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Jan 25, 2011 | Pat McCaughan

Fort Worth: Judge orders property returned to Episcopal Church, diocese

[Episcopal News Service] A Texas judge on Jan. 21 ordered a dissident group to return "all property, as well as control of the diocesan corporation" within 60 days to the Episcopalian leaders in Fort Worth who have remained loyal to the Episcopal Church.


Tarrant County District Court Judge John Chupp cited the hierarchical nature of the Episcopal Church as the basis for his ruling, which granted motions for summary judgment filed by the Episcopal Church and the continuing Diocese of Fort Worth.


"Because the Church is hierarchical, the Court follows Texas precedent governing hierarchical church property disputes, which holds that in the event of a dispute among its members, a constituent part of a hierarchical church consists of those individuals remaining loyal to the hierarchical church body," according to the order.


Chupp further ruled that all property held for the diocese may be used only for the mission of the Episcopal Church and that amendments made by the dissidents to the diocesan corporation's corporate documents in an attempt to avoid these obligations were void; and he ordered former Fort Worth bishop Jack Iker and a breakaway group "to provide an accounting of all diocesan assets" within 60 days of the order.


The Rt. Rev. C. Wallis Ohl, provisional bishop of Fort Worth said in a statement to the media that he was pleased with the ruling.


"We are pleased with this decision as it represents good progress in recovering property and assets of The Episcopal Church for use by Episcopalians in this diocese for ministry and mission," he said.


"The only reason we have gone to court is to protect the assets built up over 170 years in this part of Texas by generations of Episcopalians for the use of the Episcopal Church so they will be available for use by the great-great-grandchildren of those Episcopalians and for generations beyond," he said.


Ohl also acknowledged that the litigation "has been painful for both sides. We continue to hold Bishop Iker and those who chose to leave The Episcopal Church in our prayers. We wish all the best for them. 


"We are obviously disappointed by Judge Chupp's ruling and see it as fundamentally flawed, said Iker in a statement posted on the breakaway group's website. "We are confident that the Court of Appeals will carefully consider our appeal and will rule in accordance to neutral principles of law as practiced in the State of Texas."


Iker and other former diocesan leaders left the Episcopal Church in November 2008, realigning with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. They attempted to retain church property and assets. They have also continued to use the name and seal of the diocese.


The continuing diocese reorganized in Feb. 2009, electing the Rt. Rev. Edwin F. (Ted) Gulick Jr., as its provisional bishop at a special convention meeting. Ohl was elected in November 2009 to succeed Gulick.


The Episcopal Church and the continuing Fort Worth diocese sued Iker and other former diocesan leaders April 14, 2009 in 141st district court in Tarrant County, seeking recovery of property and other assets.


Additional litigation is still pending in several courts, including:


--a dispute over the Cynthia Brants Trust fund in 355th District Court in Hood County, and which St. Andrews congregation—the continuing Episcopal or a breakaway group -- is beneficiary,


--a trademark infringement and dilution of the name and seal of the diocese case filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth Division, the Hon. Terry R. Means presiding. This case is stayed pending resolution of the identity issues in the Tarrant County Case, according to a press release from the continuing diocese.


--a trademark infringement and dilution of the name lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth division, involving two congregations named All Saints — one a continuing and the other a breakaway group.


Ohl said he hopes the two groups can eventually reconcile.


"From the day the former leaders left the Episcopal Church, Episcopalians across the diocese, including the people who have been displaced from their own parishes and missions, have been actively planning for reconciliation with those who currently worship in those facilities," he said in a press release.


"The Episcopal Church, including its continuing Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, welcomes everyone, no matter where they are on their spiritual journey. The mission of The Episcopal Church is to reconcile the world to God through Jesus Christ. All persons are welcome to worship in the 55 Episcopal parishes and missions of the continuing Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth."