Fort Worth convention approves first reading of constitutional changes

Episcopal News Service. November 17, 2007 [111707-01]

Matthew Davies and Jan Nunley

The 25th annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth November 17 gave the first of two approvals needed to amend its constitution and remove accession to the Constitution and Canons of General Convention, as well as several canonical amendments that eliminate mention of the Episcopal Church.

Speaking in a news conference following the convention's conclusion, Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker said the decisions "marked a firm resolve about moving forward together, recognizing that there are parts that are not fully behind the path we've chosen, but the debate is always characterized by respect and honesty."

"It's important to note that the decisions made today are preliminary decisions that need to be ratified by another convention," he added.

Meeting at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas, the convention also thanked the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone for its invitation offering the diocese membership "on an emergency and pastoral basis." Iker and the diocesan Standing Committee are to prepare a report on "the constitutional and canonical implications and means of accepting that invitation." Attending the convention was Bishop Frank Lyons of Bolivia in the Southern Cone.

The convention noted that the diocese wishes "to remain within the family of the Anglican Communion while dissociating itself from the moral, theological, and disciplinary innovations of the Episcopal Church…"

If the constitutional and canonical amendments pass a second reading, presumably at the 2008 diocesan convention, they effectively would violate the requirements of the Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons. Article V, Section 1 says that a diocese's constitution must include "an unqualified accession" to the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori sent a letter November 8 to Fort Worth Bishop Jack Leo Iker, who has supported the amendments, notifying him that his intentions to withdraw the diocese from the Episcopal Church could result in her taking action to bring the diocese and its leadership into line with the mandates of the national Church.

"Your statements and actions in recent months demonstrate an intention to lead your diocese into a position that would purportedly permit it to depart from the Episcopal Church," wrote Jefferts Schori to Iker on November 8. "...If your course does not change, I shall regrettably be compelled to see that appropriate canonical steps are promptly taken to consider whether you have abandoned the Communion of this Church -- by actions and substantive statements, however, they may be phrased -- and whether you have committed canonical offences that warrant disciplinary action."

Iker responded November 12 to Jefferts Schori's letter declaring, "I have abandoned nothing, and I have violated no canons." Iker termed Jefferts Schori's letter "highly inappropriate" and "threatening," and claimed that it "appears designed to intimidate" delegates to the diocesan convention.

"The posturing using public released letters added to the resolve that we must do something firm," Iker told the media gathered at the November 17 news conference. "This is unfortunate -- I would hope the bishops of the national church would actually try to make efforts of reconciliation."

In an October 20, 2007 address to the Forward in Faith International Assembly in London, a recording of which is available on the group's website, Iker stated that the three Forward in Faith dioceses -- Fort Worth, San Joaquin, and Quincy -- intend to leave the Episcopal Church by 2009.

"There are three Forward in Faith dioceses in the United States, and the three bishops of those dioceses have come to a common conclusion that we have no future in the Episcopal Church," Iker reported to the London meeting. "Our conventions in those three dioceses, Fort Worth, Quincy, and San Joaquin, will be taking constitutional action to separate officially from TEC. Because it is a constitutional change, it must be passed at two successive annual conventions."

On the recording, Iker continued: "...Our plan is not only to disassociate, then, from the Episcopal Church, but to officially, constitutionally re-affiliate with an existing orthodox province of the communion that does not ordain women to the priesthood. These conversations are very far along but cannot be announced until the province that is considering our appeal has made their final decision public."

The annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh November 2 gave the first of two approvals needed to enact a constitutional change to remove language in its diocesan constitution.

Jefferts Schori sent the first of several letters warning bishops of the consequences of attempted secession to Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan on October 31.

At its December 8-9 convention, the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin is scheduled to hear the second and final reading of a similar amendment that would delete from its constitution all references to the Episcopal Church and state that the diocese is "a constituent member of the Anglican Communion and in full communion with the See of Canterbury." San Joaquin Bishop John-David M. Schofield has welcomed an invitation from the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone, similar to the one received by Fort Worth, that offers the diocese membership "on an emergency and pastoral basis."

In June, the Executive Council, the governing body of the Episcopal Church between meetings of General Convention, warned that actions by Episcopal Church dioceses that change their constitutions in an attempt to bypass the Church's Constitution and Canons are "null and void."

In Resolution NAC023, the Council reminded dioceses that they are required to "accede" to the Constitution and Canons, and declared that any diocesan action that removes that accession from its constitution is "null and void." That declaration, the resolution said, means that their constitutions "shall be as they were as if such amendments had not been passed."

The Presiding Bishop could ask the Episcopal Church's Title IV Review Committee to consider whether the bishops supporting those constitutional changes have abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church. If the committee agreed that abandonment had taken place, the bishops would have two months to recant before the matter went to the full House of Bishops. If the House concurred, the Presiding Bishop could depose the bishops and declare the episcopates of those dioceses vacant. There is no appeal and no right of formal trial outside of a hearing before the House of Bishops.

Members of congregations remaining in the Episcopal Church would be gathered to organize a new diocesan convention and elect a replacement Standing Committee, if necessary. An assisting bishop would be appointed until a search process could be initiated and a new bishop elected and consecrated. A lawsuit could be filed against the departed leadership and a representative sample of departing congregations if they attempted to retain Episcopal Church property.

The 2007-2009 Title IV Review Committee consists of Bishop Dorsey Henderson of Upper South Carolina (president), Bishop Suffragan Bavi E. Rivera of Olympia, Bishop Suffragan David C. Jones of Virginia, Bishop C. Wallis Ohl Jr. of Northwest Texas, the Rev. Carolyn Kuhr of Montana, the Very Rev. Scott Kirby of Eau Claire, J.P. Causey Jr. of Virginia and Deborah J. Stokes of Southern Ohio.