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Kingsburg church plans to quit United Methodist denomination

In a classic showdown between liberals and conservatives, several hundred members of Kingsburg's First United Methodist Church are expected to resign from the denomination after Sunday's service. Then, in what would be an apparently precedent-setting action in the 8.5 million-member Protestant movement, the former Methodists are expected to ask to buy the church property to set up a new, independent congregation. "One hundred percent of the people are leaving," said the Rev. Ed Ezaki, head of the Kingsburg church that has a membership of 371 people. "The only way it's not going to happen is if there's some kind of divine intervention. And it's divine intervention that's brought us this far," said Ezaki.

Barbara Carpenter, a church lay leader, said, "If you're asking me if it's important for us to be out in front on this, the answer is yes." The mass exodus is a near certainty, said the Rev. Rick Plain, the Methodist superintendent who oversees the 62 churches and 13,510 members of the Fresno District.

"Nationally, this doesn't establish some major trend," said Plain, who will be on hand to observe the vote. "People come and go all the time." The theological issues behind the split are black and white, Ezaki said. Ezaki is a member of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship, a decades-old group of conservative Methodist ministers and lay people. The group has been at odds with the Sacramento-based California-Nevada Annual Conference, a regional Methodist body that includes 375 churches and 93,000 members.

The fellowship is outraged at the conference's liberal interpretation of the Bible, its refusal to discipline pastors who officiate at same-sex marriages and its failure to include conservatives in leadership. Other Valley ministers who are members of the fellowship include the Revs. James F. Garrison of Dinuba, Vince Mixie of Laton-Armona, Donald H. Roulsten of Porterville, Raymond L. O'Neil of Selma, Harry Wood of Visalia, John Motz of Atwater and Ronald Greilich of Clovis.

A fellowship delegation met May 20 with Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, conference leader, asking permission to carve out a separate organization for evangelicals.

Talbert rejected the request.

Contacted Friday about the Kingsburg situation, Talbert said: "I'm very pained that people would feel the need to leave. The denomination has room for people with varying perspectives on their faith."

Resigning as church members may be simple compared with resolving property ownership.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, instituted a "trust clause" policy that has stood up to court tests for more than 200 years.

Basically, even though the names of local leaders are on property deeds, they don't own the church and can't take building or land with them should they resign.

Real-estate records show the Kingsburg congregation owns a church, built in 1930, with an assessed value of $252,768; and a residence, built in 1960, with an assessed value of $63,953.

Plain said the new congregation, which apparently will be called Kingsburg Community Church, "will be a major player in terms of purchasing their former facility. But there won't be a simple, sweetheart deal."

The properties also could be sold to other religious groups, he said. The denomination will first determine whether Kingsburg needs another Methodist ministry, Plain said. There are other Methodist churches in nearby Selma, Sanger and Visalia.

Talbert said it's too early to determine what will happen to the properties. He declined to comment about the precedent of selling it to resigned Methodists.

Ezaki said he's been assured that the new congregation could use the facilities for the next two months.

Ezaki's own future is murky.

Although he believes dialogue with the denomination is fruitless, Ezaki does not now plan to resign.

As long as the legal entity of the Kingsburg church exists - and Ezaki is not stripped of his appointment or granted a leave of absence - he will continue to draw pay and benefits from the denomination.

Says Talbert: "He has to decide if he wants to be a United Methodist. If he decides to, we welcome that." Talbert noted that Ezaki could be reassigned elsewhere.

Ezaki said he could envision a scenario in which he conducts a Sunday Methodist service - with him the only person present. And then, a half hour later, serving as a "guest preacher" to the new congregation meeting in the same building.

"It's a bizarre sort of thing," he said

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