North Texas Episcopal congregations evicted after 12-year legal battle with breakaway diocese
The disagreements centered on female clergymen and the recognition of LGBT people in the Church.
Jackie Meeks was sitting in the back bench she’d called home for years when a handful of other church members brought down a gold, six-foot Christ Rex over the altar.
“It’s so crazy to see it come down,” she said. “You just think it’s always there.”
She is a member of St. Christopher’s, one of six Fort Worth episcopal churches that have moved out of their buildings over a lawsuit dividing thousands of members of the North Texas Faith.
Now boxes line corridors and fill kitchens, all waiting to be stored until they and the golden replica of Jesus find a new home.
“I think it’s sad because now it’s going to be stored somewhere,” said Meeks. “It’s like who stores Christ?”
In 2008, 48 parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth separated from the national church due to disagreements over doctrine, mostly over women becoming clergy, which was approved by the General Convention in 1976. Despite approval, this was still largely turned against women in Fort Worth, as was LGBT church marriages.
15 congregations stayed with the national church and sued the new breakaway group that is now affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America. They argued that the national church owned the property and therefore the renegade group could not keep it.
In total, real estate worth $ 100 million was at stake in the lawsuit.
A district judge initially sided with the group that stayed with the national church, but after a back-and-forth and refusal by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case that year, the Texas Supreme Court ruling was turned down joined the conservative breakaway group.
Three wards that stayed with the national church were able to work out an agreement with ACNA and keep their buildings, but six churches must be out of their buildings by Monday, April 19.
“The Church is the people, not the building,” said Rev. Canon Janet Wagoner, a director of the Fort Worth Episcopal Diocese. “It’s about how big the circle of inclusion should be.”
Wagoner and the group that stayed with the national church may even lose the right to use the diocese’s name and logo in the lawsuit.
“These buildings are not just places where our communities are,” said Wagoner. “They really are community centers.”
Churches evicted include St. Luke’s at Meadow Episcopal Church, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Christopher Episcopal Church, and St. Elisabeth’s & Christ the King Episcopal Church.
Outside Fort Worth, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Wichita Falls and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hillsboro will also depart.
“The eviction now comes after 12 years of litigation,” said Rev. Canon Jay Atwood, a breakaway group leader. “For me the whole process was a tragedy for faith.”
In a statement, the group’s bishop Reverend Ryan S. Reed said: “The five churches held hostage by the diocese for the past 12 years are being returned to us. In this process, we have offered to continue to house a pantry and preschool that had previously been set up on two of the lots. However, both offers were rejected. The experience recalls the words of Psalm 120: I am for peace; but when i speak they are for war “
Atwood said the dispute had deeply divided the community.
“Like the Civil War in the United States, it has divided families, friends, neighbors, parishioners, and communities over property,” Atwood said.
“It’s really interesting that he used that analogy,” said Wagoner. “We stand for loving everyone.”
Atwood said they plan to have a priest and at least a few parishioners in every vacant building, and they hope to build churches in each building.
For Meeks, it’s legacy that still hurts. Her mother is in a columbaria in St. Christopher that she will no longer see every Sunday.
“The saints are here. The souls are here, ”she said. “It’s like leaving the house where you were born.”
The communities are still figuring out where and when to reopen the wrapped boxes. Some have found that there are still new homes around, others are still looking for space.
While other denominations grapple with the same questions about how to deal with questions of faith in a modern world, the groups share different lessons from the litigation.
“Churches must follow biblical understanding, which means we don’t have to sue each other, especially over property,” Atwood said.
“Stand up for what you know is right, especially when you speak for others,” said Meeks. “This is the definition of belief. Keep believing, keep moving forward when you don’t see positive signs. “
Wagoner said their faith and church will survive beyond the walls they have called home.
“They are determined to continue loving their neighbors in the places God planted them,” she said.