[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church in North Texas, one year after a legal defeat forced the diocese to relinquish to a breakaway group the last of its former properties and its former identity as the Diocese of Fort Worth, is poised to combine with the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Leadership votes could take place as soon as June.
The plans were unveiled to Diocese of Texas clergy in a Zoom meeting April 20 and announced publicly on April 22 in a joint news release. If approved by the two Episcopal dioceses, their reunion then must be affirmed by a majority of bishops and standing committees of The Episcopal Church. It would not require action by General Convention because the Fort Worth-based diocese once was part of the Diocese of Texas.
“We are being welcomed gratefully and gladly into a diocese that shares our values,” the Rt. Rev. Scott Mayer, bishop provisional of North Texas, said in the news release. “We believe this reunion will strengthen both parties, equipping The Episcopal Church to reach the people of North Texas … more effectively with our message of God’s unconditional love.”
Conversations between leaders of the two dioceses have been underway since January, when North Texas’ Discernment Committee issued recommendations to its diocese’s standing committee that it pursue a reunion with the Houston-based Diocese of Texas. The North Texas standing committee voted on April 12 to formally engage in reunification discussions with Texas.
“As we move toward a new future together, we are unified by the love of Christ Jesus who prayed for us – that we all may be one and we are thankful for this reunion,” Texas Bishop Andrew Doyle said in the news release.
The Diocese of Texas is one of the largest in The Episcopal Church, with 167 congregations and 72,000 members. It already has two bishops suffragan and a bishop assistant, each assigned to a different region of the diocese. Although the two dioceses have yet to finalize details of a potential reunion, Doyle told clergy in his diocese that an additional regional bishop likely would be assigned to North Texas.
“Given that that area of the diocese would be one of the largest metropolitan areas, there’s going to be a need for a bishop resident,” Doyle said
Mayer likely would continue to assist North Texas in the interim, Doyle said. Mayer is the bishop diocesan of the adjacent Diocese of Northwest Texas and was elected bishop provisional of what then was known as the Diocese of Fort Worth in 2015. The Diocese of Northwest Texas is not involved in the reunion talks.
In North Texas, a 2008 diocesan schism greatly diminished the numbers of Episcopalians still faithful to The Episcopal Church. As of early this year, the Episcopal Church in North Texas counted 14 congregations and fewer than 4,000 members.
Once the two dioceses work out the legal details of a reunion, Mayer will call a special meeting of North Texas’ Diocesan Convention to vote on the plan, and Doyle will do the same with Texas’ Diocesan Council.
“There’s a lot of work to get done between now and then,” Doyle said in the clergy meeting, but he expressed hope for the future. “I’m really very excited about this, as are the rest of the staff. We’re excited about joining our friends in North Texas in mission.”
All six dioceses in the state of Texas have roots in the Diocese of Texas, which started in 1838 as a foreign missionary district. Texas, formerly part of Mexico and then an independent country, became a U.S. state in 1845, and the church’s missionary district organized as a diocese in 1849. The northern and western regions of the Diocese of Texas separated to become new missionary districts in 1874 in response to rapid population growth. In 1895, the northern district formed the Diocese of Dallas, which included congregations in Fort Worth and other cities to Dallas’ west.
The growing Diocese of Dallas was split in half in 1982, with the western congregations forming the new Diocese of Fort Worth. Once numbering more than 50 congregations, Fort Worth was long known as one of the most conservative dioceses in The Episcopal Church, particularly for its exclusion of women from ordination.
In 2008, a majority of clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth voted to leave The Episcopal Church over disagreements about the ordination of women and LGBTQ+ people. The breakaway group is now aligned with the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA.
Most congregations that remained in The Episcopal Church found new places to worship after the split, but six congregations in Fort Worth, Hillsboro and Wichita Falls remained in their buildings. The Episcopal diocese sued in 2009 to regain and retain more than $100 million in diocesan property. In May 2020, the Texas Supreme Court sided with ACNA, and in February 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it wouldn’t review the case, letting ACNA’s victory stand.
The Episcopal diocese agreed to change its name to the Episcopal Church in North Texas, and in April 2021, the rest of its congregations were ordered out or chose to move out of the buildings that had been awarded to ACNA. Since then, Episcopal congregations and ACNA congregations have continued to argue in a lower court over what other property needs to be turned over to ACNA.
Doyle, in his meeting with clergy, acknowledged that the North Texas Episcopalians have “been through a lot,” and the Diocese of Texas was ready to offer “a giant embrace and bear hug.”
“We will be thinking about intentional ways we can help them feel welcome in our diocese,” Doyle said.
The last time a diocesan reunion occurred in The Episcopal Church was 2013, when the Diocese of Quincy reunited with the Diocese of Chicago in Illinois. The three dioceses in Wisconsin are in the middle of their own reunion talks, with plans to become one diocese again.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.