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.
Bishop Takes Castle
Man’s Dominion: Bishop Iker at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, in Fort Worth, photographed on December 27, 2009.
Photograph by Misty Keasler

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

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