Episcopal Church dispute goes far beyond courtroom

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 08, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Judy Marsee Roach was a member of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Arlington for 46 years. Her late husband, Jack Marsee, who was the architect for a church expansion, is interred in a columbarium at St. Alban’s, along with Roach’s parents.

The church building will always be part of her family and hold a place in her heart.

While her emotional ties are strong, she left the church in 2008 over a theological dispute in the 24-county Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

The schism began when Fort Worth Diocese Bishop Jack Iker and like-minded church members exited the U.S. Episcopal Church over doctrinal differences such as the ordination of women and the acceptance of gay and lesbian priests.

In the six years since, congregations have been split, friendships fractured and tens of thousands of dollars spent on lawsuits dealing with a property dispute. Most recently, the Texas Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Episcopal Church that sought to stop a rehearing in the property dispute. Attorneys for the national church say they plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s just very, very painful for everybody,” Roach said. “It just tore our church apart. I wrote to Bishop Iker before the final split. I said, ‘Please, please, this has been my home for all these years. Don’t split our church in two.’ 

Iker’s group opposed the theological shift, saying the Episcopal Church was abandoning age-old biblical principles and traditions. Most of the diocese’s members agreed, leading to the split. Iker’s group is now aligned with the Anglican Church in North America but still claims to be the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

The other group, which remained loyal to the national church and is led by Bishop Rayford High, contends that it is the real Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth since it is recognized by the New York-based Episcopal Church, the official U.S. province of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Those on both sides of the split continue to practice their faith in often-trying circumstances.

Roach is now a member of Theatre Arlington St. Alban’s, a smaller congregation of Episcopalians who left St. Alban’s and remain loyal to the national church.

She said she sometimes goes back to the original St. Alban’s, where she will be interred with her family someday.

“I need to get down on my knees and pray and remember,” she said. “I still have many friends there.”

‘Hard to leave’

When the schism occurred, Iker permitted churches to vote on whether to leave or stay with the national denomination. Under his system, those voting in the majority would get to keep their church buildings.

On its website, the Iker group lists more than 50 congregations, while the other group lists about 20. Other churches are still being reorganized.

At one of Fort Worth’s landmark churches, All Saints’ Episcopal, a majority voted to remain with the Episcopal Church, winning the right to worship in a beautiful building in the Rivercrest neighborhood. Those who voted with Iker had to find a new location.

The departing members formed a congregation that they tabbed “All Saints on the Bricks,” since it met in the Arlington Heights Christian Church building on the brick-paved part of Camp Bowie Boulevard. Now it has merged with Christ the King Church on Lackland Road and is called Christ the King All Saints.

“I joined All Saints on the Bricks because a lot of my friends were there,” said Gene Armiger of Fort Worth. “Now I really am happy we’ve joined with Christ the King. We are like a family.”

Armiger said he joined the Iker group because of personal religious beliefs.

“You won’t find more beautiful churches than St. Andrew’s or All Saints,” Armiger said. “But we can worship in a building that just has bare walls. Our religious faith goes a little deeper than the trappings of a church.”

Longtime Fort Worth Episcopalian Dick Bourland has close friends on both sides of the issue.

He had a long-standing relationship with All Saints, and after much thought, he remained at the congregation still affiliated with the national church.

“I’ve been around All Saints since its beginning in 1946,” Bourland said. “I was 13 years old and they asked me to be an acolyte. … It was kind of hard to leave that church. I think the world of a lot of the people that left. I’m just sorry people had to pick a side.”

‘We agree to disagree’

Fort Worth’s oldest Episcopal congregation, St. Andrew’s, also split.

A majority of members voted to leave the national denomination, so they still worship in the historic Gothic Revival building downtown. Those who remained loyal to the national church now meet at Trinity Episcopal Church.

Robert Haslam, a St. Andrew’s member who favored leaving the national denomination, remains friends with those who formed a separate congregation.

“We agree to disagree,” he said. “I’m a trial lawyer, and I know you can do that. I think it’s very important for people to go where they are the most comfortable.”

Although the divisions were traumatic, Episcopalians who left their church buildings have some advantages in attracting new members, said Walt Cabe, a member of Theatre Arlington St. Alban’s.

“We started out with a core group of 35 to 40 folks and now we consistently run over 100 people,” Cabe said. “We have a lot of young people and a lot of kids.”

The western section of the Fort Worth Diocese was not as affected by the split, said John Cook, an attorney and member of Breckenridge’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

“All of us out here pretty much went with Iker,” he said. “I do have friends on both sides. Sometimes we discuss it. Sometimes we agree not to. It can be touchy.”

Legal wrangling

In the shadow of all the congregational splits has been litigation over which side has the right to millions of dollars’ worth of church property in the sprawling diocese.

The 141st District Court in Tarrant County ruled in 2011 that because the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical body, the property should go to the group still loyal to the church.

But the Texas Supreme Court granted an appeal by the Iker-led group, ruling that the matter should go back to the lower court for a rehearing based on the principles of Texas law.

On March 21, the state Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Episcopal Church asking that the rehearing be denied. Attorneys for the national church said they plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The litigation has been less than cordial at times, with stern language used for emphasis.

In a news release about the March 21 ruling, from the group that stayed with the national church, High said: “While we are disappointed at any delay in the resolution of this dispute and the return of historic Episcopal property for the use of The Episcopal Church, we look forward to its ultimate resolution in our favor. … We will continue to pray for all our sisters and brothers involved in this situation.”

On March 25, the Iker group sent out a news release with a headline that read: “TEC to make desperate appeal to U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in Texas litigation.”

In the release, Iker said: “This is a last-ditch, desperate act on the part of a group that now realizes theirs is a lost cause in Texas. It shows how far they will stretch to delay and confuse, to prevent the proceedings from being brought to a conclusion.”

‘It’s the people’

Whatever the outcome of the legal process, people of faith will continue to worship, said Marti Fagley, who attended St. Francis Episcopal Church in Willow Park before the split.

She and a minority of members wanting to stay in the Episcopal Church had to find a new place to worship and obtain items needed for Communion. It took some innovation.

“We first met in a school. At one time, we used a beer mug as a Communion chalice,” Fagley said. “Now the congregation, also called St. Francis, meets in the parish hall of Community Christian Church in Aledo. A silver chalice has replaced the beer mug.

“Leaving the building was somewhat painful,” she said. “There were people in the community I really regretted to leave.”

With a smaller congregation, she said, everyone gets involved. Her husband, Walter Fagley, has become more active and built a wooden altar, she said.

“What we have learned from all of this is that the church is not the building,” Fagley said. “It’s the people.”

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