North Texas Episcopal factions divide up money and property as their divorce plays out in court
A group of North Texas Episcopalians lost several church buildings after a 12-year lawsuit over who is the true Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. Now, the losing side has to hand over everything that was inside the buildings — from money to the coffee maker in the church kitchen.
Months after having to vacate six churches, a group of North Texas Episcopalians is back in legal limbo. A fight over money and church belongings has added more fuel to a court battle that has already lasted more than a decade.
"I think that we may well be at that point where there are irreconcilable differences in theology and church discipline and so on," Iker told NPR in 2006. "Then perhaps the best thing to do is say, how can we have an amicable divorce?"
The divorce could not have been less amicable. Churches split down ideological lines. Some parishioners stayed with the national church, but the majority left with Iker.
The religious conflict spun out into a legal battle over which side is the true Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. Each side argued they owned the same five church buildings, occupied by national church congregations: four in Fort Worth and one in Wichita Falls.
In February, after 12 years in the courts, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. That meant a lower court decision stood, giving the buildings to the conservative breakaway group. The conservative side also won the right to call itself the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.
The court later ruled that the national church-aligned side had to hand over any money and belongings it had before the original lawsuit was filed in April 2009. Making that split hasn’t been easy.
Figuring out what belongs to each side
Janet Waggoner is the canon to the ordinary in the Episcopal Church of North Texas. In layman’s terms, she’s the bishop’s right-hand woman.
Waggoner knew the legal proceedings wouldn’t end with turning over the buildings, but she had hoped the process would be a friendly one.
“That didn’t turn out to be possible,” she said.
The court ruled that anything a congregation owned pre-April 2009 had to go to the conservative side.
So the congregations that lost their church buildings catalogued everything they owned, going back decades. That included religious art, electric fans, pianos and VHS videos of old church events.
“That’s challenging, because who remembers whether or not the coffeemaker was bought before 2009 or after 2009?” Waggoner said.
In addition to property, the national church-affiliated congregations were ordered to hand over whatever money was in their accounts as of April 2009.
This fall, the conservative side filed motions to hold two Fort Worth priests in contempt of that order: Rev. Christopher Jambor of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and Rev. Karen Calafat of St. Luke’s in the Meadow.
The conservative side accused Jambor and Calafat’s congregations of withholding property and records, and, in St. Luke’s case, vandalizing the church building before vacating it.
Katie Sherrod, TEC’s spokesperson and a member at St. Luke’s, denied any vandalism.
“Why would we vandalize a building we loved? Not only would that be un-Christian, it would break our hearts all over again,” she wrote in an email.
Frank Hill, the attorney for the national church-aligned side, was flabbergasted by the contempt motion against Jambor, court records show.
“I cannot believe how vengeful your clients are,” Hill wrote in an email to his opposing attorney. “We have been jumping through hoops to gather the items of which you are entitled, and we will continue to do so.”
R. David Weaver, the attorney representing the conservative side, accused his opponents of stalling.
“Frank, I can’t believe how dilatory and uncooperative your client has been. We have waited for many months to obtain what rightfully belongs to my client. Your client has delayed at every turn,” he wrote.
On Oct. 15, All Saints’ assets were frozen. Five days later, All Saints’ declared bankruptcy.
In court documents, Rev. Jambor explained why his church took this step: to “obtain a breathing spell” and to protect the interests of its donors.
The bankruptcy filing has put a pause on legal proceedings. The conservative side dropped the contempt motion against Father Jambor, and Rev. Calafat’s contempt motion is still pending.
Besides All Saints’, the other churches have about $300,000 in pre-April 2009 funds, according to Sherrod. The checks are sitting in a safe, because the meeting to turn over the money got postponed, she said.
The conservative side already got $100 million in property in the split. Waggoner called the additional funds “peanuts in the big scheme of things.”
“Our congregations would just really love to be able to be finished with this, so that they can move on,” she said.
Weaver, the attorney representing the conservative side, told KERA his clients are not trying to punish the national church-aligned side.
“We want nothing more than what the court ordered to us,” he said.
Weaver added that his side is to try to get the bankruptcy case thrown out.
Does donor intent matter?
Eleanor Forfang-Brockman is a longtime member of the congregation at St. Luke’s in the Meadow. She is also a painter, and for many years, she created icons, a type of religious art depicting Jesus and other sacred figures. Three resided at St. Luke’s old building.
Court records include an email Forfang-Brockman wrote to Rev. Calafat, making clear that she wanted her icons to stay with her congregation.
“It is difficult for me to imagine that these works, the result of many hours of prayerful labor, would be given the reverence and respect they deserve among the clergy and congregation of St. Timothy’s,” she wrote, referring to the conservative congregation now occupying her congregation’s old building.
In an interview, Forfang-Brockman explained how she made her icons. She used layers upon layers of paint, sanding each layer until it was glass-smooth. Later, she would write a prayer around the border, and then paint over that, too.
“You can't see that prayer, but it was a prayer for the people who commissioned it and and for the people who pray with it,” she said.
The three icons that hung at St. Luke’s in the Meadow were focal points for prayer in Forfang-Brockman’s congregation for decades.
“I don't know if God is asking us to just start from nothing like St. Francis. And if that's the case, then you know, it's easier to let go and begin again,” she said. “On the other hand, some of the things that came out of the community that were part of the community worship, I think it would be nice to continue.”
Waggoner said the national church side has hung on to certain items, because the people who gave them didn't want them to go to the conservative side.
According to Weaver, it’s too late to negotiate over belongings.
“I cannot give you an automobile, for example, and then, six months later, find that you're driving it in Austin, Texas, and I say, oh, no, no, no, no, you cannot drive this vehicle in Austin,” he said.
The conservative diocese has made some concessions. It agreed to allow All Saints’ to keep a memorial fund established in memory of Rev. Jambor’s son.
While Weaver acknowledged this, he said his side isn’t required to compromise anything.
“To the extent any concessions are made by my clients, it's made out of a sense of Christian charity or consideration for deeply held or deeply felt circumstances,” he said.
Both sides say they have not let the legal fight interrupt their religious work. Canon Waggoner, on the national church-affiliated side, emphasized that her group’s relationship with God is not affected by buildings or belongings.
Still, the congregations are trying to keep what they can — like the folks at St. Christopher.
The Catholic church that bought St. Christopher's old building in Fort Worth agreed to return the stained glass windows parishioners left behind.
That way, the congregation can bring along some of its history, wherever it settles next.
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