon of Cram?s new congregation.

For some church members, the gay issue is not of great importance.

Stuart Anderson, a 77-year-old retired Episcopal priest who still attends Miller?s services, said he has no problem with a gay bishop. But he and his wife are sticking with the Fifth Street church because they know the Rev. Miller and have friends there.

Cram, 70, is a retired Navy chaplain who served as rector of the Fifth Street church from 1995 to 1999.

He said his congregation has been provided a temporary home at Elim Lutheran Church by pastor Tim Kellgren. St. John?s Episcopal?s first service there will be at 5 p.m. Saturday.

The rift in the Petaluma Episcopal community reached a breaking point Dec. 17 when the congregation that now calls itself St. John?s Anglican voted to separate from the Episcopal Church of the United States.

The Episcopal Diocese of Northern California reacted to Miller?s announcement by dissolving the St. John?s vestry, its board of directors. It also appointed Cram as the rector of the new Petaluma congregation, which it considers a continuation of the original St. John?s Episcopal.

Diocese officials said they are weighing legal action to recover the Fifth Street church property.

You can reach Staff Writer Jose L. Sanchez Jr. at 762-7297 or

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