Anglican wars update in Fort Worth: Star-Telegram misses a date or two in timeline

The Anglican wars timeline keeps getting longer and longer, as the court cases roll on and on and the lawyers keep cashing the checks. It is very hard for reporters to keep up with all of the details, of course, especially since there are brilliant experts on both sides whose views of the facts clash more often than not.

However, as always, it helps to know what happened when.

Take the case that is unfolding in Fort Worth, Texas, the subject of another amazingly short update in The Star-Telegram. I can understand the temptation to cut to the chase, but the problem with this story is that it is not nearly as complicated as it should be.

The new headline is that the old guard in the local diocese -- doctrinally conservative Anglicans -- won a major victory over the progressive Episcopal Church establishment , which, of course, will now be tested in another court. Let's walk through this story a bit and see where editors needed to plug in a bit more history.

FORT WORTH -- After a bitter, seven-year legal dispute, state District Judge John Chupp ruled Monday that the Episcopalians led by Bishop Jack Iker who broke away from the national Episcopal Church are entitled to an estimated $100 million in property in the 24-county Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.
Fort Worth-area Episcopalians who remained loyal to the national Episcopal Church and reorganized the diocese under Bishop Rayford High have the right to appeal the decision.

Now, the key to this case -- from the point of view of the Anglican right -- is that Iker had for years been, and his supporters believe he still is, the leader of the real Fort Worth diocese. He was there first. This story hints at that fact -- note the word "reorganized" in the reference to Bishop High -- but doesn't state it clearly.

Why does that matter?

For generations, one of the key organizational principles for Anglicans has been that local parish property was help in trust by the diocese, not the individual parish council. In most Episcopal Church property battles individual parishes have been fighting to flee their local dioceses and keep their buildings. In this case, Bishop Iker and most of his priests and laypeople voted to take their entire diocese out of the national church. Many Anglicans see that as a radically different departure.

Let's read on:

The schism occurred in 2008 when Iker and a majority of the 56 churches in the diocese broke away from the national church over issues including ordaining of gays and lesbians. ... Chupp’s order reversed his 2011 ruling declaring that the property belonged to the national Episcopal Church for use by the Fort Worth group that chose to remain affiliated with the New York-based denomination.
Chupp’s earlier decision was based on what are called “deferential” principles, meaning that state law should defer to the rules of hierarchical religious institutions. An Episcopal Church law, called the “Dennis Canon,” states that church property belongs to denomination, not local dioceses.

Once again, we return to the timeline. It helps to know that the "Dennis Canon" is a relatively new, and still controversial, development in Episcopal life. It was passed (although some argue that this is a murky issue) in 1979 here in the United States, as part of the wars over the ordination of women to the priesthood. The problem, for many, is the tension between this new law and older Anglican traditions.

The Episcopal establishment will note, with good cause, that American laws should rule in American courts. Yet the Episcopal Church is also part of the worldwide Anglican Communion and has the support, to one degree or another, of leaders in the Church of England. However, Iker and the traditional Anglican rebel alliance here in America have the support of the vast majority of the world's Anglican leaders, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Global South.

What to do? Some judges are suggesting that it is hard to choose between the new national rules in America and the older diocesan traditions being cited by Iker and others.

Yet note this next Star-Telegram paragraph:

The Texas Supreme Court overturned that decision and ordered Chupp to rehear the case on “neutral principles” that govern nonreligious organizations. That favored Iker’s group, which several years ago passed several local diocesan ordinances declaring that the Fort Worth diocese, not the national church, owned the property in the diocese.

This reference makes it sound as if the tradition of properties being controlled by the local diocese is a brand new concept, created by Iker and company in the very recent past. Did those ordinances "declare" this fact or affirm older traditions? Stop and think about it: Why was there such a bitter battle in Denver back in 1979 when the national church took the unusual step of creating and passing the Dennis Canon?

As always, I am not saying that journalists need to agree with Iker, or with High for that matter. The key is to understand the arguments being made by experts on both sides.

The bottom line: When dealing with Anglican controversies, it always helps to include specific dates in the timeline, while also remembering that these battles are being fought at the local, regional, national and global levels.

It's complex, tough work. I know that, because I've been covering these wars since the early 1980s. Be careful out there.

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