[Episcopal News Service] The church property at 4301 Meadowbrook Drive on the east side of Fort Worth, Texas, has long been a hub of Episcopal activity, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Luke’s in the Meadow, a congregation of about a hundred members, has worshipped there since 1948. Its Sunday school wing now houses Fort Worth’s diocesan offices. A thriving feeding ministry, 4Saints Food Pantry, operates from the parish hall every Friday.
The congregation, the diocese and the feeding ministry will carry on, but church leaders and parishioners are preparing to say goodbye to 4301 Meadowbrook Drive. The diocese is grieving the loss of a 12-year-old court battle that likely will leave St. Luke’s in the Meadow and dozens of other diocesan properties in the hands of a breakaway group that is affiliated with the Anglican Church of North America, or ACNA.
“The task at hand is not easy, but our sights are set on continuing to love God, each other and our neighbors,” the Rev. Karen Calafat, rector of St. Luke’s in the Meadow, told Episcopal News Service by email on Feb. 25. She politely declined a request for a phone interview, citing the “many tight deadlines we are working toward at the moment” as church leaders search for new locations.
St. Luke’s in the Meadow is one of six congregations in and around Fort Worth that may need to give up their worshipping spaces after the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 22 declined to review the diocese’s court case. The displacements would be the latest and likely final round in a legal dispute that dates to 2008, when then-Bishop Jack Iker led a majority of the diocese’s congregations out of The Episcopal Church over doctrinal differences, particularly the breakaway group’s opposition to the ordination of women and LGBTQ clergy.
Since 2008, Episcopalians who remained faithful to The Episcopal Church have reorganized the diocese as 15 congregations across 24 counties, now under the leadership of Northwest Texas Bishop Scott Mayer, who has served as Fort Worth’s provisional bishop since 2015. Mayer said in a phone interview with ENS that Episcopalians in north central Texas remain upbeat about the church’s growth in the region.
“There really isn’t any question that we will continue,” Mayer said, citing examples of Fort Worth Episcopalians’ perseverance and dedication. The diocese has consistently paid its full assessment in support of the churchwide budget, he said, and church members have committed time and resources to growing new ministries that serve the community.
“When this diocese reorganized 12 years ago, they made decisions initially, right off the bat, that they were going to choose living over surviving, and love over fear,” he said.
The property dispute now returns to the Texas trial court judge, who will determine in the coming weeks how his ruling will be carried out. “There are still some loose ends,” Mayer said, and he declined to discuss ongoing discussions with the ACNA group, other than to say that six Episcopal congregations are preparing for the possibility of losing their worship spaces.
In addition to St. Luke’s in the Meadow, those Fort Worth congregations include All Saints’ Episcopal Church-Fort Worth, St. Christopher Episcopal Church and St. Elisabeth’s & Christ the King Episcopal Church. About a two-hour drive northwest, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Wichita Falls also may need to vacate its building, as well as St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hillsboro, which has been sharing a worship space with an ACNA congregation in the town a little over 50 miles south of Fort Worth.
The diocese affiliated with The Episcopal Church estimates that more than $100 million in property would be lost in the lawsuits, though a fraction of that property is at stake in the new congregational displacements. The majority of the diocese’s church buildings have been occupied since the 2008 diocesan split by congregations now affiliated with ACNA, which also will maintain possession of Camp Crucis in Granbury, Texas.
ACNA leaders praised the latest court decision in favor of the breakaway Fort Worth diocese. “Today’s decision marks a turning point for us as a diocese,” Bishop Ryan Reed said in a written statement issued Feb. 22 after the U.S. Supreme Court said it wouldn’t intervene. “After directing so many resources to this dispute, we can now put our entire focus on Gospel ministry and Kingdom work.”
The Rev. Jay Atwood, canon to the ordinary of the ACNA-affiliated diocese, told ENS that no decision had yet been made about the fate of the buildings that still were being used by congregations affiliated with The Episcopal Church.
The Texas court rulings apply to church buildings that predate the 2008 split and shouldn’t affect Episcopal congregations that already have established new locations after being displaced. All Saints’ Episcopal School, which has its own board of trustees and sits on a campus in Fort Worth separate from the All Saints’ church building that is claimed by the breakaway diocese, is not affected by the litigation.
With the end of the litigation in sight, the diocese is in mourning this week, Mayer said. In a video message to the diocese, released Feb. 26, he spoke of the “shock and anger and grief” caused by the latest news, especially amid the ongoing disruptions caused by the pandemic and last month’s cold-weather crisis – and at a time when Episcopalians are focused on Lenten preparations for Holy Week. In the video and again in his Feb. 28 sermon in the diocese’s online worship service, Mayer offered words of encouragement.
“Anytime there’s significant loss, there’s corresponding grief,” he told ENS. “We invested 12 years in this; obviously, we think it’s wrong. But in these 12 years, we’ve been busy being the church, and you won’t meet a more creative and imaginative and resilient bunch of people than you will here. There’s no loss of hope, nothing like that. This is a group that’s looking forward.”
For decades, a bastion of conservative theology
This group of Episcopalians, were they to look back, would see how far their diocese has come.
The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth was created when the growing Diocese of Dallas split in half under a plan approved by General Convention in 1982. Once numbering more than 50 congregations, the Diocese of Fort Worth was long known as one of the most conservative dioceses in The Episcopal Church, particularly for its exclusion of women from ordination.
By 2006, 30 years had passed since General Convention voted in 1976 to allow women’s ordination, but opportunities to become priests still were denied to women in Fort Worth. It was one of three remaining holdout dioceses, along with the Diocese of Quincy in western Illinois and the Diocese of San Joaquin in central California.
After Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as The Episcopal Church’s first female presiding bishop in June 2006, the conservative leaders of seven dioceses, including Fort Worth, sought “alternative primatial oversight” from an Anglican leader outside of The Episcopal Church. Negotiations ended in a stalemate. Theological and doctrinal tensions already had been simmering because of The Episcopal Church’s efforts to include LGBTQ Episcopalians more fully in the life of the church, including as clergy. Those tensions boiled over with General Convention’s 2003 approval of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson as the church’s first openly gay bishop.
“Opposition to the ordination of women has been in the DNA of this diocese since it was founded out of the western half of the Diocese of Dallas in 1983,” said Katie Sherrod, a longtime Fort Worth Episcopalian who now serves as the diocese’s communications director. She told ENS that Jefferts Schori’s election, even more than the consecration of Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, fueled the push by Iker, the Fort Worth bishop, to leave the church.
In subsequent years, talk of schism over LGBTQ clergy led to lawsuits across The Episcopal Church as conservative congregations from Massachusetts to Los Angeles sought to split from their dioceses. One lawsuit involved a group of 11 breakaway groups from the Diocese of Virginia. In Central New York, a departing group reached a settlement with the diocese promising not to invite any bishops from outside The Episcopal Church until it had found a new worshipping space.
Reaction to Robinson’s consecration also reverberated across the Anglican Communion, prompting the release in 2004 of the Windsor Report. The report was intended as a road map for maintaining unity between The Episcopal Church and other autonomous provinces despite differences over biblical interpretations pertaining to sexuality. It called for a moratorium on the consecration of gay clergy and bishops, as well as on blessings of same-sex unions.
In June 2006, The Episcopal Church’s General Convention responded to the Windsor Report with a series of resolutions that stopped short of explicitly barring new consecrations of gay bishops. Same-gender blessings weren’t mentioned. Some conservative Anglican primates met in September and released a statement criticizing The Episcopal Church’s response as insufficient.
Then in December 2006, San Joaquin became the first Episcopal diocese in which leaders voted to sever ties with The Episcopal Church. Their exit plan involved revisions to the diocese’s constitution, which required the approval of two consecutive diocesan conventions, so its leaders had to wait another year to finalize the plan.
Jefferts Schori, who was invested as presiding bishop just four weeks before San Joaquin’s vote, criticized the diocesan leaders’ action. “Our task as The Episcopal Church is God’s mission of reconciling the world, and actions such as this distract and detract from that mission,” she said.
Outreach by Jefferts Schori and other church leaders failed to halt the conservative push to leave the church. In September 2007, more than a dozen active and former diocesan bishops attended a meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to coordinate plans for developing an “Anglican union” outside of The Episcopal Church that they hoped would be recognized by other Anglican provinces.
That month, leaders in the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Quincy announced plans to join their counterparts in San Joaquin in disassociating from The Episcopal Church, and on Oct. 1, 2007, Fort Worth’s Standing Committee said it, too, would ask its diocesan convention to begin the process of aligning with another Anglican province.
Jefferts Schori issued letters of warning to the bishops, including Iker, that their proposals violated The Episcopal Church’s Canons and could mean the bishops had “abandoned the Communion of this Church,” warranting disciplinary action. “It grieves me that any bishop of this church would seek to lead any of its members out of it,” she said.
In her letter to Iker, Jefferts Schori wrote, “I call upon you to recede from this direction and to lead your diocese on a new course that recognizes the interdependent and hierarchical relationship between the national church and its dioceses and parishes. That relationship is at the heart of our mission, as expressed in our polity.”
Iker denied he had abandoned The Episcopal Church or violated its canons. In his response, he called the presiding bishop’s letter “highly inappropriate” and “threatening.”
“I must remind you that 25 years ago this month, the newly formed Diocese of Fort Worth voluntarily voted to enter into union with the General Convention of the Episcopal Church,” Iker said. “If circumstances warrant it, we can likewise, by voluntary vote, terminate that relationship.”
On Nov. 17, 2007, the Fort Worth convention approved the first reading of the change to its diocesan constitution to leave the church.
By then, Fort Worth was one of four dioceses whose leaders were in the process of splitting from The Episcopal Church. Conventions in Pittsburgh and Quincy approved their first readings of constitutional changes rejecting the church’s authority, and the San Joaquin convention finalized its plan in December 2007 after approving it a second time. The four dioceses’ leaders then moved to align themselves with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which offered to welcome those breakaway groups “on an emergency and pastoral basis.”
Fort Worth was the first to give preliminary acceptance of that offer in January 2008, an arrangement that “would afford our diocese greater self-determination than we currently have under the General Convention of The Episcopal Church,” Iker and Fort Worth’s Standing Committee said.
In fall 2008, the diocesan conventions of Pittsburgh and Quincy voted the required second time to change their constitutions and leave the church. In Fort Worth, some congregations refused to join Iker in his drive toward separation. Iker supported a proposal to let those congregations become “associate” members of the Diocese of Dallas, but churchwide leaders rejected that idea, citing Canon 10, which doesn’t allow for congregations to leave one diocese to join another.
On Nov. 15, 2008, Fort Worth leaders voted a final time to join members of the other three dioceses in leaving the church. When Jefferts Schori disciplined Iker by barring him from all “Episcopal, ministerial and canonical acts,” Iker responded by denying she had any authority over him. “She never has, and she never will,” he said.
Jefferts Schori said The Episcopal Church grieved the breakaway groups’ departure.
“We remind those former Episcopalians that the door is open if they wish to return,” she said in response to the Fort Worth vote. “We will work with Episcopalians in the Diocese of Fort Worth to elect new leadership and continue the work of the Gospel in that part of Texas.”
Fort Worth diocese spends years reorganizing with churchwide support
Fort Worth Episcopalians still faithful to The Episcopal Church formed a “steering committee” that at the time of the split represented an estimated 8,000 church members from at least 17 congregations.
The continuing diocese, they said, “remains a constituent part of the Episcopal Church under the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and will continue to carry out the mission of the Episcopal Church, which is to reconcile the world to God though Jesus Christ. We will welcome home any who wish to return to the Episcopal Church.”
To fill the void in diocesan leadership, Jeffers Schori convened a special meeting of the diocesan convention on Feb. 7, 2009, at Fort Worth’s Trinity Episcopal Church, during which Kentucky Bishop Ted Gulick was elected provisional bishop.
The exodus of Iker and other conservative leaders finally opened the door to women’s ordination in the diocese, decades after women had been ordained in other dioceses. A female priest from Madison, Wisconsin, made headlines for presiding at the Eucharist in the diocese, and on Nov. 14, 2009, the diocese ordained the Rev. Susan Slaughter as its first female priest in a ceremony at St. Luke’s in the Meadow, where she began serving as rector.
The breakaway group, however, still occupied most of the diocese’s church buildings and saw itself as the true Episcopal diocese. Its attorney asked the remaining Episcopalians to stop using the diocesan logo in its correspondence and to stop calling itself “The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.” The Fort Worth diocese led by Iker, after temporarily aligning with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, soon became a founding member of the Anglican Church in North America. ACNA, however, has yet to realize its goal of recognition as a member province of the Anglican Communion. Iker retired at the end of 2019.
The Episcopal Church and the Fort Worth diocese affiliated with it were preparing a legal strategy of their own.
On March 3, Gulick and the continuing diocese’s Standing Committee wrote to Iker requesting a “peaceful and orderly transfer of property and other assets” and asked the breakaway group to stop using the diocesan logo. A month later, the diocese filed its lawsuit asking the court to compel Iker’s group to return church property to The Episcopal Church.
“This litigation is designed to move quickly to confirm the historical right of Episcopalians to lead the diocese as stewards of its property as we in humility and hope continue the mission of the Episcopal Church here,” Gulick said in a pastoral letter to the diocese’s faith communities. “We deeply regret that the decisions and actions of former diocesan leaders have brought us to this difficult moment.”
Alongside the legal efforts, The Episcopal Church was helping the local steering committee to reorganize the Fort Worth diocese. Its administrative records were in disarray after the split, and church leaders worked to determine which Episcopalians remained with the church, reconstruct membership lists and congregations, identify faithful clergy and find new places to worship for the congregations displaced by Iker’s group.
Some congregations began worshipping in storefront churches. St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Arlington found a new home in a theater. The diocese planted a new congregation in 2015 in Decatur, calling it the Episcopal Church of Wise County.
After Gulick, the Rt. Rev. C. Wallis Ohl took over as provisional bishop in late 2009, followed by the Rt. Rev. Rayford High in 2012 and now Mayer. Their tenures coincided with an ongoing legal battle that initially was leaning in the diocese’s favor. In January 2011, Tarrant County District Court Judge John Chupp cited the hierarchical nature of The Episcopal Church in ruling that all property taken by Iker’s group must be returned to the continuing diocese affiliated with The Episcopal Church.
“In the event of a dispute among its members, a constituent part of a hierarchical church consists of those individuals remaining loyal to the hierarchical church body,” Chupp said. He gave the breakaway diocese 60 days to comply.
On appeal, however, the Texas Supreme Court sent the case back to Chupp, ordering him to decide it on “neutral principles of law,” essentially throwing out the argument that The Episcopal Church’s hierarchical structure was enough to protect diocesan properties. Chupp returned a new ruling in 2015, this time siding with the breakaway group. An appeals court reversed Chupp, but the Texas Supreme Court reinstated his ruling in May 2020. The dispute over the diocesan name and logo is expected to be among the details to be addressed when the case returns to Chupp in the coming weeks.
“You come to this current crisis equipped with knowledge, not only of your own gifts but of God’s unconditional love,” Mayer told the diocese in his video message last week. “Episcopalians in north central Texas may not be rich in buildings, but we are rich in talents, generously offered to the larger good. We are rich in generous, faith-filled lives.”
Other dioceses have won more favorable legal outcomes, from California to Pennsylvania. In such cases, the dioceses affiliated with The Episcopal Church retained or regained possession of their church properties. “We have prevailed in a high percentage of cases all over the country,” Mayer told ENS, “whether it be a diocese or a congregation. But that is not the case in the state of Texas.”
He acknowledged the diocese had faced long odds in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. After the court declined last week, the news sparked an outpouring of support for Mayer’s diocese from across The Episcopal Church, including from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
“We very much feel the support and the prayers of Episcopalians around the country,” Mayer said, “including Bishop Curry and his staff and [House of Deputies President] Gay Jennings and leaders and friends all over the church. We know we’re being lifted up in prayer, and we know we’re not alone.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.