By Kirk Petersen
By a margin of 69-0, the Episcopal Church in North Texas (ECNTX) — formerly known as the Diocese of Fort Worth — voted June 18 to become part of the much-larger Diocese of Texas, which for part of the 19th century encompassed the entire enormous state.
The issue was only slightly more controversial in the Diocese of Texas, which nine days earlier approved the reunification by a vote of 526-14, or more than 97 percent in favor. Assuming both legislative houses ratify the move at the July General Convention, the merger will become final the instant the closing gavel falls on July 11, and ECNTX will cease to exist.
“We have come nearly full circle, which of course is not the end of the road,” said the Rt. Rev. J. Scott Mayer, who in 2015 was elected the fourth bishop provisional of what is now ECNTX. Mayer also has served as bishop diocesan of the Lubbock-based Diocese of Northwest Texas since 2009.
The driving forces behind the partnership were the traumatic theological conflict that split the diocese in two in 2008, and the more than a decade of expensive litigation that followed. In February 2021, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of what was then one of two entities called the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. This let stand the previous ruling of the Texas Supreme Court, which awarded the name and most of the disputed physical property to the diocese that is part of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
The acrimonious divorce resulted in five congregations in the diocese affiliated with the Episcopal Church (TEC) having to move out of the church properties where they had worshiped for years. Four of the congregations arranged for new or shared worship space, while the fifth disbanded.
In the Eucharist that preceded the special convention that voted on reunification, Mayer said: “You did more than weather the storm. You did more than survive the journey. You chose life, and love. You gave away your money, your time, and your security for the benefit of others.” The Eucharist was held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, which had voted to stay with TEC at the time of the split. Trinity is one of 14 congregations currently in ECNTX, compared with more than 50 in the ACNA diocese.
ECNTX is to become the North Region of the Diocese of Texas, which already has South, East, and West regions. The map of the combined dioceses will look like a chunky boomerang, encircling about two-thirds of the perimeter of the Diocese of Dallas. In 1982, the booming Diocese of Dallas was amicably split in two, with the western portion becoming the Diocese of Fort Worth.
Mayer will continue to serve the North Region, with “assisting” rather than “provisional” attached to his bishop title, and will continue as Bishop of Northwest Texas. Texas will continue to be led by Bishop of Texas C. Andrew Doyle, along with Mayer and the assisting or suffragan bishops for the other three regions.
Given that background, the obvious question is why isn’t ECNTX merging with Dallas or Northwest Texas? Either would create a more tidy geographical silhouette than the combination with Texas.
Katie Sherrod, long-time communications director for ECNTX and its predecessor, explained that Houston-based Texas was a better fit for other reasons. Northwest Texas is vast and largely rural — the see city, Lubbock, is only the 11th-largest city in the state — while Fort Worth is part of the fastest-growing metropolitan region of the country.
“And quite frankly, Dallas — there’s a real culture clash there,” she said. Every congregation in ECNTX supports same-sex marriage, while Bishop of Dallas George R. Sumner is one of a handful of bishops who do not accept the practice. Sherrod said she and her colleagues respect Sumner, but that it would make no sense to make him arrange alternate oversight for 14 more congregations regarding same-sex marriage.
The idea of a merger involving a culture clash provided a humorous note during Mayer’s sermon. “You are liberated,” he told the diocese. “You have made it very clear that there is no desire to return to Egypt.” When he was interrupted by laughter, he grinned and said, “oh, you got that.”
The Old Testament reading was from Exodus, and Mayer later said “Choosing a story from the book of Exodus is tricky for us. To be clear, we were not the ones who left. And to be very clear, reunification with the Diocese of Texas is not a return to Egypt.”
Bitterness over the trauma in Fort Worth seems likely to linger for years to come. It’s hard to imagine the pain receding entirely while the ACNA diocese continues to exercise its hard-fought right to call itself the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. The word episcopal is an adjective relating to a bishop, so the bishop-led ACNA entity is an episcopal diocese. But the confusion is both obvious and a source of resentment for ECNTX, which has a page on its website with the pointed headline, “Who We Are, and Who Is Not Us.” The page warns:
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.
While the vote to join the Diocese of Texas was a joyous occasion, Mayer noted that the anger has not been resolved. “This event today is not about closure. It’s an outward visible sign of faith, hope, and love by a liberated people,” he said in his sermon.
Texas already is the largest domestic diocese in the church, with nearly 75,000 baptized members as of the end of 2020. Adding ECTNX’s 6,000 baptized members will still leave Texas in second place behind Haiti, with more than 97,000 baptized members.
Six dioceses currently represent parts of the state of Texas, five of which are entirely within the boundaries of the state. In addition to the aforementioned ECNTX, Texas, Dallas, and Northwest Texas, the San Antonio-based Diocese of West Texas is entirely within the state, while the Albuquerque-based Diocese of the Rio Grande includes El Paso and nearby Texas counties, along with almost the entire state of New Mexico.