Fort Worth, Quincy seek affirmation of church's 'hierarchical character'

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jul 6, 2012

[Episcopal News Service – Indianapolis] Episcopal Church Diocese of Quincy Provisional Bishop John Buchanan and Fort Worth Provisional Bishop Wallis Ohl want the House of Bishops to “set the record on the polity of this church regarding its hierarchical character.”

Buchanan and Ohl wrote to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori July 5 to make the request and the House of Bishops discussed their letter during a closed session here July 6. The house is due to continue that discussion at the beginning of their afternoon legislative session July 7, Buchanan and Ohl told Episcopal News Service in an interview after the house recessed.

In their letter Buchanan and Ohl detail four ways in which they say nine bishops made false claims about the nature of Episcopal Church governance in two court filings concerning property litigation in Fort Worth and Quincy. They say those claims “aid and comfort breakaway factions” who want to cripple the church by taking title and control of the church’s real and personal property.

Those court filings have also been the subject of reports July 2 that two Title IV disciplinary complaints have been filed about five active bishops and four retired bishops.

“This is not a matter of a few unhappy bishops stating their personal views on church polity,” Buchanan and Ohl wrote in their letter. “They each affirmatively and officially acted by injecting themselves, intentionally and without invitation from the bishops exercising jurisdiction, into local litigation, opposing this church and sister dioceses on core ecclesiastical issues regarding the very identity of other dioceses.”

The exact process of how the House of Bishops might respond to the request from Buchanan and Ohl is still being discussed, but Buchanan said he hoped the House of Deputies would “observe our concern about this” and consider responding as well.

Bishop Clayton Mathews, who heads the church’s Office of Pastoral Development, e-mailed two groups of bishops in late June to tell them that he had received complaints against them and that “in the next few weeks” he would begin the disciplinary process as called for in Title IV.6.3-4 of the canons of the Episcopal Church. Matthews also serves as the “intake officer” (the person designated to receive complaints alleging offense) for the church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops, a body called for in Canon 17 of Title IV. He was appointed the Title IV position by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

One of the Title IV complaints concerns the fact that seven bishops endorsed an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief prepared by the Anglican Communion Institute, Inc. in the pending appeal of a court ruling involving the Diocese of Fort Worth and the bishop, clergy and laity who broke away from that diocese in November 2008.

The brief objects to the trial court’s ruling that told the dissidents to return “all property, as well as control of the diocesan corporation” to the Episcopal leaders of the diocese.

Tarrant County District Court Judge John Chupp said that because he found that the Episcopal Church’s governance is hierarchical in nature “the court follows Texas precedent governing hierarchical church property disputes, which holds that in the event of a dispute among its members, a constituent part of a hierarchical church consists of those individuals remaining loyal to the hierarchical church body.”

Those named in the Fort Worth complaint challenged the judge’s determination that the church’s governance is hierarchical. The bishops involved are retired Diocese of Texas Bishop Maurice M. Benitez, retired Diocese of Central Florida Bishop John W. Howe, Diocese of Dallas Bishop Suffragan Paul E. Lambert, Diocese of Albany Bishop William H. Love, Diocese of Western Louisiana Bishop D. Bruce MacPherson, Diocese of Springfield Bishop Daniel H. Martins, and Diocese of Dallas Bishop James M. Stanton.

MacPherson is also named in the other complaint, along with retired Diocese of South Carolina Bishop Edward L. Salmon, Jr. and retired Diocese of Springfield Bishop Peter H. Beckwith. Matthews e-mailed them to say that a complaint has been received against them because they signed affidavits opposing to a motion for summary judgment made by representatives of the Diocese of Quincy and the Episcopal Church in the fall of 2011 to secure diocesan financial assets from a group that broke from the diocese in November 2008.

For Ohl, the first goal of the request “is to bring some reconciliation into the House of Bishops” because the fact that the bishops acted as they did without at least informing either him or Buchanan was “a violation of the norms of our house.”

The other goal is to “give some indication to the people in the dioceses of Quincy and Fort Worth that they have the support of the House of Bishops,” he said.

The two bishops, Buchanan said, hope for “a message to the world in general about our view of the polity of this church, and the reason that would be helpful is that the view of polity of this church that others have presented is, in my opinion, erroneous.”

“The church has been wonderful to us in many, many different ways, but this process has been dragging on since November 2008 and anything that would hasten the process would be viewed as positive for us,” he added, noting that one member of his diocese asked him “when is this nightmare going to be over.”

While Buchanan said he has not had a conversation with any of the three bishops who signed the Quincy affidavit, Ohl said he spoke with two of the bishops who supported the Fort Worth amicus brief and a third has “acted as if nothing had happened.” He has not spoken to two other signers who are here. The remaining two are not at General Convention, according to Ohl.

Ohl would not discuss in detail his conversation with the two bishops, however, he did say that “I think some reconciliation took place.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (14)

  1. Roy "ruidh" Murphy says:

    How absurd is this? It is well established legally that TEC is a hierarchical church. Court decision dating back to the 19th Century have relied on this legal fact. Under the definition that the courts are using, TEC is *undoubtedly* hierarchical. We have canons that can be enforced. We have enforced property rights on parishes which attempt to leave since the 19th Century. Read the history of the Reformed Episcopal Church sometime. Those parishes attempted to leave with their buildings. With few exceptions, they were unable to do so because TEC is a hierarchical church.

  2. Ed Adcock says:

    Bishops Ohl & Buchanan,
    Thank you for bringing this up at GC’12!
    General Convention/TEC needs to be reminded that what happens to one member of a hierarchical church affects all the members!
    /s/ A member of TEC in the Diocese of Fort Worth

  3. Jeremy Bates says:

    That Episcopal bishops would sign amici briefs that undermine the bishops of jurisdiction and the Episcopal church itself is appalling.
    Have the amici breached their fiduciary duty to the church?

  4. Michael D. Selders "Mike" says:

    Thank you, Bishops Ohl and Buchanan, for putting a spot light on this issue.

    Awaiting a decision in the courts, we in Macomb, Illinois, feel like a lost tribe in the wilderness.

    Our prayers are with you

  5. Ann Tucker says:

    The Episcopal Church has been and is a hierarchical church. Clergy and laity who are honestly unable to support that structure are surely free to become affiliated with congregational structures. But, they are not free to deny the history, existing polity and realities of TEC. As a lay Episcopalian in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, the definite clarification of The Episcopal Church as a hierarchical church is extremely important to me theologically as well governmentally.

  6. Michael Mills says:

    @ Roy: Of course, each of those cases deal with the authority of a diocese over a parish, which is not in dispute in that case. The case law does say the Episcopal Church is hierarchical to the diocesan level. A secular court cannot make a theological decision about the ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church. (Separation of church and state, you’ll remember.) One recalls the GC1898’s rejection of making the PB a metropolitan with actual authority over dioceses and the title of Archbishop. I think we said then that we wished to remain a federation of sovereign dioceses.

    @ Ed: I think you will find much agreement on that point, especially if you look back a few years to the debate of then-bishop-elect Robinson. There may be some dramatic own-petard hoisting to be had. It would be interesting to see what was said then about the rights of dioceses and our common life as a church and a communion and see who has “flip-flopped” as they say in politics.

  7. Kevin Dentzer says:

    I missed that Stanton signed on. It would appear that Ft.Worth is Dallas’ guinea pig and if Ft. Worth were successful Dallas would follow. But for their greed I suspect these Bishops would have become Roman Catholic Deacons years ago.

    1. The Romans in Dallas really don’t want them.

  8. Kevin Dentzer says:

    I will read their letter. As for celebrating diversity: the former Episcopal Bishops (prior to 2008) of the Diocese of Fort Worth failed miserably.

  9. Kevin Dentzer says:

    Now having read the letter :as there are times to celebrate diversity, there are also times to stand silent unless you condone the outcome.

  10. Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry says:

    As a non-Episcopalian who nonetheless has a great admiration for Anglicanism in general if the thinking is that PECUSA is essentially hierarchical in administration and polity would it not also follow that it is inherently a duly constituent church of the Anglican Communion, or to put it another way, can you be Anglican without necessarily being Episcopalian? If so would it not also follow that if a parish or diocese chooses to do so why can it not hold on to the property it possesses at the time of the decision to leave one and cleave to another in so much as said parish or diocese remains Anglican but not Episcopalian?

    Regardless of this question, what appears to be the reality to many outside of your church is that it is NOT theology or positions on social issues that are really important to TEC but rather the money the property represents, otherwise why not let the dissents depart in peace!

  11. Thomas Andrew says:

    Hmm…I kinda wonder what y’all were saying about diocesan autonomy ’round about 2003? Hmmmmm?

  12. Jeremy Bates says:

    Ecclesiology aside, let’s think about this legally. This issue arose because some bishops filed legal papers in court cases.

    Now if local property is held in trust for the denomination as a whole–a proposition that almost every court to consider the question has accepted–then why are bishops gratuitously filing legal papers that take the side of people who violated that trust?

    Regardless of whether the church is hierarchical or metro-political, the church owns property and bishops ought not do things that enable, even encourage, theft of that property.

    Again I ask: By filing these papers have the bishops breached their fiduciary duties to act as good trustees of church property?

  13. Robert Button says:

    Is there a resolution pending at General Convention stating effectively that The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical Church or has one already passed? I know there was a Mind of the House resolution passed but that seemed to be something different.

Comments are closed.