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Anglican Group Wins Property Fight Against Ft. Worth’s Episcopal Diocese

The Texas Supreme Court awarded a Fort Worth group affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America the right to $100 million in church property. 

The ownership of the property has been in dispute since the ACNA-affiliate group broke away from the Episcopal Church in 2008.

The ruling on FridayMay 22, is the latest over properties held by congregations and dioceses that the Episcopal Church has been fighting in court for decades.

The Texas ruling may be the first time that a breakaway diocese has prevailed.

For more than 20 years, former Episcopal Church church congregations have been leaving the denomination.  The departures have been the result of a drift in the Episcopal Church that began in the 1960 and accelerated in recent decades with the ordination of openly gay clergy and, in 2003, the elevation of an openly gay bishop. 

Most of the churches left at great cost, since – according to Episcopal Church governance – the diocese and not the local church is the legal owner of most church property.  Many joined ACNA, formed in 2008.  ACNA now has more than 1000 congregations and more than 120,000 members.  The Episcopal Church claims 1.6 million members in the United States.  But in 2018 the average Sunday attendance in Episcopal Churches in the U.S. was less than 600,000.

In Fort Worth, a majority of clergy and lay leaders not just in a single congregation, but in the entire Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, voted to leave.  This fact apparently made a difference in the Texas case, though other complete dioceses have left and were not able to keep their property.

Across the country, four other dioceses also broke with the national church, including the dioceses of Pittsburgh; Quincy, Illinois; San Joaquin, California; and in 2012, Charleston, South Carolina. In most cases, courts ruled that property titled to the diocese must stay in the Episcopal Church’s hands. 

A breakaway group in South Carolina, for example, won the right to its property in a lower court, but that ruling was overturned by the state’s high court. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down an appeal, leaving in place the state ruling and clearing the way for the national church to retake ownership of 29 properties.

In Texas, the high court reversed a 2018 appeals court decision that found the historic diocese, now led by Bishop Scott Mayer, was the rightful controller of the Diocese of Fort Worth and ruled that the breakaway group should control the properties. 

Katie Sherrod, a spokesperson for the historic diocese associated with the Episcopal Church, said Mayer met with clergy on Tuesday, as well as the diocesan legal team. The diocese has yet to decide whether to appeal the state ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This decision is a disappointment to us all, but as followers of Jesus Christ, we live in hope,” Mayer wrote in a letter to his diocese. “Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry 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 diocese in as uninterrupted (a) manner as possible. Now I, other diocesan leaders, and our legal team have to make decisions about our next steps.”

A spokesman for the Fort Worth diocese affiliated with Anglican Church in North America did not return requests for comment.

That group, led by Bishop Ryan S. Reed, took over an estimated 50 properties, including churches, a camp and several rectories, when it left the national denomination. It now has 56 congregations, according to its website.

The historic Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth has 15 congregations and if the ruling stands will lose an additional five buildings, Sherrod said.

The Episcopal Church passed a rule in 1979 that the property of each local congregation is held in trust for the national church and the congregation’s diocese. Individual churches control their properties so long as the congregation remains a part of the national church. Not all courts have found this rule enforceable. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed it.

It also found that the majority that broke away constituted the continuation of the Fort Worth diocese under the terms of its charter. In 2007 and 2008, a majority of the diocesan convention voted to amend its governing documents to change all provisions referring to the Episcopal Church and requiring compliance with its canons and constitution. 

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is a North Carolina-based reporter who has written about religion for more than 17 years. She is a national reporter and senior editor for Religion News Service.