FORT WORTH: Acting 'in humility and hope,' diocese files lawsuit to recover property and assets

Episcopal News Service. April 14, 2009 [041409-07]

Pat McCaughan

The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, along with The Episcopal Church (TEC) on April 14 filed a lawsuit in 141st district court in Tarrant County, Texas, to recover property and assets held by former diocesan leaders who realigned themselves with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.

"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," according to the Rt. Rev. Edwin (Ted) Gulick Jr., provisional bishop of Fort Worth, in a pastoral letter sent to the continuing church’s faith communities.

"We deeply regret that the decisions and actions of former diocesan leaders have brought us to this difficult moment," Gulick added. He said the action was necessary to continue the Episcopal legacy in Fort Worth as well as to establish the continuing diocese as the rightful owners of all real and personal property, including funds and endowments.

"Even before 1850 when this area was part of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, faithful Episcopalians were preaching the saving gospel of Jesus Christ as part of the Episcopal Church in North Texas," the letter continued. "After the General Convention created our diocese in 1982, that work continued. Today we, with our Presiding Bishop, remain committed to preaching the gospel as we celebrate the sacraments, care for those in need, and strive for justice and peace," Gulick wrote to approximately 6,000 continuing Episcopalians.

The office of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori also issued a statement, expressing regret but affirming the necessity of Tuesday’s legal action.

"We feel sorrow that the former diocesan leaders took such actions that led us to this time," according to the statement. "However, this is a necessary step in order for the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, comprised of Episcopalians of the full theological spectrum, to continue its gospel work in Texas. In other court venues, the courts have ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and we anticipate a favorable outcome in this case and a continuation of The Episcopal Church's mission priorities."

In addition to former bishop Jack Iker, those named as defendants in Tuesday’s lawsuit were former members of the corporation of the diocese’s board who in November 2008 realigned themselves with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. The petition seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, damages, an accounting, and attorney fees and costs. A full copy of the petition may be found here.

Suzanne Gill, communications director for Iker, declined to comment about the lawsuit. "Obviously we haven’t seen it and we won’t be able to talk about it until we do," she said in a telephone interview late Tuesday.

A statement issued by the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth said, "These former diocesan leaders … sought to alienate property and assets of the Episcopal Church and deprived Episcopalians of their use and benefit.

"Despite courteous demand," the statement continued, "the defendants and others continue to use the name and seal of the Diocese and maintain possession and control over diocesan property, including the Diocesan Center, Camp Crucis in Hood County, and significant funds, including endowed funds given for the use of the Episcopal Church."

Gulick, along with other diocesan leaders, had requested "a peaceful and orderly transfer of property and other assets" in a March 3 letter. That letter, written by diocesan chancellor Kathleen Wells, had asked Iker and other former diocesan leaders to refrain from using the diocesan logo and seals, as well as the handover of property, estimated "in the millions and millions of dollars," Wells said at the time.

She said the continuing diocese, which was originally organized in 1982 and encompasses a geographic area of 23 North Central Texas counties, continues to claim all 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.

Of those 55, six parishes and two missions remain in their buildings. One mission, St. Mary’s in Hillsboro, is sharing the building with those who left TEC, according to diocesan communications director Katie Sherrod.

She said there are about a dozen congregations meeting in other locations, representing an estimated 6,000 continuing Episcopalians, "a number that is growing every week."