FORT WORTH: Continuing diocese requests 'orderly transfer of assets'

Episcopal News Service. March 6, 2009 [030609-05]

Pat McCaughan

The standing committee of the continuing Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth (Texas) and Provisional Bishop Edwin Gulick have written to former bishop Jack Iker to request a "peaceful and orderly transfer of property and other assets."

"Our hope is to work together with those who left the Episcopal Church to make this period of transition as painless as possible in what has been a sad time for all of us," said the Rev. Frederick Barber, president of the standing committee. "Those who left remain our brothers and sisters in Christ. But we also know we have a sacred responsibility to the Episcopalians of the diocese to be good stewards of property that is held in trust for generations of Episcopalians past and to come."

The March 3 letter, written by chancellor Kathleen Wells, also asked that Iker and others not interfere with the reorganization of the continuing diocese; refrain from using the diocesan logo and seals and meet with representatives of the continuing diocese “to plan the orderly transition” of property and assets. Last November, Iker and some members of the diocese voted to realign with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.

"On behalf of Bishop Gulick, the Diocese and the corporation, I respectfully request that Bishop Iker and those working with him or otherwise claiming authority from him take no action inconsistent with the reorganization of the continuing Diocese or with the continuing interest of the Episcopal Church in church property of the Diocese and its congregations," Wells wrote in the letter addressed to William T. McGee, a retired Fort Worth judge who serves as Iker's chancellor, or legal adviser.

McGee, reached at his Fort Worth law office on March 6, said, "I have received the letter and passed it on to my bishop." He declined further comment until he and Iker meet to discuss the letter.

Iker was unavailable for comment March 6. He issued the following statement a day earlier: "We will have no comment to make on this letter until we have consulted with our legal counsel. However, we previously indicated a willingness to release property to congregations where a significant majority wish to remain in union with the General Convention of The Episcopal Church and, in fact, have already done so in four cases."

But Wells said that isn't what the continuing diocese is asking for. "We're not here to split up everything," she said during an interview March 6 from her Fort Worth law office. "This meeting is not to negotiate who gets what property, but to work out the details of an orderly transfer or delivering keys and security codes, of getting inventories and determining how they will surrender possession of the diocesan center, and the records there."

The continuing diocese has offered Iker "in a nice way an opportunity to tell us how you're going to deliver the keys to us. The way you do that with people of good faith is to write a letter and say let's talk about this," she said. She added that: "We're hoping of course, that as brothers and sisters in Christ they will do the right thing."

She declined to speculate about the dollar value of disputed property and assets except to say: "It's in the millions and millions of dollars, obviously."

She added that: "We have gone through, in a very painstaking way … appraisal and deed records filed in the various 23 counties that make up the diocese and tried to consult title information … to arrive at a ballpark evaluation. We just haven't pulled it all together yet."

Comparing the situation to that of a tenant moving out of a landlord's property Wells, a civil litigator in state and federal court, said: "They're moving out. They are no longer part of the Episcopal Church. They are no longer entitled to possession of property," so how do we go about turning over the possession of property to the landlord? "It's with a ‘let's meet, I'll deliver the keys on this date.'"

Iker previously had challenged the continuing diocese's use of the diocesan logo. In a January 22 letter addressed to Dr. Walt Cabe, an attorney representing the former bishop called the continuing diocese's use of the official logo and emblem "a trademark infringement." Cabe is a co-chair of the Steering Committee North Texas Episcopalians, an umbrella group for the continuing diocese.

"For many years the diocese has used ‘The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth' as a trademark for religious services and publications," wrote attorney Geoff Mantooth on Iker's behalf. "It has come to our attention that the Steering Committee North Texas Episcopalians … is using both marks in advertisements and elsewhere."

The two sides will face "a mutual showdown about that," Wells said.

In this most recent letter, Wells requested that those who left the Episcopal Church "cease using the name of and claiming authority under the ‘Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth' and each of its congregations, e.g., ‘St. Stephen's Episcopal Church,'" as well as stop using the official logo and seals of the diocese and its congregations. The letter points out that such use is not authorized, that it violates the rights of the existing diocese and "unnecessarily creates confusion among third parties."

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori had announced December 5 that she had accepted Iker's renunciation of his orders in the Episcopal Church. She said that Iker made what constituted a written renunciation on November 24 when he issued a news release saying he was a member of the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. Iker has denied that he made such a renunciation. Jefferts Schori had barred or inhibited Iker from exercising his ordained ministry three days before he issued the news release.

Iker had also previously "released" four congregations who are continuing with TEC, saying they could remain in their properties. The continuing diocese currently lists 17 active congregations on its website, many of which are meeting in alternate locations because members of their original churches voted to leave the Episcopal Church and remain in the church buildings.

A copy of Wells' letter also was sent to Rickey Brantley, of the Jose, Henry, Brantley, MacLean and Alvarado law firm in Fort Worth and a former assistant chancellor of the diocese.

The Diocese of Fort Worth was originally organized in 1982 and encompasses a geographic area of 23 North Central Texas counties. It includes 55 congregations in Fort Worth, Arlington, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Wichita Falls, Grand Prairie, Keller, Brownwood, and Stephenville. "That's the number we had before November 15 when our diocesan convention met and some of these individuals left. We still claim all 55 and their property," Wells said.

"We're moving on," she added, about the continuing diocese. "Bishop Gulick is absolutely wonderful. Obviously, we still care for those who've left to go to the Southern Cone, but there is a sense of joy. We've moved on; we have a wonderful diocesan Lenten series and are doing what the church has needed to be doing here for decades. We can't keep the smiles off our faces."

The diocesan Lenten series includes such speakers as: President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson; the Rev. Terry Martin, program officer for evangelism for The Episcopal Church and Bishop Jane Dixon, retired suffragan bishop of Washington.

Wells declined to comment about the possibility of future litigation should Iker refuse to comply with her request. "Our Presiding Bishop has said it's too early to talk about litigation and that's true," she said. "We're trying to do this in an orderly, non-controversial way."