"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Saturday, January 22, 2011

UPDATED AGAIN: Unsettling News--But the game isn't over yet!

The Star-Telegram publishes the news that yesterday Judge John Chupp of the 141st District Court of Texas ruled in favor of the TEC's loyalist diocese of Fort Worth against the Southern Cone/ACNA diocese of Fort Worth (my own diocese) in our long-running property dispute.

The paper's account seems to be a bit inaccurate, in that it appears to me from looking at the pdf of the judge's order that he has crossed out much of the plaintiff's proposed order insofar as it related to their corporate law arguments before he signed it. Instead Judge Chupp seems to have based his decision entirely upon the question of whether or not TEC meets the legal definition of a "hierarchical church." In this case he held that TEC is such a hierarchical church and therefore no subunit within the denomination can ever depart from it, under any circumstances, without the express consent of the "hierarchy." In short, Judge Chupp bought TEC's argument that "individuals may leave us, but parishes and dioceses cannot do so without our permission."

I would be lying if I said news of this decision didn't lead to some difficulty for me in getting to sleep last night. I had thought this first stage of the property litigation was tilting our way. And I still think we have the superior legal arguments under Texas law so I am very disappointed at this decision by the trial court. But we should remember that this is not the end of the matter. The summary judgment's order to vacate property within sixty days will all but certainly be staid pending our appeal, so I am confident that no one in going to be locked out of their churches just before Easter. After all, the ACNA diocese of San Joaquin, California, lost a similar summary adjudication decision in their property dispute with TEC on July 21, 2009 and the orthodox Anglicans continue worshiping in their churches today as the legal process of appeals and re-hearings grinds on. I am pretty sure that the daily life of service and worship of the Southern Cone/ACNA diocese of Fort Worth will also be continuing just as it has for the foreseeable future.

And let's not forget--the Fort Worth Court of Appeals has already sided with our Southern Cone/ACNA diocese in a previous procedural matter against the TEC diocese. We might very well find sympathetic ears for our arguments at the appellate level. Our appeal of this summary judgment from Judge Chupp will certainly take many months to be heard and decided upon at the Court of Appeals level. And then whomever loses in the Court of Appeals will surely appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. So nothing really is likely to be resolved for far more than a year from now. This is no time to panic. Unless TEC decides to negotiate a fair settlement with us in good faith this matter is likely to continue to be unsettled for a long time to come.

Let us pray that wisdom and justice will prevail on all sides. This matter never should have come to litigation in the first place. Resources are being squandered that should go to building up God's Kingdom. Lord, have mercy and grant us all peace.

UPDATE: The Southern Cone/ACNA diocese of Fort Worth has just released this statement:

On Friday afternoon, Jan. 21, attorneys for the Diocese and Corporation received two orders from the Hon. John Chupp in the matter of the main suit against us, in which a minority of former members has been joined by The Episcopal Church in an effort to claim diocesan property. Judge Chupp signed an order drafted by the plaintiffs' attorneys, from which he struck several points with which he did not apparently agree. The order does find that TEC is a hierarchical church, and on that basis the judge has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. [The judge's order can be read on the diocesan Web site.]

Friday's ruling from the trial court is a disappointment but not a disaster. The plaintiffs have offered no evidence, either in the courtroom or in their voluminous filings, supporting their claim that the Diocese was not entitled to withdraw from The Episcopal Church, as it did in November 2008. Nor have they demonstrated a legal right to our property, which is protected by Texas statutes regulating trusts and non-profit corporations.

On the contrary, it is our position that the judge's order does not conform to Texas law, and we are therefore announcing our plans to appeal the decision without delay. We believe that the final decision, whenever it is signed by Judge Chupp based on these orders, will not be sustained on appeal. According to our lead attorney, Shelby Sharpe, "These orders appear to be contrary to the earlier opinion from the Second District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth and current decisions from both that court and the Supreme Court of Texas."

In response to the ruling, Bishop Iker has said, "We are obviously disappointed by Judge Chupp's ruling and see it as fundamentally flawed. 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. In the meantime, we will continue to focus on mission and outreach in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, while praying for the judges who will take up our appeal."

We give thanks to God in all circumstances, and we trust in His plans. While we disagree with the judge's ruling, we offer our sincere appreciation for the time and study he has given to the case

UPDATED AGAIN! Also from our diocesan office:

Answers to some of your questions, from our legal team:

Should we be surprised by this ruling?

This result at this level was not entirely unexpected. It is for that reason that our motions and briefs and other submissions were drafted in the manner in which they were drafted.

To what court will we appeal?

The 2nd Court of Appeals, which is located in Fort Worth, has jurisdiction. This is the same court that heard and granted our Petition for Mandamus last year.

Will our appeal be heard?

Assuredly. We have anticipated this possibility in all the evidence and arguments that have been presented. We expect the court to appreciate the importance of reviewing this decision, not only because of its extensive effect on our diocese, but because of its implications for property controlled by non-profit corporations throughout the state of Texas.

Will we have to vacate our property and relinquish our assets in 60 days?

That is most unlikely; we expect to continue we are. There are several ways this might be accomplished. One possibility is that we will seek a stay on Judge Chupp's order while we appeal. In the absence of another eventuality, we need not worry about having to turn over the property in the immediate future, if ever.

What should clergy and church members do?

Pray. Pray for those of us on your legal team, and for the judges who will hear our appeal. The lawyers and courts need the wisdom that only God can supply. Pray for Bishop Iker and for the members of our Board of Trustees named in the suit. Pray for your clergy, and for your congregation.

Finally, we must remember that Christ's Church is not the property, but the clergy and people. These, with the presence, protection, and guidance of the Holy Spirit, are our true assets. Empty buildings are of no use to the Gospel. Nevertheless, our property is justly our own, and we will continue to press our case in the courts. But property pales to insignificance when compared to the unity of the Church and her mission to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. Jesus said, "Let them all be one, as We are one." Let us be one.

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