Fort Worth delegates vote to leave Episcopal Church, realign with Southern Cone

Episcopal News Service, Bedford, Texas. November 15, 2008 [111508-02]

Pat McCaughan

Delegates attending the 26th annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth on November 15 overwhelmingly approved realignment with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.

It was the fourth time within 12 months that members of a diocese severed ties to the Episcopal Church, which has a total of 110 dioceses.

With little debate or emotion, about 200 delegates, meeting at St. Vincent's Episcopal Cathedral School, voted 73 for, 20 against in the clergy order, and 98-28 among laity to realign with the Argentina-based province.

The convention also voted two-to-one for second and final approval of four constitutional amendments that rescinded accession to the Constitution and Canons of General Convention. Fifteen canonical changes were approved by a voice vote.

The canons are located on the diocesan website.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said after the vote: "The Episcopal Church grieves the departures of a number of persons from the Diocese of Fort Worth. We remind those former Episcopalians that the door is open if they wish to return.

"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. The gospel work to which Jesus calls us demands the best efforts of faithful people from many theological and social perspectives, and the Episcopal Church will continue to welcome that diversity."

Diocesan bishop Jack Iker, who has said nothing will change in the day-to-day operations of the diocese, read a letter from Archbishop Gregory Venables, welcoming Fort Worth into the Southern Cone.

At a news briefing following the conference, Iker predicted other dioceses will follow. "We've redefined the right wing of the church today … the center keeps shifting to the left. I say to South Carolina, Albany, Dallas, Central Florida and Springfield, welcome to the new right wing of TEC (the Episcopal Church)."

With the realignment of Fort Worth "now there are no dioceses who cannot, out of conscience, ordain women," he said. He said that convention's action effectively joined the entire diocese to the Southern Cone immediately and those clergy and congregations opting to remain with TEC would have to inform him of their decision.

He also said he hopes both sides can work together to avoid protracted litigation over property and assets.

Meanwhile, plans to reconstitute the diocese are already underway, according to the Rev. Canon Courtland Moore, a co-chair of the ten-member governing board of the Steering Committee North Texas Episcopalians.

"Though the bishop and his colleagues are departing TEC today, many Episcopalians in the diocese will not, and the remaining Episcopal laity, clergy, and congregations will move soon to reorganize the diocese as a fully involved entity of the Episcopal Church in union with its General Convention," according to a statement released by the steering committee.

Noting an "open arms" posture to everyone, including those who may have already left the church or who in the future may return, the statement acknowledged Jefferts Schori's authority and added that TEC's "work of Christian ministry and evangelization will go forward as Episcopalians worship and work together within the context of the church's historical faith, creeds, and Holy Scriptures."

The committee represents about seven groups and an estimated 8,000 communicants from among at least 17 of the diocese's 56 congregations, including two major Fort Worth parishes, All Saints Church and Trinity Church, Moore said.

"There are at least four faith communities who will need all kinds of things to set up worship in places other than their churches" and who will be worshipping in alternate locations on Sunday November 16, said Lynne Minor, a executive board member of another group that wishes to remain with the Episcopal Church, Fort Worth Via Media. The groups are: St. Alban's, Arlington; St. Stephen's, Hurst; Church of the Good Shepherd, Granbury; and All Saints, Wichita Falls representing approximately 250 communicants thus far.

She said the groups "have been working really hard to prepare" for what happens next, including renting buildings for worship. She asked that those desiring to donate prayer books, vestments, and other items contact her at:

The steering committee also includes the groups North Texans Remain Episcopal; Remain Episcopal of Granbury; Steadfast Episcopalians and several clergy members, all representing a wide range of theological positions.

'Contending for the faith', temporary realignment

During addresses to delegates, Iker and other speakers frequently referenced the convention theme, "Contending for the Faith" as a context for years of theological and doctrinal disagreements over the blessing of same-sex unions, the ordination of women and gays and the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Framing his remarks within the context of 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 he noted that St. Paul told the church to "Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love." He challenged Jefferts Schori to stop ongoing legal battles and property disputes with breakaway dioceses and encouraged communicants to continue to worship with their church families, regardless of their vote.

"This diocese has not deviated from the historic faith and order of the catholic church. We are not the cause of division or schism; we are a part of the solution. We are a part of the realignment that is shaking up and reshaping the Anglican world. We are for preserving the unity of the church and for mending the tear in the fabric of our beloved communion," said Iker, during the address that drew a standing ovation and sustained applause.

The full text of his address may be found on the website.

Bishop William Godfrey of Peru, who preached at the opening Eucharist November 14, described his ministry to delegates on the convention's second day. In addition to Peru, the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone represents about 22,000 members in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

On Friday, David Weaver, chair of the diocesan committee on constitution and canons, told delegates that although constitutional amendments and canonical changes "both substantive and procedural" would formalize secession from TEC, "theologically, spiritually and doctrinally the General Convention separated itself from this diocese some time ago. We have not been of TEC for a long time," he said.

He told the gathering that "efforts are progressing rapidly toward formation of a North American Province … that shares our commitment to the one holy and apostolic faith."

Convention debate streamlined, civil

Walter Cabe, president and co-chair of the steering committee, called the convention outcome "a foregone conclusion" and said delegates were weary from years of wrangling over contentious issues.

"We're the last few folks standing and we've spent lots of hours on this. None of us were going to be swayed," he said, adding that streamlining the convention debate with an opposition summary statement "added a level of civility."

Dr. John Burk, a parishioner at All Saints, Fort Worth, read the committee's summary to convention, citing 11 illegal or invalid propositions and urging a no vote on the proposed changes. "Those of us who will remain in TEC respectfully but profoundly disagree that passage of these propositions will in fact 'remove' the diocese itself, as well as church property in the diocese, from TEC," he said.

Another delegate, Judy Mayo, a seven-time General Convention deputy and lay member of the diocesan standing committee said she had friends on both sides of the issue, but it was time to move on. The St. Andrew's, Fort Worth parishioner, who supported the realignment, declared that TEC and the apostolic faith are "on a collision course" and "the time has come to make a clear and clean break" in Christian love and charity.

Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Argentina-based Province of the Southern Cone, who was not present at the convention, had visited Fort Worth in May 2008 and told clergy and laity that conflict within the Anglican Communion could be traced to doubt of the word of God and that Jesus is the Son of God, according to the diocesan website.

Realignment "is not about schism," Venables had said. "Schism is separation on secondary issues. This is (a question of) essentials. You … must decide whether or not you can stand with a group of people who have denied that Jesus is the Son of God and that the Bible is the Word of God."

But attorney Victoria Prescott, a parishioner at St. Francis Church in Willow Park and a steering committee member characterized such comments as false premises in a July 10 letter to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She said Iker's reluctance to acknowledge "serious disagreement" over the refusal to ordain women priests contributed to the separation.

'The once and future' diocese: reclaiming, reconciling, rebuilding

The Rev. Canon Courtland Moore, of the steering committee, said Saturday's proceedings left him "numb" but added he was ready to get on with rebuilding the diocese.

"We see a great and exciting future for this diocese and we'd like to get on with it and be free to be the church," he said.

Iker had characterized the steering committee as "a self-elected vigilante group whose only stated purpose is "to remain in The Episcopal Church no matter what—and regardless of what TEC believes or practices. They espouse a blind institutional loyalty that borders on institutional idolatry."

Moore disagreed. "The level of intimidation here is remarkable," he said. "People are scared to death of the bishop and what he might do to them.

"I'm involved in a parish that is as straightforward Episcopal, Anglican, orthodox, as one would find anywhere," he added, about his parish, Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville in the Diocese of Dallas. "It doesn't mean they're opposed to women. Nobody there is promoting same sex marriages. They have gotten over their upset about Gene Robinson. It's a parish growing and thriving and they're staunchly and firmly committed to TEC and the catholic faith."

On Saturday, November 8, the Fort Worth Via Media hosted, "The Once and Future Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth" which began to cast a vision of the reconstituted diocese, said steering committee communications director Katie Sherrod on her online blog.

Among other things, participants hoped to "reclaim the brand" as well as regularizing diocesan canons and constitution with TEC. Participants indicated "we needed to educate people about TEC's history, beliefs, and polity, to counter the misinformation that's been so prevalent for so many years," she added.

Other priorities included developing youth ministry, a diocesan center for social justice issues, and improving communication, particularly among congregations. "We no longer want to be isolated from one another, divided by fears of differences."

Prayer vigil, property disputes

Trinity Church in Fort Worth was open for a prayer vigil November 15 for those attending the convention, which was video streamed. Episcopalians working to reorganize the diocese were asked to spend at least part of the day volunteering at local food banks or ministries of their choice, according to Sherrod, who is married to the Rev. Gayland Pool.

Iker has said he believes five or six congregations and as many as 4,000 communicants will remain with TEC.

In other convention business, Fort Worth convention delegates also approved a $2 million budget, and elected diocesan officers and convention deputies, and heard reports about mission, evangelism, diaconal and youth ministries.

Diocesan communications director Suzanne Gill has said that provisions have been established for amicable settlements for congregations remaining with TEC.

If two-thirds of the members of a parish want to stay with TEC, "we would let them keep their property if there are not liens on it," she has said. "If everything is financially square, if you've paid for it and want to maintain it, we'll say: 'OK. Go ahead,'" she said. "We would rather have that than a legal battle that is spiritually, financially and emotionally hard."

A property dispute continues in the California Diocese of San Joaquin, which disaffiliated with TEC in December 2007 and where diocesan assets and accounts have been frozen pending resolution of litigation.

Fort Worth became the fourth diocese to realign with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone within 12 months. Others include: the Dioceses of San Joaquin, December, 2007; Pittsburgh, October, 2008; and the Peoria, Illinois-based diocese of Quincy, which on November 6 approved the change.

The Diocese of Fort Worth formed in 1983 after the decision was made to divide the existing Diocese of Dallas into two dioceses. It consists of 56 congregations serving 24 North Central Texas counties and represents about 19,000 people.

Iker has served as the third diocesan bishop since 1995. His predecessors were Bishop A. Donald Davies and Bishop Clarence C. Pope, Jr.