A Tragic Division Liturgical schism splits Ben Lomond orthodox church
Rift pits longtime parishioners against each other by May Wong
Sentinel Staff writer

Sunday August 30.1998

They worshiped together under the same gold dome for decades. Not anymore.
They are a church divided. What started as differences over litugical style
at the St Peter and St Paul’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ben Lomond has
snowballed into a bitter dispute over power and money. The imbroglio has led
to massive dissension, ex-communication of priests, and uncharacteristic
visits by sheriff’s deputies as members squabbled over ownership of icons. It
has pit godchildren against godfathers, and neighbors and friends against
each other. In one case, a husband and wife are on different sides. The
struggle has even spilled into the courts and resulted in a ruling that says
the church’s roof and the rest ofits buildings no longer belong tothe
parishioners and priests who poured over 1$ million into the property over
the past two decades. The court battle ended last week with the smaller,
so-called loyalist faction backed by the New Jersey-based archdiocese
winning. In a case that raised constitutional, property rights and seperation
of church-and-state issues, Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Samuel
Stevens ruled that the church off Highway 9 and its rellated properties
ultimately belong to the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North
America. “It’s really sad,” said Sophie Majmudar, a Ben Lomond resident who
grew up in the church built now worships elsewhere because of the court
order. “All our tithe money has gone into this property.” But even the
winners weren’t cheering when the judge reached his verdict. “There is no
great joy that we went tocourt,” said the Rev. David Barr, who was appointed
to serve at the church in the spring after 10 of the longtime preists at the
church were banished. “It’s a tragic division,” Barr said. “No one feels
vindicated.” The schism has left more than 300 Orthodox Christians without a
house of worship. The group made up about 80 percent of the St Peter and St
Paul membership. But because they chose in February to remain loyal to the
clergy who defied the Archbishiop, they,too,elected to seperate from the
Antiochian Orthodox Church, a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church based in
Damascus, Syria. According to court documents, the dispute began brewing last
year when members of the local clergy disagreed with the wishes of the
archbishop, known as Metropolitan Philip. “Ten of the twelve priests at the
the church and more than half of the deacons did not agree with the
archbishop’s proposed changes, which ranged from where the priest stood and
the style of singing to shortening the service,” members said. To the
so-called dissidents, the changes amounted to a move away from the more
traditional, conservative style they had been practicing for years. “He (Met.
Philip) wanted to make it more compatible with American culture,” Majmudar
said. “American people don’t want to stand for hours. THey want to get home
and watch their football games.” To the so-called loyalists, the proposed
changes boiled down to simply following the orders of the head of the church
they chose to join. “What mattered to me was having a loving spirit and order
under the bishop,” said the Rev. Kent Washburn, one of the two priests who
decided to stay with the Antiochian Orthodox Church. In February, the larger
group of parishioners and clergy requested a split. The priests asked to be
“released” from the Antiochian Orthodox Church so they could start another
parish under the Orthodox Church in America, which is more aligned with
Russian practices. But instead of getting “released”, some of the priests
were ex-communicated while others were suspended from the priesthood. The
disciplinary action, which is under appeal to the church’s Spiritual Court in
Syria, came after the priests openly defied the archishop in February. The
act of defiance came after the archbishop announced he was transferring one
of the priests, a founding father of the Ben Lomond church, to Chicago. “We
knew it was not a routine transfer,” Majmudar said. “They just wanted him
oout of the way.” At a Feb. 12 meeting, a priest, who was one of the leaders
of the dissident faction, publicaly criticized the auxiliary bishops and the
archdiocese. According to court documents, he also refused to obey the
archbishop’s order to have a dean of the region chair the meeting. Within two
days, that priest and the priests aligned with him were immediately ejected
from the priesthood – a move which made any other branch of the Orthodox
Church leery of accepting them. If a branch such as the Orthodox Church in
America welcomed the so-called dissidents, they were at risk of being cut off
from the powerful – and rich – archdiocese. As a result, the dissenting
priests and the majority of the congregation that supported them, felt almost
churchless. But the dissidents believed the Ben Lomond sanctuary they had
acquired and renovated with their own money and hands still belonged to them
and they refused to give up their church. The roots of the Ben Lomond church
date back to the late 1970’s when several local evangeliccal parishes joined
together. They later bought the church building at 9980 Highway 9, joined the
Antiochian Orthodox Church, and erected the gold dome that has become the
church’s defining feature. On the Saturday that the archbishop disciplined
the priests, members of the dissident group wrested control of the church
property by changing all the locks. So on the next day, the day of worship,
no one conducted services there – not the ex-communicated priests nor the
ones who were locked out. Instead, parishioners got onto Highway 17. One
group headed to an Orthodox church in Saratoga and the other to a church in
Cupertino. And in another ironic twist, perhaps instigated by a heavenly
power, the sparring sides were forced to wait together as a road crew cleared
a toppled tree off the highway. “Instead of worshipping together, some rotten
tree fell over the highway and we were caught in traffic,” Washburn said.
“There we were looking at each other, shaking our heads ruefully, to see
ourselves in such a state.” For weeks, the dissidents would not let the
loyalists back into the church. Then Metropolitan Philip and the archdiocese
went to court. They successfully convinced a judge to order the dissidents to
let the loyalists back into the church. Then, on March 13, they sued the
leaders of the dissident group, claiming the church property belonged to the
archdiocese and not the local church corporation. The property in dispute was
worth morth than $1.5 million , attorneys in the case said. It included the
gold-domed sanctuary, classrooms for a 100-student parochial school, a
fellowship hall, an office building in downtown Ben Lomond, a barn, two
houses for the priests and a small publishing company. The case, which went
to trial last week, featured testimony from canonical experts, leading
theologians, and specialists in church and constitutional laws. Attorneys for
the archdiocese contended the Ben lomond church properties implicitly fell
under the control of the archdiocese when the group elected to join the
Orthodox Church. “It is an indivisible part of the whole church,” said James
Hyde, a San Jose attorney. The dissidents “have a right to leave, but they
can’t take the property with them.” Attorneys for the dissidents argued that
the local church never signed any papers handing control of the property to
the archdiocese. “It doesn’t say anywhere in the record that it was being
held in trust for the archdiocese,” said Austin Comstock, a Santa Cruz
attorney. “They bought some of these properties even before becoming part of
the archdiocese, and they bought it with their own money.” After a three day
trial, the judge issued his ruling, Aug 20th, agreeing with the plaintiffs.
Upset over the decision, members of the dissident group went to the church
that same day and tried to grab vestments and icons they firmly believed
belonged to them. A sheriff’s deputy was called out to help settle the civil
dispute. Several days later, someone in the dissident group again tried to
take an icon. Deputies were called out a second time, and then the loyalist
group changed the locks to the church.