Bishop Takes Castle
When clergyman Jack Iker became convinced the Episcopal Church was losing its way, he left—and took the Fort Worth diocese, with almost all its property, with him. Now the church is fighting back, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Jack Iker, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, was tired of fighting his church. As a conservative and traditionalist, he had long disagreed with its practice of ordaining women priests. He was deeply dismayed by its more recent consecration of a gay bishop, its policy of blessing same-sex unions, and its movement away from the Biblical teaching that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. These changes, he felt, were all proof that his denomination had lost its way. And so, on November 15, 2008, after fifteen years as a bishop, Iker left the Episcopal Church.
But he did not leave alone. He took most of the Diocese of Fort Worth with him: 48 churches, 15,000 parishioners, and more than 58 clergy. The loyalist minority who did not follow him made up only 8 churches. And in a startling assertion of temporal power against a centuries-old establishment, Iker announced that he and his flock would be keeping their assets—hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate, buildings, and investments—the legacy of a century and a half of worship. He was leaving, in other words, but he wasn’t going anywhere.
On the Sunday following Iker’s departure, which was announced and approved at an annual diocesan convention at St. Vincent’s Cathedral in Bedford—roughly 80 percent of the gathered clergy and laity voted for the diocese to secede—the Fort Worth parishes separated into hostile camps. Though most churches had clear majorities, some found themselves deeply divided. At the Church of the Good Shepherd in Granbury, liberal members who were loyal to the Episcopal Church—40 souls, compared with the 110 who aligned with Iker—ended up meeting in a women’s club. St. Stephen’s in Hurst split right down the middle; loyalists rented a wedding chapel, used a portable altar, and hired a retired priest. There were liberal congregations in exile in Weatherford, Fort Worth, and Arlington. At All Saints in Fort Worth, a church with 1,800 members, it was the conservatives who were in the minority; 150 of them walked out and set up their own new congregation under the same name.
For many Fort Worth–area Episcopalians, the suffering that accompanied this separation was acute. People who had helped build churches could no longer worship in them. Parishioners who had worshiped together were not speaking to one another. A dying woman at All Saints’ in Weatherford suddenly found herself without a priest. At St. Simon of Cyrene in Fort Worth, a group of loyalists—many of whom had founded and built the church—walked out of their annual parish meeting while the other side applauded their departure. “I felt a deep sadness about the church breaking up,” says the Reverend Susan Slaughter, the newly minted rector of St. Luke’s in the Meadow, one of the loyalist churches that remains in its building but which lost several members. “It was almost on a visceral level. There was a tremendous grief that I saw, felt, and experienced.”
There was sadness on the conservative side too. Says the Reverend Stuart Smith, the rector of Granbury’s Church of the Good Shepherd, who joined forces with Iker: “There was pretty much an understanding that the Sunday after the convention, people would withdraw. So the Sunday before, I said, ‘I know there are some of you who may not be back next Sunday and may not ever be back in this building again. I just want you to know: I love you, and I consider you beloved members of this family.’ ” Still, a few months later he received a certified letter from the vestry of the new, identically named rival parish telling him in stark legal terms that he had no right to remain in his church. “It was insulting on one level,” he recalls. “It said, ‘You’re being a bad priest.’ ”
The effects of Iker’s insurgency were felt far beyond his diocese. What happened in Fort Worth was part of a widening schism in the Episcopal Church, and in the larger Anglican Communion to which it belongs, that has been growing for decades. (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 discontent has its roots in the seventies, when the church made changes to its liturgy and decided to ordain women priests. There were also issues of Scripture, as growing numbers of Episcopalians questioned the literal truth of basic tenets of the faith: the Resurrection, the Atonement, the uniqueness of Jesus as savior. The rift opened wide in 2003 when a partnered gay man named Gene Robinson was consecrated by the church’s general convention as bishop of New Hampshire. 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.
Then in 2006 the church did something that many of the more conservative Episcopalians could not bear: It elected a woman, Nevada bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its presiding bishop, the nominal head of the church. Schori was not only a woman—which to Iker and other conservatives meant that the church, in electing her, had turned its back both on the word of the Bible and on two thousand years of Christian teaching—but one who had voted for Gene Robinson and blessed same-sex unions. She believed that God’s revelation was ongoing (meaning that core doctrines of the church were liable to change) and was prone to saying things like “I simply refuse to hold the doctrine that there is no access to God except through Jesus. I personally reject the claim that Christianity has the truth and all other religions are in error.” This indeed ran counter to age-old teachings of the church. But her election proved that her views, while anathema to the majority of the Anglican Communion, were nonetheless in keeping with the mainstream of thought and practice in the Episcopal Church.
In the next few years, the conservative revolt, which had begun with a meeting in Plano, gathered force. Additional parishes left the church and tried to take their property with them. All but a few would eventually lose their land in court, but their example was soon followed by entire dioceses: San Joaquin, California; Pittsburgh; Quincy, Illinois; and finally Fort Worth. It had been one thing for individual congregations to leave, but it was another for a diocese the size of Iker’s to separate. Suddenly the rift had global consequences. When Iker left, he affiliated himself, as did the other dioceses, with another “province” of the Anglican Communion: the Southern Cone, a more traditionalist part of the Anglican Church currently based in Argentina. Together the renegade bishops also started their own brand-new Anglican Church of North America, which now includes more than 740 parishes. Like Iker’s, the dissident dioceses kept their property, buildings, and budgets.
In April 2009 the Episcopal Church hit back: Presiding Bishop Schori denounced Iker’s action as illegitimate and contrary to the canons of the church. She deposed him as bishop and sued him and his group of Fort Worth defectors, setting in motion a legal battle with far-reaching implications. “What is at stake is really the definition of the church,” says the Reverend David Roseberry, who took his own four-thousand-member Christ Church in Plano out of the Episcopal Church in 2006 and has affiliated himself with Iker in the Anglican Church of North America. “What is the unit, the irreducible minimum, of the gospel? Jack Iker would say it is the diocese. The national church, which is just a loose federation of dioceses, is claiming an interest in the assets of the diocese of Fort Worth. If they win the lawsuit and Fort Worth has to surrender its canons and property, then the Episcopal Church has proven that we are essentially a top-down hierarchical church, like the Catholic Church. That has never been true before.”
For other denominations struggling with how (or how not) to adapt to secular culture—Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians have all suffered divisive episodes over the ordination of gays in recent years—what happens in Fort Worth will prove profoundly instructive. They will all be watching Iker, who remains at the center of the storm. (The three other insurgent dioceses in the U.S. have also been sued by the Episcopal Church, but Iker continues to be a key figure.) A trim, compact man with a mane of graying hair, an immaculate beard, and a gentle manner that belies a bulldog tenacity, Iker is resolute and unapologetic in his belief that the Episcopal Church has strayed from biblical teaching. He is one of the last three bishops who, in defiance of a 1997 General Convention order, have refused to ordain women priests. Since his dramatic exit, the liberal exiles have reconstituted their own Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, with their own bishop, so that now there are two identically named entities, competing for both buildings and souls, each claiming to be the real one. But Iker is unperturbed. He runs his diocese with an iron hand and has packed it full of traditionalists who think like he does; some of his congregations are so uniformly conservative, in fact, that his opponents refer to them as “Ikerpalians.”
Iker is also confident that he is entitled to the diocesan property. He asserts 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. (This collides head-on with the church’s so-called Dennis Canon, which asserts that the property of all congregations is held in trust for both the national church and the diocese.) And when it comes to his rival diocese, Iker invokes basic ecclesiastical authority to refute its demands. “You can’t have an organization following its constitution and canons and then have a minority [the loyalists] meet someplace else and undo the change,” he says. “Basically it was an illegitimate gathering of the minority that laid claim to everything.” Similarly, Iker questions the ability of Presiding Bishop Schori to remove him. “The presiding bishop simply does not have authority over bishops,” he says. “She can’t tell them what to do. Nor do we think she has authority to bring litigation on behalf of the church. The General Convention has not voted on it. I mean, who authorized it?”
The other side, of course, sees things quite differently. “The vote that was taken in the November convention was not a legal vote,” says Katie Sherrod, a loyalist who played a key role in the laity-led reorganization of the diocese under a new bishop. “A diocese can’t vote to leave the Episcopal Church. The only way is with the consent of the General Convention. The point is that you do not get to leave the Episcopal Church and stay in Episcopal Church property. You don’t get to leave and keep using money and assets that have been built up over one hundred and seventy years of donations by Episcopalians in this part of North Texas. Bishops have a great deal of authority, but they are not lone rangers.”
Interestingly, Iker says 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.) “We were trying to find a way where there were no losers,” he says, “so the people who wanted to stay with the church could have their property, and those who wanted to stay with the diocese could have their property. We tried to work out a way where people could be simply transferred to the diocese of Dallas. But the presiding bishop sent a message back saying, ‘Absolutely no way. We will fight that every inch.’ ” Iker, meanwhile, is supporting a movement to have the Anglican Church of North America recognized as a province of the Anglican Communion, just like the Episcopal Church. The ACNA held its first provincial convention at his Bedford cathedral last summer.
Now that the battle lines are clearly drawn, both sides in Fort Worth say they feel a sense of relief and renewed energy to pursue their missions. At their conventions this fall, each diocese had nothing but unanimous votes on governance and budget matters. But there is in fact a long, hard legal road ahead and no clear resolution in sight. A victory by either side raises questions that are, in conventional Episcopal terms, deeply unsettling. If the loyalists win, does that mean that they are given an empty St. Vincent’s Cathedral, where 1,500 people now worship? What will they do with it? If Iker wins, does that suggest that bishops are indeed sovereign in the Episcopal Church? No one quite knows.
Perhaps most uncomfortable of all is the irony, impossible to miss, that a raging debate about secularization in the church is now going to be sorted out by, of all things, the secular courts. It’s a process that is bound to take several years. As 2010 begins, the litigation is grinding forward in state district court; no matter its verdict, both sides expect to appeal at least to the Texas Supreme Court. If differing verdicts are handed down in the Episcopal Church’s four lawsuits against its renegade dioceses, then it is even possible that the U.S. Supreme Court could hear the case. As defining a case as that would be, many Episcopalians say they are appalled by the very idea of all this costly legal wrangling. “It is tragic that dollars that were supposedly spent to spread the gospel are being spent to sue Christian brothers and sisters,” says David Roseberry, voicing the predominant view among conservatives. “I think that is scandalous.” Iker himself realizes that the fight he helped set in motion is not going to end anytime soon. “The litigation is just debilitating,” he says, “emotionally and spiritually.”