— By DAVID MAY
For now, the Episcopalian churches that splintered away from the main church several years ago can breathe easier after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday overturned a Tarrant County district court’s summary judgment that would have forced the separated churches to surrender their properties.
The high court’s split 5-4 decision remanded the case back to the trial court, directing it to apply standards that apply under Texas corporate laws without deferring to a hierarchical church. The Episcopal Church wanted to claim the properties and buildings of the churches that left the main church several years over theological disputes, including allowing gay priests.
The churches that broke way reformed under the umbrella of The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, which amended its articles of incorporation to remove the The Episcopal Church and amended its bylaws, and aligned under the more conservative Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.
Senior Warden Ed Woodard of the historic All Saints’ Episcopal Church, in Weatherford, welcomed the news of the state supreme court’s ruling that means, for now, the local congregation doesn’t have to worry about forfeiting its church.
“This will allow our local parish to continue our traditional Anglo Catholic service which is based on the Holy Scriptures,” Woodard said. “This will allow us to continue that.”
The Weatherford church was dedicated in 1879 and was bestowed a Texas state historical marker. On Sept. 29 it will welcome a new priest, Father Eric Vowles.
“It is a beautiful little church,” said Woodard. “It is just draped in Weatherford tradition. It has a very interesting history.”
Conservative Episcopal churches split from the national church in 2006 over several long-running issues, but brought to a head when the national church decided to allow gay priests. Conventions of the Fort Worth diocese in 2007 and 2008 vowed to break away from the national church. It fractured memberships in some Episcopal churches.
“It’s been very difficult,” said Woodard. “This struggle isn’t new. Some of the more liberal Episcopalians that now run the national church, the traditional Anglo-Catholic Church has felt a rub for years.”
While the supreme court ruling signals the beginning of a new round of legal action, Woodard said, “This is a giant hurdle. We are very pleased. It’s not over. This is just the first major hurdle and we feel very good about it.”
The Rt. Rev. Jack L. Iker, bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, issued a letter Friday, stating, “We rejoice in today’s ruling by the Texas Supreme Court overturning the summary judgment in favor of The Episcopal Church. The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred in deferring to TEC (The Episcopal Church) rather than subjecting TEC’s property claims to the same neutral principles of law that apply to everyone else. The trial court must now reconsider the merits of the case based upon neutral principles of law, and we are confident that we will prevail when TEC is subjected to neutral principles of Texas law. In sum, while today’s opinions are not a final victory, they indicate that a final victory is only a matter of time.”
In a second related case involving the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo, the Texas Supreme Court also reversed a lower court ruling that went in favor in favor of TEC and directed the trial court to decide that case based upon neutral principles of law, rather than using deference to an hierarchical church.
The high court ruled in that case that a not-for-profit corporation in Texas, including a church, can change its articles of incorporation and bylaws.
“The corporation of our Diocese, which holds title to all our church property, is governed by Texas corporate law and has authority to control its own affairs without interference from TEC or other parties,” wrote Iker. “TEC’s argument – that its national officers can remove officers of a Texas corporation by decree – simply doesn’t comply with Texas law.”
Fort Worth Bishop The Rt. Rev. Rayford B. High Jr., representing the diocese that remained with the national church, stated they were “disappointed” in the supreme court ruling.
“While it is a disappointment not to have a definitive decision, as followers of Jesus Christ, we live in hope,” stated Rev. High. “Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori joins me in acknowledging our disappointment and urging all of us to be gentle with one another during this trying time, with the important goal of continuing our worship of God and our ministries in this community in as uninterrupted a manner as possible.”
High added, “I remain convinced that we are right in our affirmation that we are the continuing Diocese of Fort Worth and that I am its bishop.”