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Anglicans and a Supreme Court victory in North Texas

St. Laurence Episcopal Church in Southlake, Texas (Handout)

Religion

Anglicans and a Supreme Court victory in North Texas

Conservatives seeking to retain church property score a rare legal win

Doctrinally conservative Episcopalians have rebranded as “Anglicans” in many parts of the United States, but some are still holding on to the name “Episcopal”—and not just as a matter of branding. In North Texas, two groups call themselves the “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.” Each claimed rightful ownership of some 60 church properties worth over $100 million.

The Texas courts were forced to decide: Which was the real Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, and which, in effect, was the imposter?

After a decade of litigation, the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter unanimously on May 22. The conservatives, it ruled, get to keep their property.

The Fort Worth case is a rare legal victory for Anglicans who left The Episcopal Church (TEC) over a decade ago. Several other dioceses that left the national denomination have lost substantial amounts of property. In South Carolina, litigation is pending over some of the oldest churches in the United States. 

At the root of these property disputes are doctrinal differences, including over same-sex marriage. TEC performs same-sex marriages, whereas the Anglican Church in North America affirms a Biblical definition of marriage. But the case also highlights the denominations’ divergent views over church government, which have grown more pronounced over a decade of separation. 

If the Fort Worth ruling had gone the other way, conservative congregations throughout North Texas would have been tossed out of their churches, said Scott Brister, the attorney who argued the winning side and who is himself a former state Supreme Court justice.

Churches elsewhere have been sold or stood vacant for years after TEC won similar lawsuits against wayward parishes or dioceses, including in California, Connecticut, and Wisconsin. “The risk was that the majority of these churches would just close,” Brister told me. 

That assertion is borne out by statistics published by TEC’s New York headquarters: The loyalist diocese in Fort Worth lost 79 percent of its Sunday attendance in the decade since the schism, falling to 1,392 attendees by 2018, less than a third the size of the breakaway diocese.

Not all Anglican churches have gone through years of litigation. Commonly, dissenting congregations left TEC individually, sometimes leaving behind their sanctuary, sometimes negotiating an exit amicably. 

The dispute in Texas dates to 2008. A convention of the then-united diocese, led by Bishop Jack Iker, voted to disaffiliate from TEC, taking with it most of the diocese’s property, members, and clergy, before going on to help establish the ACNA. The national Episcopal church rejected the decision, installed its own bishop over the remaining loyalist congregations, and sued to recover the property. 

In the May 22 Texas Supreme Court ruling, Justice Eva Guzman stressed the court wasn’t making an “ecclesiastical” judgment as to which faction was the true Episcopal Diocese. That kind of ruling would put the court afoul of First Amendment protections against state involvement in church affairs.

Guzman pointed to a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case, Jones v. Wolf, that prohibits courts from settling church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine or practice. But Jones allowed judges to apply “neutral principles” to examine the language of deeds, local church charters, and provisions of a denomination’s constitution.

Nothing in the organizational documents had prohibited the Diocese of Fort Worth from withdrawing from the denomination, Guzman wrote. “Under Texas Associations law, control and governance are determined by the terms of the Fort Worth Diocese’s charters. … Having complied with the diocese’s charters, the majority, not the minority, constitutes the continuation of the Fort Worth Diocese under the terms of its charter.”

Gordon Henry/Diocese Fort Worth Twitter

Bishop Ryan Reed (Gordon Henry/Diocese Fort Worth Twitter)

In an interview after the ruling, Bishop Ryan Reed, Iker’s successor, said that his flock was feeling “a sense of relief.” But he added, “There is no sense of triumphalism. ... This ruling has freed us up to go back to investing in our ministries and our facilities.”

The dispute over church structure was apparent in court filings, where TEC emphasized its structure is “three-tiered,” consisting of local parishes, regional dioceses, and a national convention. No unit of the middle tier—a diocese—had a right unilaterally to withdraw. “That’s the way the canons are set up,” said Kevin Johnson, an Episcopal priest in Arlington, Texas. Same way in the Roman Catholic Church.

But Reed contrasted the increasingly centralized Episcopal Church with the ACNA’s structure. The ACNA has limited the size and power of its national bureaucracy and denominational structures and left more to the discretion of regional bishops, he noted.

Even as Anglicans and Episcopalians continue to drift apart, in Fort Worth they will have to learn to live alongside each other for at least a while longer. According to Reed, loyalist congregations are using six diocesan properties. He said it was too early to say what would happen to those parishes. Brister, the attorney, said, “They are going to have to find somewhere else to worship.” 

Johnson, the Episcopal priest, said he hoped the two sides “would be interested in engaging in a conversation around how we work this out.” Johnson’s own congregation isn’t directly affected because it already worships at a theater. He noted that he doesn’t speak for the diocese.

There’s a small possibility that the case could drag on in federal courts. A separate federal trademark case over the diocese’s name and seal is still pending, and TEC could still appeal the Texas court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Brister noted, “The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t taken a church property dispute since 1979.” 

An attorney for TEC didn’t respond to a request for comment. Scott Mayer, provisional bishop for the TEC-affiliated diocese, wrote in a statement, “I, other diocesan leaders, and our legal team have to make decisions about our next steps.”

Thus far the cost of the litigation is “in seven figures” on each side, according to Brister. Texas courts have ordered TEC to pay the costs for both sides. 

Reed suggested the years of litigation have also taken a spiritual toll. “We’ve got to refocus ourselves and rededicate ourselves,” he said. “In the end, as much as I want to celebrate keeping our property, it still is just property and buildings. Those are only tools for us to make disciples of others.”