Episcopal Fort Worth

Episcopal Legal Expenses Estimated at $52 Million as Anglicans Receive Payout

Jeffrey Walton on August 31, 2021

Former Episcopalians in Texas received a $4.5 million check from the Episcopal Church (TEC) this week, mediated reimbursement for legal expenses incurred by Anglicans defending against the denomination’s unsuccessful lawsuit against a departing diocese.

It is a fraction of an estimated $51.7 million the national church has spent on property disputes across two decades, not counting additional funds spent by regional dioceses on attorneys’ fees and related expenses [see Editor’s Note below].

The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth was sued by the Episcopal Church in 2009. The diocese went on to become a founding member of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Litigation effectively concluded in February, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a TEC appeal following a unanimous Texas Supreme Court ruling in favor of the diocese.

“The Diocese made every attempt to avoid this litigation, beginning before its dissociation from TEC in 2008,” Bishop Ryan Reed wrote in a statement provided by the diocese on August 28. “Unfortunately, negotiations ended abruptly after three church properties were released to TEC-majority congregations when the Presiding Bishop and local TEC leaders brought suit in April 2009, foreclosing on the possibility of any other settlement.”

As I’ve written before, Episcopal litigation is not chiefly about money or church property, although those are both items under dispute. The denomination and Episcopal dioceses have expended enormous sums of money on legal fees, even taking a net financial loss in some instances despite court victories that awarded ownership of properties. Instead, litigation is chiefly aimed at preserving the exclusivity of the Episcopal Church’s Anglican Communion franchise. As former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told NPR in 2012, the only people who cannot buy Episcopal church buildings are the Anglicans.

“I’ve had two principles throughout this,” Jefferts Schori stated. “One, that the church receive a reasonable approximation of fair market value for assets that are disposed of; and, second, that we not be in the business of setting up competitors that want to either destroy or replace the Episcopal Church.”

Christians of other denominations (especially those within the United Methodist Church) should take note and pursue a negotiated path forward, like the proposed Protocol for Separation, rather than squander ministry assets in litigation as the Episcopal Church has done.

Episcopalians and departing Anglicans have been in legal conflict in several parts of the United States as churches and five separate dioceses disaffiliated with the denomination in the mid-2000s onward.

Those departing to ultimately join the ACNA have won lawsuits in Texas and Illinois, while losing lawsuits in New York, Virginia and California. Those in Pittsburgh were able to negotiate an agreement benefitting both remaining Episcopalians and Anglicans, while a South Carolina case is ongoing: a district court there handed down a court order favorable to Anglicans in June 2020, which now awaits state Supreme Court review.

In 2015, attorney A.S. Haley (then a layperson in the Episcopal Church) calculated from audited statements and monthly financials that TEC had spent a total of $35,317,343 on legal matters from 2000-through 2015. By adding in the church’s projected three-year budget for legal expenses, loans to dioceses, and outside expenses, he arrived at an estimated total of $42,675,000 through 2018.

I reached out to Mr. Haley, who kindly updated those numbers:

“ECUSA [TEC]’s final three-year totals are now online. They are much more opaque than they were in previous years — for example, they no longer show cumulative detailed expenses for any but the current year. Their audited statements bury the legal costs in the expenses of ‘Administration.’ As best as I can tell based on the budget changes approved by the Executive Council in late 2017, my $42.7 million estimate was on target for expenses through 2018.

“For the 2019-2021 Triennium, the last adopted budget revision shows that they project $4,138,979 of legal expenses through 2021, plus $333,366 in Title IV [Disciplinary] expenses, or about $4.5 million for the period 2019-2021. But that figure must now be doubled, because of the $4.5 million it was just announced that ECUSA would reimburse the (Anglican) Diocese of Fort Worth for its expenses in the lawsuit brought against it by ECUSA.

Haley totals those figures to arrive at the number of $51.7 million which TEC will have spent on litigation and related expenses from 2000 through 2021 — and that doesn’t begin to take into account the amounts spent by individual Episcopal dioceses, such as Los Angeles, TEC San Joaquin and TEC Pittsburgh.

Fort Worth is the second largest diocese by membership in the ACNA and counts 55 congregations in Texas and Louisiana. The diocese, which holds to an Anglo-Catholic form of churchmanship, disagreed with the direction of the Episcopal Church in matters of scriptural authority and human sexual expression.

Diocesan leaders are grateful that the major distraction of lawsuits and court battles is concluded.

“As we put more than a decade of litigation behind us, we can once again devote ourselves to sharing the transforming love of Jesus Christ and our mission to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” Reed noted. “We look forward now in hope and trust for Christ’s leading.”

[Editor’s Note: This article reports expenditures by the national church, officially known as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church (DFMS). It does not include litigation expenses by Episcopal dioceses against departing parishes, which potentially number much higher. Others have estimated that number in excess of $200 million, but this article is limited to that which can be seen nationally through a review of audited financial statements).

  1. Comment by D Johnson on August 31, 2021 at 11:31 am

    How sad. $51M and really nothing to show for it. TEC certainly may have “won” in a few states, but sadly, those wins didn’t, and don’t, increase ASA numbers. In fact, even with some wins, their ASA continues to drop and to anyone’s knowledge, no new churches have been planted in years. $51M….one can only imagine what good that would have done in growing God’s kingdom, church planting, outreach, etc. But the only outreach was to high paid attorney’s. TEC doesn’t like “competition”? How pathetic. Many denominations have other variations, i.e., Lutherans, Methodists, etc. Church isn’t a business, and that’s what TEC thinks it is. Thank goodness there were some courts which ruled on property rights.

  2. Comment by David Wilson on August 31, 2021 at 12:21 pm

    The statement “Those in Pittsburgh were able to negotiate an agreement benefitting both remaining Episcopalians and Anglicans,” is somewhat misleading. The courts awarded 24 Anglican properties directly to the TEC Diocese. Most of these congregations, (after the TEC diocese refused to negotiate a fair settlement enabling them to remain as ACNA congregations), chose to leave their property and move. Thirteen properties clearly titled to the parish or to the “rector, vestry and congregation” but were still claimed by TEC under the Dennis Canon. Eleven of the 13 congregations were able to negotiate a settlement by agreeing to pay 3% of their annual operating income to TEC for five years and thereafter 1.75% in perpetuity. Two parishes who refused to pay the ransom are still disputed.

  3. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on August 31, 2021 at 2:09 pm

    That is indeed worth noting, David. I was referencing the agreement involving Ascension, St. Stephen’s and others, but you are correct to note that this is not the entirety of the Pittsburgh properties that were in dispute.

  4. Comment by David Grayson Duggan on August 31, 2021 at 5:44 pm

    As a lawyer who has not been involved in any of this litigation (though I have privately offered my services), I actually laud this expenditure. Anything that exposes the legal, moral and fiscal bankruptcy in pursuing these lawsuits is to be welcomed, not bemoaned. And to think that the dissidents have actually won in several states, including my home state of IL (where the Chicago diocese under the gone but not lamented Bp Lee had to pay at least some of the former Quincy diocese’s legal fees).

  5. Comment by Wayne on September 1, 2021 at 10:32 pm

    Jefferts Schori was a scourge and an albatross for TEC. What unChristian behavior she exhibited in suing fellow churches! Valuable ministry monies were spent on lawsuits like a vendetta score to be settled. Also, since when are churches competing against each other in the cause for Christ? We are to be cooperating with each other in winning others to Christ! The Anglican churches could have persuaded a third-party entity to buy the TEC church building, then sell it to the Anglican congregation or lease to them. Unless legal documentation would have forbidden this action, it would have worked beautifully and the TEC higher ups would have been foiled.

  6. Comment by Steve on September 4, 2021 at 10:26 am

    I assume that any contract to sell a TEC church would typically prohibit the new owner from renting or selling to a non-TEC Anglican congregation so I assume the clever scheme proposed in the previous post wouldn’t work.

  7. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 7, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    In the Good Shepherd Binghamton case, I am told that the contract with Muslim buyers specifically stipulated that the property could not be re-sold to Anglicans. I am also told that such a clause would be unenforceable, but (if true) that shows how much it mattered to the Diocese of Central New York.

  8. Comment by Lee Cary on September 4, 2021 at 10:43 am

    In the end, as is often the case, only the attorney’s involved win.

  9. Comment by Walt Pryor on September 5, 2021 at 11:46 am

    All of these properties were owned by the local church congregations! Those properties were bought and paid for by the people.
    Like Methodist properties, the people trusted the church hierarchy to hold those properties “in trust for them.” But when it comes to money the true character of those LGBTQ Bishops is exposed. It is the money, not Christ that is important to them!
    It is worth any amount of money to disassociate from those groups because Christians should worry about their holiness and pleasing God. In the end, those who are unclean will be judged by God and all the money in the world will mean nothing to them.

  10. Comment by John Smith on September 6, 2021 at 9:37 am

    But will everybody involved learn the lesson to reexamine their ecclesiology or continue to maintain a top down structure centered on unaccountable Bishops who, at best, only answer to each other?

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