FORT WORTH, Texas — Neat lines of soot have been building in rows on the sanctuary wall of Saint Luke’s in the Meadow Episcopal Church since 1976 — the year that addition was built.
The lines appear as shadows cast from the prayer candles that sit below. The smoke-stained bricks behind the church’s lectern have never been washed. Parishioners say those long black strips represent 44 years of prayers of thousands of people who have worshiped there.
Many church members, like John Kline, have been attending services at St. Luke’s since birth. Back in 1946, when the church was founded, Kline’s mother was the church’s first secretary, and his father was a member of the original vestry.
Kline was an alter boy there, married his second wife in the chapel (during Sunday service), his four sons were baptized in the sanctuary, he’s served as an usher and been an active member for most of his adult life. Many of his childhood pictures and memories were made on the grounds.
Sunday’s service was the last time he’ll worship inside the building that he said has been the center of his spiritual and social life since he was a child.
“I think our church was stolen,” he said during an interview inside the chapel. “As of Monday, we're in the street. We have nowhere to go. Everything they are allowing us to take out of our church is being packed up and stored. We have nowhere to worship.”
St. Luke’s is one of six area congregations being forced out of their buildings on Monday. The Texas Supreme Court has awarded their property, along with more than $100 million of other Episcopal Church properties, to a splinter group that left the Episcopal Church in 2008 over disagreements about ordaining women and including LGBTQ people in the full life and ministry of the church.
The buildings in question — All Saints' Episcopal Church, St. Christopher Episcopal Church, St. Elisabeth's & Christ the King, St. Stephen’s in Wichita Falls, and St. Mary’s in Hillsboro, which has been paying utiltiies in its building, but does not own it — were built, paid for and maintained by generations of parishioners.
When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and others, it ended a years-long court saga that has seen both sides win and lose at different phases.
In at least three other dioceses around the country facing the same legal battles — cases in which a conservative faction of the church split and then claimed the rights to their property — courts have sided with the national church. Texas is the only place where the courts awarded property to the splinter group.
Also at stake in this dispute is the name “The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth” and untold amounts of money. Countless people have included the diocese in their wills and trusts, which funnels that money to whichever faction bears the name. The splinter group, which the state now recognizes as the true Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, has sent cease and desist letters to the original diocese for the use of the name and logo. A faction that didn’t want to belong to the church now legally owns its name.
Aside from a place of worship, St. Luke’s eastside locale also housed a food pantry that routinely served 80 or so families living in a food desert (that number has doubled since the pandemic) and the local diocese office. Parishioners and church staff have been active members of the community, reading to local schoolchildren at nearby Meadowbrook Elementary, doling out breakfast and coffee to parents of school children, and various other community outreach initiatives. A preschool that, until Sunday, was housed at St. Christopher Episcopal is also out in the proverbial cold.
The Rev. Karen Calafat has been the rector at St. Luke’s for more than six years. Though the events that led to her congregation’s eviction were set in motion long before she arrived in Fort Worth, she said the ordeal has galvanized church members, who have become more active in their faith and outreach.
“They are an incredibly loving, welcoming, warm and hospitable parish,” she said. “They know that the church is who they are. It's not the building. But it is very hard to watch them grieve and be angry and upset and hurt about something that's beyond their control. I mean, basically they're losing their property because of who and how they love. And now they're doing the right thing. They're living out their faith, and it's brought them to this place of huge loss and sacrifice.”
Suzanne Gill, a spokesperson for the newly named official Fort Worth diocese — said leaders of the conservative group repeatedly attempted to reach an out-of-court settlement. It was the Episcopal Church, not the splinter group, that originally sought a solution through the courts.
“While no one ever wants to leave a church building behind, this moment has not sprung up suddenly,” she said in an email. “The plaintiffs defined the terms in their original filing. If the decision had been the other way around, some four dozen congregations would now be evacuating. No one can take delight in such a wrenching event.”
She said Bishop Ryan Reed, head of the church, plans to reopen the empty churches as soon as possible.
“Every person who wishes to attend services or participate in a program will be welcome, whether they have ever attended the church before or not,” Gill said. “For those who have the cremated remains of loved ones placed in columbarium niches, they will be welcome to visit whenever they wish. No one is being told to go, and no one will be forbidden to return.”
Kline said he intends to stick with his fellow parishioners and The Rev. Calafat. They’ll be meeting at a park next week in an event whose purpose is just as much for emotional support as worship. He’s palpably let down at what he and many others see as a failure of the courts and the greed of the splinter group.
As his eyes swelled with tears, he pointed to the stunning scenes on stained glass that surround the sanctuary, all of which were funded by St. Luke’s parishioners, including his parents.
"You start thinking about everybody that was involved in this church, started this church and has belonged to this church in its 74 years,” he said. “Everyone that’s been here or connected to it are part of its history, and that's what we are having to leave — this part of our life.”
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Kline and fellow parishioner Patrick Hayden, donned in tool belts and toting drills, were tasked the sad chore of removing the St. Luke’s sign from its stone mount facing Meadowbrook Drive and Meadowbrook Elementary School.
“This is very sad,” said Calafat, who took a break from preparing for an upcoming online sermon.
The events that led to this day started back in 2003 with the controversial appointment of a gay bishop. The American-based Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion of which the church is a part had long been engaged in a bitter struggle over the roles of homosexuals and women within the church. (The Episcopal Church is the American name of the Anglican Church, created by Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Anglican churches operate in about 160 countries and have some 78 million members.) The consecration of the openly gay V. Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire and then the elevation of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in 2006 escalated these long-simmering tensions into open warfare.
The church split into “traditionalists,” who felt betrayed by the Episcopal Church of the United States ignoring orthodox biblical interpretation regarding the place of women in the church and homosexuality; and the more progressive “loyalist” Episcopalians, who felt the ordination of LGBTQ people and women was the natural result of centuries of progress.
Many conservatives went into open revolt. Some parishes left, and nearly two-thirds of the global Anglican church declared itself in “broken” or “impaired” communion with its more liberal American branch. One of the first to leave stateside was Fort Worth’s, led by then-bishop Jack Iker. In 2008, he left the Episcopal Church, taking most of the Diocese of Fort Worth with him, including 48 churches, 15,000 parishioners, and more than 58 clergy. A handful of churches remained loyal to the national leadership.
When Iker announced that he and his flock would be keeping their assets — hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate, buildings, and investments — the national church hit back. In April 2009, Bishop Schori denounced Iker’s action as illegitimate and deposed him as bishop. When she sued him and his group of Fort Worth defectors, that action set in motion a 13-year legal battle with far-reaching implications, not just for the Episcopal Church, but for churches around the country.
Iker’s attorneys asserted they were entitled to the diocesan property — that under the law he is chairman of the corporation that owns the assets and, according to its constitution, holds them in trust for the use of each congregation, not for the Episcopal Church as a whole. Contradicting this argument was the church’s so-called Dennis Canon, which says that the property of all congregations is held in trust for both the national church and the diocese.
Over the following decade-plus, the legal battle volleyed back and forth from the original trial court decision (which sided with the national Episcopal Church), to the Texas Supreme Court (which asked the original court to rule on “neutral principals,” referring to rules grounded in law, as opposed to rules based on personal interests or beliefs), then back to the trial court (which sided with the splinter group), to an appeals court (which favored the national Episcopal Church), then ultimately back to the Texas Supreme Court earlier this year.
Katie Sherrod, communications director for the original diocese — now called the Episcopal Church in North Texas — said that other hierarchal churches may find their property “up for grabs” because of the decision made by the state’s high court.
“I have a hard time explaining this because they tied themselves into legal pretzels to be able to do this,” she said. “They decided that churches are businesses. If they're businesses, then the board of directors can vote to do whatever they want.”
She and others believe the court’s decision was political — a part of the right-wing culture war — and not based on the law.
“When we were down in Austin before the Supreme Court, one of the judges started quoting the Bible at us,” she said. “They would talk a lot about the gay issue and stuff. We would talk about the law, the fact that this was a church and who gets to decide who the Episcopal bishop of Fort worth is. I think it was absolutely affected by the ‘own the libs’ kind of mindset.”
The splinter group, now the official Fort Worth diocese, has maintained throughout this long ordeal that Bishop Iker attempted to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with their legal and spiritual rivals.
Back in the early phases of this schism, Iker said he had agreed to hand over the property and assets of four loyalist churches and was in the process of doing so when he was sued. Due to the litigation, he was unable to release the other four.
“Since before the lawsuit began (2007-08), we have endeavored to work with congregations that were in disagreement with the decision of the diocese to dissociate from The Episcopal Church,” Gill said in an email. “Some priests and lay leaders welcomed this, others did not. Soon after the dissociation was ratified, four parishes were offered their property. Three accepted, and one did not. They did not pay a penny because property has always been held for the benefit of congregations.”
A legal expert familiar with the situation said the loyalist churches did not go along with Iker’s negotiations because the church has processes for trasferring property. Iker’s plans, he said, didn’t comport with church polity.
“Bishop Iker reached out and said, ‘OK we are trying to avoid litigation, so if anyone would like to meet and keep their property, we'll create a process for that,’” he said. “The challenge was that process was so contrary to our polity.
“For example, one of the things you could do is schedule a parish meeting and have an up or down vote,” he continued. “For one, that’s not our polity. Our polity is not that we get to make a decision if we're going to be part of the larger national body. Why would we submit to something that's against our canons?
“Two, even if we agree to do that, there was still no commitment he would back away,” he said. “I think you'd have to say there was some process, but the problem was, it was such a flawed process that it didn't really make a lot of sense to participate. It was completely vague. There was no appeal. It was just all basically: You can sign up and then we'll let the Bishop decide what he wants to do.”
In a statement released just after the court decision, Bishop Ryan Reed said that, due to COVID restrictions, the buildings his diocese now owns have sat empty over the past year. He plans to reopen them and rebuild the congregations.
“We did not begin the lawsuit,” he said in the statement. “In fact, we conducted negotiations for over a year with dissenting congregations, and we freely released properties to three of them. Even so, we were sued. Now, after defending ourselves in Texas courts at every level and in the U.S. Supreme Court, the result is that the five churches that were held hostage from the diocese for the last 12 years are being returned to us. In this process, we have offered to continue housing a food pantry and a preschool previously established on two of the properties, but both of these offers have been rejected. The experience brings to mind the words of Psalm 120: ‘I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.’”
Gill said she and others are “truly sad” that the food pantry and preschool are being relocated, but those parishes that remained loyal to the church have made the split bitter and contentious.
“As hard as this long period has been, we have tried to remain free of bitterness and acrimony,” she said. “St. Paul advises Christians not to settle differences in court, and we tried our uttermost to avoid that. We seek to dwell in peace with all our neighbors, even when we disagree. Yet, since this is a matter that has come before the legal system, we have seen it through, and the courts are still involved in these final steps. A very grand church — or four — could have been built with the fees paid to lawyers.”
The Rt. Rev. Scott Mayer has been the provisional bishop of the now-renamed Episcopal Church in North Texas since 2013, while also bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas, both dioceses in The Episcopal Church. He addressed the people of his North Texas diocese shortly after the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear their cases.
“The news that the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear our cases landed in the midst of the pandemic that has killed 500 million Americans,” he said. “It came on the heels of freezing weather, power outages and broken water lines. We were already tired and anxious. It came as the season of Lent began.
“We are stepping out together on a path toward a new reality, only dimly seen right now,” he continued. “I believe we are once again called to bear witness to the gospel here and now in a new and previously unimagined way. I don’t know what shape or form that will take, but I do believe that together and with God’s help, we will make amazing things happen.”
The St. Luke's congregation has found a permanent home for its food pantry. The new location, 3021 Rosedale Street near Texas Wesleyan University, is just a few miles away from its former home. The St. Luke’s flock will be still be able to serve low-income families on Fort Worth’s east side. The building was a formerly a cafe, and there will be plenty of room for cars to line up for contactless delivery. At 2 p.m. on Friday, the 4Saints Food Bank will operate from a mobile food pantry in a parking lot at 3000 Ave. Its regular hours of 11 a.m.-1 p.m. will resume in a couple of weeks. The diocese will not have missed one week of giving out food.
Sherrod said Reed and his diocese only offered to allow the pantry and preschool to stay in their buildings on the condition that they shared control of the operations.
As church leaders continue to search for a new landing spot, Calafat said she has no intention of leaving her flock any time soon.
“I would say this church has really learned more about being a church throughout all this litigation — how to stay together, how to love each other, how to care about the community,” she said. “The grief and loss is pretty palpable around here right now. There’s been lots of tears.
“I think this is the kind of thing that gives Christianity and organized religion a very bad name,” she continued.
Kline said he will stick with the congregation that has defined his faith, despite living with such uncertainty.
“We’re playing it by ear,” he said. "There are no answers here. We do what we can do; we plan as far out as we can. What will happen the next week? We don't know.
“Life comes at you and you just do what you can do,” he said.