By Kirk Petersen

A long-simmering dispute between rival religious denominations in Fort Worth has escalated after a decisive court ruling.

Congregations have been forced out of the church buildings where they have worshiped for years. One of them stripped the church bare before turning over the keys — taking even the pews. The new management at another church launched a website that strongly echoes the look and feel of its predecessor, while making no mention of the change in ownership.

The conflict erupted in 2008, when Bishop of Fort Worth Jack Iker and a majority of the congregations in his diocese renounced their ties to the Episcopal Church (TEC), citing doctrinal differences. Four other dioceses took similar steps, before and after Fort Worth.

From 2008 until earlier this year, there were two entities operating under the name “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.” One was associated with TEC, and the other was and is part of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Both sides had a strong monetary incentive to claim the name, because all parties agreed that the “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth” owns church properties worth an estimated $100 million.

The litigation began in 2009, when parties affiliated with TEC filed suit to recover property and assets from the ACNA parties. On February 22, 2021, after 12 years of wins and losses along the way, the TEC diocese lost its final appeal when the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. That left standing a 2020 ruling by the Texas Supreme Court that the ACNA diocese that left the Episcopal Church in 2008 was the continuing “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.”

In April, the TEC diocese changed its name to the Episcopal Church in North Texas (ECNT). Four of the diocese’s 16 congregations moved into temporary new homes, while a fifth congregation simply dispersed.

The naming situation is the mirror image of what occurred in South Carolina, where for years there were two Episcopal Dioceses of South Carolina. TEC prevailed on the name in 2019, and now coexists with a renamed Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. TEC also appeared to have won the property battle in South Carolina, until the trial judge essentially overruled the state Supreme Court by reinterpreting the higher court’s confusing decision. The South Carolina Supreme Court is expected to reconsider the matter later this year.

It’s difficult to overstate the wrenching pain being felt by parishioners at the affected Fort Worth churches. The more common reason for a congregation to be forced out of a building is a gradual recognition that a dwindling membership can no longer afford to maintain the property. Even in cases like that, the closure of a church building — where generations of worshipers may have been baptized, confirmed, married, or interred in a columbarium — is often experienced as a tragedy on the same scale as a death in the family.

In Fort Worth, the pain is intensified because parishioners believe their church buildings have been stolen with the help of the courts. The homepage of one of the churches currently declares that “The congregation of St. Christopher Episcopal Church has moved to a new (temporary) location, because the Texas Supreme Court unjustly awarded more than $100 million of Episcopal Church property to people who left The Episcopal Church.”

TEC homepage detail, above, and ACNA, below

The ACNA parties also have grievances. In papers filed with the Court of Appeals on April 26, attorneys for ACNA said that before some of the TEC parties vacated the buildings, “members and contractors began stripping, packing, and moving out all the personal property they could. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, they removed altars, crosses, communion vessels, vestments, office furnishings, Bibles, library books, church music, software for the HVAC system, and every knife, fork, and spatula in the kitchen.”

The brief included photographs that appear to support the statement, and the ACNA diocese supplied additional photos to TLC. Before and after photos from St. Stephen’s in Wichita Falls show a tidy worship space turned into a cavernous empty room. Among the items that appear to have been removed are approximately 20 pews, a large crucifix mounted on the wall, an organ or similar musical console, and an altar, pulpit, lectern and baptismal font.

All Saints’ in Fort Worth is the largest of the affected churches, with an average Sunday attendance before the pandemic of more than 400. Before and after pictures there show that the high altar was partly disassembled — stripped of its large, mounted crucifix, and of four wooden statues of saints.

Some disputed property was removed from all five of the churches affected, but not to the same extent as All Saints’ and St. Stephen’s.

The TEC congregations began scrambling to return items after District Court Judge John P. Chupp, the trial judge throughout the 12-year litigation, ordered April 20 that they must “immediately deliver, as required by the Final Judgment signed July 24, 2015, possession of all real and personal property, in existence at the time the original suit was filed on April 14, 2009, including all personal property necessary for the operations of the properties listed in the Final Judgment such as chalices, vestments, [B]ibles, and the like.”

“Personal property” does not mean the same thing in legal terms as it does in common usage. In legal terms, personal property is all property other than “real” property — buildings and land, or real estate. So despite the word personal, the term actually applies to movable possessions owned by the church.

The TEC parties have appealed Judge Chupp’s ruling to the Second Court of Appeals, arguing that the “Final Judgment” from 2015 — the ruling upheld by the Texas Supreme Court — did not actually discuss personal property. Personal property is discussed in a 2015 side agreement between the parties, and the parties disagree about whether that is enforceable as part of the ruling upheld by the Supreme Court.

On April 26, the Court of Appeals ruled that there is “a serious question” that must be considered, and gave the parties deadlines in early May for filing briefs. Chupp’s order has been stayed in the meantime.

The appeal is being driven largely by All Saints’, an affluent parish that years ago founded a school that is now a respected college preparatory school, with 1,000 students and a 147-acre campus four miles from the church. All Saints’ Episcopal School is incorporated separately and is not part of the litigation. The TEC congregation at All Saints’ Church began worshiping in the chapel at the school on May 2.

There also is a hearing scheduled in the trial court in early June to consider the issue of legal fees. The losing party in litigation can sometimes be ordered to pay the attorney fees of the winner. After 12 years of back-and-forth litigation and thousands of pages of legal briefs, the amount of money at stake could be staggering. A transcript of a recent hearing before Judge Chupp begins with the introduction of 11 attorneys representing the various dioceses, churches and denominations.

The All Saints’ high altar, which has since been restored

ACNA held its first service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on May 2, and the group’s Facebook page shows that the altar has been reassembled. Enough property was returned to St. Stephen’s also to hold its first service. Three other church buildings are expected to open for services on May 16: St. Luke in the Meadow, St. Elizabeth and St. Christopher.

The ACNA management at All Saints’ recently launched a website at asecfw.com that bears a striking resemblance to the TEC website at asecfw.org, which is also still active. TEC loyalists have complained on Facebook groups and elsewhere that ACNA is marketing itself deceptively. The ACNA site shows logos and images describing itself as “All Saints’ Episcopal Church,” and does not acknowledge it is part of ACNA.

Suzanne Gill, director of communications for the ACNA diocese, denied any attempt to deceive, and said the website is still being developed.

She said the diocese plans to continue to call itself the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, despite the confusion it will cause. “Our name was chosen at our founding convention, and any change would require ratification by two annual Conventions of the Diocese,” she said, noting that there are other Christian entities with the word Episcopal in their name, such as the African Methodist-Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church of Scotland.

The TEC diocese, on the other hand, is taking aggressive steps to clear up any confusion. Under the headline “Who We Are … and Who Is Not Us,” Communications Director Katie Sherrod explains:

Please be aware that the group now using the name Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth is not part of The Episcopal Church, but is instead part of a group calling itself the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). This group is not part of the Worldwide Anglican Communion.  While some ACNA dioceses do ordain women, the ACNA diocese calling itself the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth does not. They are not welcoming of out LGBTQ people. They use a different prayer book. Their priests are not Episcopal priests.

As in other dioceses where there have been protracted legal battles over property, there are wounds in Fort Worth that will take a long time to heal. Unfortunately, the wounding isn’t over.