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.