"Legal Help Requested"

Katie Sherrod writes of the difficulties Episcopalians are having finding help from the national church office as they struggle to remain in the Episcopal Church while living in dioceses planning on leaving.

After describing the situation in the Diocese of Fort Worth, she write of her frustration as she and others in the diocese seek guidance in how to respond:

"I confess to being baffled at how much difficulty we are having getting legal advice on all this from the national church. What’s more, they don't say, 'Well, we can't help until you get your own lawyer,' or 'Here are the steps you need to take before we can help you,' or 'Jump through these hoops to prove you are worthy of our help.'

We would gladly do whatever we need to do -- if we had the slightest idea what that is.

We are not canon lawyers. The lawyers we are talking with are not canon lawyers and will have to do research on this. Texas courts are very reluctant to intervene in a church fight and, we are told by lawyers here, they always defer to the canons of hierarchal churches. Well, that sounds good. But nothing I've been able to find talks about what to do when a bishop is trying to take everything in a diocese with him.

That changes the dynamic in ways 815 doesn't seem to grasp.
Everyone tells us it will have to be fought out in court. OK. But when? And by whom? And with what money? And what should we be doing in the meantime?

Most of the clergy here are in the bishop’s pocket. Those who are not are few, and pretty beat up.

So it is us lay people [basically Fort Worth Via Media] who are struggling to find ways to stay in TEC. We do not have diocesan resources to help us, and few of the parishes are willing to use their resources to help us. Trinity, my parish, is clear it wants to stay in TEC but it’s not getting any more help than FWVM is getting."

Read the rest here: Desert's Child: Legal Help Requested

Comments (16)

To my eye, one of the most interesting sections of Katie Sherrod's plea for help is the memorandum from the chancellors of the Diocese of Fort Worth about how property is held in the diocese. It would appear that Episcopal Church property in the diocese--parish churches, parking lots, schools, everything--belongs to something called the Corporation of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

But get this. The chancellors' memorandum opens: "In the early 1980s, a decision was made to carve a new Diocese – the Diocese of Fort Worth – from the old Diocese of Dallas. It would include Tarrant County and 23 other western and neighboring counties." Note well, the memo doesn't say who made that decision. I can gues why. The fact is that the decision was made by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, that the diocese is a creature of the General Convention and that the Bishop of Fort Worth and his Standing Committee are accountable to the General Convention.

Should not the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, the chief executive officers of the Episcopal Church, mindful of their fiduciary responsibility to the church and its loyal members, be putting the bishop and the clerical members of the Standing Committee on notice that they are in violation of their ordination vows as they seek to remove the property of the diocese from the ultimate ownership of the Episcopal Church?

It's hard for me to understand why no one from the national church is offering advice to Sherrod and her friends. The behavior of the Bishop of Fort Worth is beyond outrageous.

It seems very likely that TEC has its best legal minds assessing such situations, especially since a number of Episcopal Church bishops have made clear they fully intend to run off with both the flock and the furniture.

But it is not ok - NOT OK - for 815 to withhold even a basic word of legal guidance to those like Katie Sherrod and the good people of Fort Worth Via Media who intend to remain faithful. For that matter, a clear word of canonical guidance to the bishop and clergy of Fort Worth might also be helpful.

Sisters and Brothers at 815, please do something. Really. It's time.

A couple of things:

1. Hasn't Fort Worth also altered its constitution to freely allow any dissenting parish to depart from the diocese with its property? I do not think the characterization of the Bishop seeking to take everything is at all accurate.

2. As wary as I am of Fort Worth's current trajectory towards separation, I think it is patently unhelpful for Via Media to label itself as "faithful." Granted, diocesan pleas that its actions are "faithful" may be equally false, but at least their stated desire for faithfulness has to do with faithfulness to Christ and the Church rather than to The Episcopal Church (as if that is intelligible as a goal in itself). (In other words, faithfulness is relative.)

I am Katie wrote as she did. We keep getting told to "get organized". Truth be told, we started organizing in September 2003 right after the special meeting that Iker called after GC 2003. Several of us were told at GC 06 to "be patient", that "815" was watching out for us and going to step in when and if it became necessary -Basically patting us on the head and telling us to be patient, that Big Daddy is watching out for us and not to worry our pretty little heads. Others have told us to share our stories. The problem with that is that the people in this diocese believe that Bishop Iker can do what he says he can do. No one has every proved him wrong. Certainly not TEC. Everyone just ignores him and hopes he doesn't cause any more trouble to the rest of the church. Meanwhile, people in this diocese who talk against him either find themselves culled from the ministries they hold dear -- that includes clergy and lay. It costs lives and ministries to buck Jack -- and the "conservatives" in this diocese know that as well or better than the moderates or progressives. Stories are NOT going to be shared.
So, it is time to just call 'em as we see 'em. And the truth is...Iker has the money, he says he is going to take the diocese...there is no reason to believe that he won't try. 815 can stand up and tell us all day long that people can leave any time they wish but the property stays with TEC. Well, what we can say to that is -- Put up or shut up.
People have to come into the realization that the property goes to the one who holds the keys. Then after a long bitter and expensive legal battle, maybe TEC will actually retain the property.
Jack Iker should not be ignored any longer. He is not going to go away -- at least not without his pockets filled to overflowing.
And just how much will it cost the church to 'save us' then?

So, Samuel Keyes, what word would you allow Episcopalians who want to remain in the Episcopal Church but find themselves in dioceses planning to leave the Episcopal Church to use to describe themselves? And are your editorial services on offer to both sides or is it only the left whose language you monitor and to whom you attempt to dicate the terms in which it may debate?

Some day an appeal court will decide rather to read the property deeds, or the canons.
first, the appeals court will have to sort out if the trial court properly
admitted the evidence of national canons and original diocesan canons - and
their readings that the property was to be held in trust for TEC.
then the court have to rule if the amended canons were done legally.
many of us think that KJS should move now to declare the amended canons
illegal. her recent actions indicate that she will await Iker to create and
execute proper transfer documents before challenging them.
KJS is risking that the appeal court will be made up of constitutional
lawyers (judges) who will go by the unamended canons, rather than
transactional lawyers who look at deeds.
KJS has apparently not met any Texas judges or filed for an appeal in Texas.

Jim. Fair enough: my "editorial services" are, I hope, freely offered. I have tried to be consistent in critiquing the use of terms like "orthodox," for example. I am just trying to point out the serious tension of these terms.

I don't know if I have an alternative. I know it is nice to have one-word descriptions, but that may be one reason why it has become so easy to mischaracterize one another. My point, really, is to say that none of the sides here is "faithful," or should claim to be so, when schism is the actuality of the day.

I take your point, Samuel. Everything is much more complicated than one word descriptions. However, might I point out that those who wish to remain within the Episcopal Church are certainly not being Unfaithful. We are Episcopalian Christians...as we were one year ago, ten years ago, however long ago. We are not creating the schism...in fact we have attempted to reconcile on many occasions. We have merely attempted to stay in this church. The case in point...there are those who claim they can and are attempting to take the diocese and its property with them as they leave this church. The fact that they have made "provisions" for those "dissenting" parishes to take their property is absolutely ludacrous in that the diocese is the diocese only because it is a part of the Episcopal Church. It is not a diocese without TEC Therefore, it cannot be taken out. Nor can "dissenting" parishes be allowed to stay within TEC by those people who are willfully leaving TEC. Those parishes that are remaining within the framework of the Episcopal Church are indeed the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. Jack Iker and those who choose to follow him will be a part of something else.
They are welcome to return to this diocese any time they so choose. Tose of us still in the diocese will gladly do so.

On the other hand it seems hardly catholic make these kinds of provincial shifts. What gets me is that those dissenting within Fort Worth are not playing this catholic card to argue against the diocesan direction (which they could), but a card which relies on a completely different understanding of faithfulness -- which has much more to do with particularly American values as reflected in GC than it does with anything catholic. Does that make any sense? I am saying that there may be very good cause for complaint at a diocesan schism, but it would make more sense for this complaint to be phrased in terms of catholic order than in terms of loyalty to TEC.

Sameul, I don't have any sense of your political opinions, but I've read a few writers on the right--many of whose secular politics are just this side of nativism--argue that the Episcopal Church's reliance on an elected assembly to make its decisions reflects "particularly American values." All I can say is "Good for us!" I'm against monarchists who wear crowns and monarchists who wear mitres.

Ack -- you've probably caught me. I confess to have a certain vicious, idealistically anti-republican nostalgia for monarchy. And I'm cranky, to boot. May the Lord have mercy on my soul.

I hope, though, that it is not simply my disordered sense of politics that makes me suspicious of General Convention (I also have a certain predilection to Anglo-catholic socialism). I am not really anti-democratic; but a truly democratic structure of the church must take seriously that the church is the communion of the living and the dead -- this renders problematic the idea that majority vote of a particular church can be constitutive of doctrine.

That is why it seems odd to me to talk about Christian faithfulness as being linked to General Convention (period). I do think there is an argument to be made for adhering to General Convention as the only available means of adhering to the Church. But the assumption that the Church subsistit in the General Convention strikes me as profoundly myopic.

Samuel wrote:

"I do think there is an argument to be made for adhering to General Convention as the only available means of adhering to the Church. But the assumption that the Church subsistit in the General Convention strikes me as profoundly myopic."

Okay. We may not actually be as far apart as I thought. Although I have to admit that I lack the knowledge to discuss where or in what the Church does subsist.

Sanuel said, "...it seems odd to me to talk about Christian faithfulness as being linked to General Convention (period)."

I think this reflects a misunderstanding to which I also contributed by using the word faithful above.

I very much doubt that anyone opposing efforts to alienate Episcopal Church properties in places like the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth seeks to pass judgment on others' faithfulness to God in Christ. This is rather a matter of canon law and provincial governance.

Nonetheless, it is indeed possible to speak of faithfulness and fidelity - or lack thereof - as these pertain to the vows made by Episcopal Church clergy in ordination: conformity to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church.

Thanks, y'all, for letting me play devil's advocate a bit.

Christopher, I appreciate the hope that none of us is seeking "to pass judgment on others' faithfulness to God in Christ." There is, I think, a place for "judgment" in the Church (I know that may sound like a naughty word), to the extent that the Church calls us to submit ourselves to the common life of a community... But I'll let that stand I think.

I think you are right that it is possible to speak of fidelity to ordination vows. And for the record I see this as a very serious issue for those trying to separate. Nonetheless I also see deep problems in the way that our Church has interpreted canon law to begin with. I hate to quote the big examples, but they are there: the inability/unwillingness to enforce Title IV in the case of Spong (etc.), the blatant disregard (and, again, looking the other way) for the clear canonical proscription from communion of the unbaptized (I.17.7), as well as the election and consecration of at least one bishop who lives outside the teaching of Canon I.18. So in a situation in which, for quite a while, we have been picking and choosing what to enforce, it seems rather inauthentic to start emphasizing canon law. Or to use another example (which I know will probably put me on someone's hit list), if we can break the canons by irregularly ordaining women and then change the canons so that retroactively it is ok, why -- aside from sheer arbitrary a priori preference -- can't we break the canons (and later say that it was ok) to create a "Primatial Council" or to peacably resolve some property disputes?

Note that I do not think that this discontinuity gives justification for further rule-breaking; I do think that 815 needs to be more honest in its assessment of the situation.

Samuel, I think the point you are side-stepping is that efforts by the aspiring schismatics to take property with them have nothing to do with orthodoxy of doctrine. What's at issue is simply the question of whom the property belongs to.

In a hierarchical church like the Episcopal Church, the General Convention does--and should--have the last word on property.

If the Bishop of Fort Worth or the Bishop of Pittsburgh really thinks that the Presiding Bishop or Bishop Spong or anyone else is propagating heresy, he can organize the filing of presentments against the alleged "heretics" and force the matter to trial. Doctrine is ultimately decided by the mind of the faithful or, barring that, by church courts, not by the General Convention except in such actions as adopting editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

Unfortunately for the Iker crowd, the Righter trial findings suggest the prospects for a heresy conviction are slim. Besides it's a lot more fun to bellow and blow smoke than engage in a serious search for gospel truth.

Samuel said: "There is, I think, a place for 'judgment' in the Church...to the extent that the Church calls us to submit ourselves to the common life of a community... But I'll let that stand I think."

I want to respect your idea of letting it stand, but just add that you raise a very, very important issue here. There needs to be much more discussion - and, again, more listening, globally - on what it actually means to submit ourselves to the common life of a community. You are quite right, I believe, that we are called to this common life. But submission, it would seem, is not as simple as majority rule (or one-time, majority votes at particular conferences of bishops). Were it that simple, this could lead far too easily - as in secular politics, of course, - to the tyranny of a majority at the expense of a minority trying in good faith to be fully part of the community.

Within the Body of Christ, agreeing that we all have need of each other begs, I think, the search for balance such that individuals and minorities (of all kinds) are fully understood to be as highly valued as majorities. This, in turn, means we should be spending a lot more time listening to each other and building a diverse, and loving community and much, much less time trying to enforce a comfortable sense of uniformity, as some (not, of course, necesarily you) seek to do. The strength of Anglicanism, it seems to me, is the tradition's marvelous and often frustrating ability to hold differing views and viewpoints in tension within the same family (and within the parameters reflected in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral).

Of course, the question at the core of such considerations is what to do when people no longer agree on what it means - or should mean - to submit to the common life of the community, no longer agree on what the "essentials" are. Christian history is replete with reports on the results of such disagreements, usually the formation of new communities.

So, again, you raise a critical point for further discussion. What does it mean for Christians to submit to the common life of a community? And what does this mean specifically to Anglicans?

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