Episcopal Fort Worth

Episcopalians Line Up Mainline Protestant Support in Fort Worth Legal Brief

Jeffrey Walton on January 5, 2021

Mainline Presbyterians and United Methodists have signed on to an Amicus Brief in support of an Episcopal Church appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning disputed church properties worth tens of millions of dollars. (A tip of the hat to journalist George Conger who has the Amicus Brief posted on Anglican Ink here).

The Episcopal Church and All Saints’ Episcopal Church of Fort Worth, Texas, are asking the high court to overturn a unanimous ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. That ruling found that the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth (now affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America) and its corporation is the legally recognized diocese and rightfully controls diocesan property.

Episcopalians disagreed, arguing that the diocese could not separate itself from the denomination outside of a vote of the General Convention. Remaining Episcopalians set up their own “renewing” diocese, claiming in court that it is the legitimate entity. That Episcopal Church diocese has struggled numerically and financially, receiving significant subsidies from the national church. The ACNA diocese argued successfully that Texas law did not permit the removal of elected diocesan officers, which govern a legal corporation.

Presbyterian Church (USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II on behalf of the PCUSA General Assembly and Bryan Mills of the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) are listed as additional counsel on the brief. They are joined by officers of the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America and the Moravian Church in America.

Denominational officials across each of the three churches “hold differing views regarding religious government, hierarchy, organization and structure,” according to the brief – but they see common cause in preventing or punishing splinter groups as a matter of religious autonomy.

Several PC(USA) presbyteries litigated with departing congregations following General Assembly decisions to remove the “fidelity and chastity” standard from clergy vows in 2008 and later in 2014 to permit same-sex marriage. The United Methodist Church has neither enacted same-sex marriage rites nor experienced large-scale departures, but will likely begin a division of assets between revisionists and traditionalists in an expected separation vote at General Conference in autumn of 2021.

The Supreme Court has been reluctant to grant a hearing on a church property case, leaving such decisions in the past generation to state courts. That has resulted in an uneven patchwork of decisions about the ownership of church properties across several jurisdictions.

(You can watch my interview with Bishop Ryan Reed of the Diocese of Fort Worth here).

It is unclear why the U.S. Supreme Court might take up a case that largely rests upon state corporate law. Amici argue that the court should not consider “neutral principles” in property ownership, instead as a matter of religious liberty they should defer to the authority of the churches themselves on church splits. At issue is also the enforceability of trust provisions within those churches’ governance. The Episcopal Church insists that all of its parishes assent to an implied trust simply by being associated with the General Convention. Departing Anglicans have argued that only a trust of the local church that expressly cedes ownership to the denomination is legally binding.

The Texas ruling itself had no dissenting opinions. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 declined to review a Virginia Supreme Court decision that found the disputed property of The Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia belonged to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. That case, partly due to the large size of the congregation involved and its proximity to the nation’s capital, had at least as high a profile as the Texas one.

Episcopalians and departing Anglicans have been in legal conflict in several parts of the United States. Churches and five separate dioceses disaffiliated from the denomination. A court case involving the denomination and the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina is ongoing: churches there await a challenge by Episcopalians before the South Carolina Supreme Court. A district court interpreted five separate opinions handed down nearly three years ago by the state Supreme Court, entering an order that those parishes controlled their own property, not the national church.

  1. Comment by Reynolds on January 5, 2021 at 7:55 am

    The Court will not hear the case. As long as the ruling is based on property rights, the Court defers to state courts on these issues. It is sad to see al these mainline churches waste so much money. This will only make them go broke quicker

  2. Comment by Palamas on January 5, 2021 at 10:18 am

    The pathetic thing is that the Episcopal Church and its partners in crime don’t care a whit about the people involved. This is about money and property alone. TEC has been singularly unsuccessful in using church buildings stolen from their congregations to start new congregations; instead, they wind up selling off the assets and keeping the proceeds to continue to finance whatever nonsense it is that they engage in. The losers are the congregations and the gospel mission, but then none of these denominations are really about either of those considerations any more.

  3. Comment by David Miller on January 5, 2021 at 1:43 pm

    I pray that my United Methodist Church can avoid these legal battles when the Church decides to split later this year. There must be an equitable way for individual congregations to leave with their property

  4. Comment by Patrick98 on January 5, 2021 at 3:32 pm

    Palamas is 100% exactly correct. About 15 years ago a general presbyter in the P.C. (USA) told me that if congregations want to leave the denomination “They can go, just leave us their money and property.” That told me right then and there that they love money more than people.

  5. Comment by Loren J Golden on January 5, 2021 at 4:05 pm

    The Mainline Protestant denominations in the United States, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church (at least the American segment), and the Episcopal Church, are declining at a much greater rate than American Christianity as a whole.  Over the past century and a half, and their predecessors, have made increasing compromises on doctrine and polity to the world’s ways of thinking.  As a result, Christians with a high view of Scripture (as either inerrant in all that it says or at least infallible in matters pertaining to faith and life) no longer feel at home in their midst, and that many others, believing the criticisms of Mainline Protestantism’s “scholars”, have come to the conclusion that there is no validity to Biblical teaching.  Hence, it is not at all surprising that men and women are departing Mainline Protestant churches in droves—individual members or whole congregations—either for smaller, more Biblically faithful Protestant denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, the Wesleyan Church, the Anglican Church in North America, etc., or for independent, non-denominational churches (where no avaricious, power-hungry denominational bureaucracy can sue for property), or are departing Christianity altogether.
    Naturally, dramatic declines in membership correlate to significant losses in monetary income; after all, Christians with a high view of Biblical authority statistically contribute more per capita to their local congregations than those with a compromised view.  Obviously, individual members can leave one congregation or denomination and join another with no recourse for the congregation or denomination they departed to sue for property or to make up for the loss of income.  However, the Progressive leaders of most Mainline Protestant denominations a generation or more ago, realizing that the continued erosion of Biblical authority would continue to alienate their members, put property trust clauses in their constitutions, in an effort to ensure that whole congregations could not disaffiliate without making significant financial remuneration to the denomination of up to and including the resale value of their physical property.  Hoping to retain disaffected congregations, Mainline Protestant denominational officials have sought to persuade the members therein that what the denomination believed was really not all that much different from what they believed.  And when that tack failed (which it usually did), either the denomination officials negotiated a settlement with the departing congregation, or else the negotiations fell apart and they sued the congregation in civil court to recover its property.
    However, the alternative to this way that these denominational officials have pursued “reconciliation” is much more costly to them: It would entail them admitting that they were wrong in tolerating the conditions that had led to the doctrinal and polity compromises that had so alienated the members of the departing congregations, and then doing something significant to counteract it.  But since the problem originates in the denominations’ seminaries, and that those teaching heresy include a great many tenured professors, and since these seminaries insist on academic freedom for their faculties over and against doctrinal fidelity, and since the problem is exacerbated by graduates of these seminaries entrenched in power in many of the denominations’ pulpits and bureaucratic power structures, institutional reform is practically impossible without the supernatural intervention of God, especially given the denominational officials’ patent lack of the faith necessary to move the mountains that such reform would require.
    And thus, the denominational leaders of the PC(USA), the UMC, and the Episcopal Church have devolved into avaricious, power-hungry spiritual pygmies who would rather petition the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn unfavorable rulings of state supreme courts, rather than focus on the tasks of reforming their denominations’ structures and rebuilding confidence in their denominations’ fidelity to the Scriptures.

  6. Comment by David Stewart on January 5, 2021 at 8:43 pm

    Nice to know that Mr. J. Herbert Nelson, II continues to take actions to push this Presbyterian out the door. This man is one of the most “pleasant” hypocrits around. It’s making it very difficult for me not to go ahead and inform my pastors that I should be considered an inactive member, i.e. member of the PCUSA in name only, solely for the sake of my wife. Otherwise, I would be moving my membership to PCA, OPC, ACNA, or the new Methodist denomination, when the split does happen.

  7. Comment by Loren J Golden on January 6, 2021 at 2:11 am

    Mr. Stewart,
    Do the pastors of the PC(USA) congregation of which you are a member (1) either unqualifiedly believe the Bible to be inerrant or at least infallible in matters of faith, life, and morals, and (2) unapologetically preach the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone through justification by faith alone in the person and finished work of Christ alone?
    If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then I would strongly recommend that you stay to encourage them to stay the course and continue the faithful preaching of the Word, regardless of whatever shenanigans might be happening at the presbytery and denominational level.  However, I would ask why your pastors and congregation have not sought dismissal to the ECO or the EPC, considering (a) that the PC(USA) unapologetically ordains impenitent fornicators (in clear violation of the Biblical requirements that elders be “above reproach (and) the husband of one wife”; I Tim. 3.2, Tit. 1.6), (b) that ordination of teaching elders “is an act of the whole church” (PC(USA) Book of Order §G-2.0701), and (c) that by continuing their affiliation with the PC(USA), the officers of your church, in their ordination vow to “be governed by our church’s polity” (Book of Order §W-4.4003.e), tacitly approve of these rebellious ordinations.
    If the answer to either questions (1) or (2) is no, then what does your wife (or for that matter, you) see in the Biblically compromised PC(USA) congregation of which you are members?

  8. Comment by David Stewart on January 8, 2021 at 10:21 am

    Unfortunately, my wife agrees the 2010 and 2014 amendments to the BO. Our congregation will not leave, because its basically the muddy middle and our pastors agree with the 2014 changes. I have been okay remaining, because conscientious objection technically exists for both clergy and congregations within the PCUSA, which is or has disappearing/ed in the TEC. Our congregation has found a way for balance in beliefs. However, the current leadership is gradually making it clear that it doesn’t not truly respect those provisions in word and deed. It may never be able to force local congregations to do as the TEC seems to be doing until a Constitutional change permitted such action, but they have ways of making it clear that there is no genuine respect for dissent made in good faith.

    For example, on issues regarding race, if one challenges the compatibility of CT with Christianity or asserts that the ideology has much in common with Marxism, it is pointed out that Dr. King and others from the Civil Rights Era were branded as communists and Marxists, regardless of any affiliation with such entities. The clear implication is that if you think CT, BLM (specfically), etc. has Marxist roots, you are a racist. The past moderator and committee in charge of racial matters made it clear back in August that dissent will be noted, but there will be no room for reasonable discussion immediately implying that said dissent is inherently racist.

    In regards to issues related to sex and gender, while TEC has clearly repudiated orthodoxy in the events leading to Bishop Love’s resignation, the PCUSA’s current Stated Clerk and leadership has taken a round -a-bout way, given the aforementioned conscience provisions that prevent the denomination from forcing local congregations to conform to the amendments. For example, while looking for an online version of the BOC to determine if a certain historic Reformed document was in there, before purchasing a copy of said document online, I noticed Amicus briefs links. I looked to see if the one in question above had been posted yet. It had not, but I did notice that Mr. Nelson decided that the PCUSA needed to file in the Washington florist case, the Virginia photographer, and most importantly, the Catholic Charities Philadelphia Third Circuit Appeal. I have not read the document yet, but the conclusion makes it unmistakable. The PCUSA was siding against the Catholic Church and its religious-affiliate on the issue of conscience protections under the First Amendment. This is clearly a rejection of orthodoxy and clearly says to those of us who have chosen to remain, regardless of the reason, that dissent is no longer acceptable. The denomination had no business filing an amicus, if it disagreed with the position of another denomination on this point from nothing other than an inherent desire to impose its beliefs on the other denomination and its affiliates. While I have theological issues with Catholicism, attempting to have the courts to compel the RCC and its affiliates into conforming to my beliefs in matters regarding, say sexuality and gender, is not exhibiting Christian charity towards all. My suspicion is that based upon a resolution at the 2018 GA regarding religious liberty, which this leadership consistently places in scare quotes,, the current leadership of the denomination will have no problem if the more radical elements under a Biden Administration get their way in making accreditation of say religious educational institutions conditional upon acceptance of the sexual revolution in total.

    Frankly, the next step is to raise this issue with our local session and beyond just a discussion with our senior pastor, given that I have become more aware over the past twelve months of hostility of our denominational leadership with the various Amicus filed over the past four years in relation to matters where religious liberty is being asserted. Unfortunately, I only see the final outcome is that my wife and I will be in separate denominations with each attending the other church as necessary. And since our session has decided to maintain an almost exclusive Zoom worship, with any outdoor attendance, even sitting in your car, subject to signing a liability waiver during the pandemic, I fear that this transition is going to happen sooner than I ever imagined. Zoom worship is not worship. And I should not be compelled to sign a liability waiver to attend church, pandemic or no pandemic.

  9. Comment by Loren J Golden on January 8, 2021 at 10:55 pm

    David, I sympathize with you—that’s a tough spot to be in.  When I left the theologically liberal Wichita UMC congregation where I had spent my early 20s for an evangelical PC(USA) congregation (Eastminster, also in Wichita, which is now in the EPC) in 1991, I was still single, and when I did marry, my wife shared (and still shares) my core Christian convictions.  The only arguments we’ve had about where to attend church were in 2014-2015, just after we had moved to north Texas—I had found a small PCA church that I liked (Denton Pres), but she struggled with the lack of children’s programs there (our previous church was Colonial, a large EPC congregation in the Kansas City area).  We tried out a few other churches in the area but couldn’t find one we both liked, so we stayed at Denton Pres and both fell in love with it, and in addition she participates in a Moms Bible study, and we send our two daughters (ages 6 & 9) to the AWANA program, both at Denton Bible.
    When COVID first struck last spring, Denton Pres, like many others, moved its services online, but when the state began easing restrictions last summer, we began meeting in person again (although the church still streams its Sunday service over YouTube, for the benefit of members who do not feel comfortable meeting in person because of health concerns).  Because of our size, and because we have ample space in which to worship, our Session does not require any registration (let alone liability waivers) to worship, although both Eastminster and Colonial do ask that people register to attend because of state and local restrictions, and both have adjusted the number of services based on how many people want to attend (and I haven’t read anything about either of them requiring members to sign liability waivers).
    Over the years, I have listened to the type of preaching that goes on at “muddy middle” churches (esp. at my in-laws’ ELCA congregation in Michigan, when we visit) and find it less than edifying.  A “muddy middle” church believes that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, despite having been “given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written,“ that “they reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current,” and “the church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding” (i.e., must apply literary and historical criticism, as practiced by theologically liberal scholars in institutions, such as PC(USA) seminaries; C-67 §9.29).  Consequently, “muddy middle” churches have a diminished understanding of the gravity of sin, leading to a serious depreciation of the meaning of the Cross and the Empty Tomb.  Sermons at such churches are vacuous at best and flat-out contradictory of the Scriptures at worst—even if delivered by the most genial, witty, erudite pastor there is—and totally inadequate to meet man’s most basic need to know Christ and the power of His righteousness, which comes from God and depends on faith in Christ alone (Phil. 3.9-10).
    Even if you should choose to remain in your PC(USA) congregation, both to be salt and light in a place that needs to hear the Gospel, and also for the sake of peace and unity in your house, I would encourage you to check out the online worship services at a PCA or EPC (or other Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching) church near you, for your spiritual edification (assuming that you are not doing so already).  And I would also encourage you to meet regularly with genuine brothers in Christ (again, assuming that you are not doing so already), for Bible study and prayer—especially prayer that you and your wife would be on the same page spiritually, and that the Lord would transform your PC(USA) congregation into a spiritually healthy, vibrant, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church.
    Grace & Peace,
    Loren Golden

  10. Comment by Grandpa Dino on January 8, 2021 at 11:00 pm

    The episcopal church stole property bought and paid for by faithful Christian congregations. In Northern Virginia the episcopal diocese must be going broke because it wants to sell one of the stolen properties back to its rightful owner.

  11. Comment by John Smith on January 9, 2021 at 11:19 am

    Defend the faith…. meh!

    Property rights! To the barricades, destroy the infidels, they shall not prevail!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Nothing like money to raise the blood of the 7 sisters.

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