This past Easter Sunday at St. Christopher Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, a few dozen people sat in the pews, wearing their springtime pastels and masks. It was their first in-person service in more than a year.
At the time, they weren’t sure if they would ever get to worship in their church again.
That’s because St. Christopher no longer belongs to these parishioners. Earlier this year, a 12-year-long property battle came to an end, handing ownership of five churches to a conservative group that broke away from the national Episcopal Church in 2008.
Then-Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker led the revolt over several years. In 2003, he condemned the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, because Robinson was a “practicing homosexual.” He argued the national church had forsaken Biblical teachings by allowing women to become priests.
“We are taking a stand for the historic faith and practice of the Bible, as we have received them, and against the continuing erosion of that faith by [the Episcopal Church],” Iker wrote in a 2008 newsletter.
The split became a legal battle. Both sides argued that they owned the same five churches, which are currently occupied by congregations who stuck with the national church. Four are in Fort Worth: All Saints’, St. Christopher, St. Elisabeth/Christ the King and St. Luke’s in the Meadow. One, St. Stephen’s, is in Wichita Falls.
In 2020, the Texas Supreme Court decided the church buildings belong to Iker’s group. The other side appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in February, the court declined to hear the case.
Now, according to Katie Sherrod, spokesperson for the national church-aligned diocese, the five churches have until April 19 to move out.
A church community without a building
For some members at St. Christopher, this is deja vu.
Edwardean Harris is a leader at St. Christopher now, but she had to leave her previous church after it chose to breakaway from the mainstream church.
“It’s my second time going through this,” she said. “And I wake up crying.”
This time, Harris and her fellow churchgoers won’t have to meet in anyone’s living room. A Lutheran church has offered to share its worship space with the congregation from St. Christopher. However, the church’s preschool will have to close after 60 years because there isn’t time to find a new location and get it licensed for the upcoming school year, Sherrod said.
Father Jay Atwood is a member of the group that chose to breakaway from the church. He told KERA they offered to partner with the national church-aligned side to keep the preschool and food pantry on premises, but they declined that arrangement.
Atwood said one change that will happen right away is opening the buildings for church services.
“What we plan on doing with those five churches is to literally open them up, do in-person worship immediately, as soon as we can and see what there is in interest in hopes of encouraging people to come back to those buildings,” he said.
Atwood said no members of the congregation will be forced to leave, but new priests will be assigned.
“I’ve had somebody call me and say, why are you evicting us?” he said. “We’re like, we’re not evicting you. If you want to stay, the only person who’d be different would be your clergyman, in one sense. So if you want to save your building, we’re not going to chase you out of your building.”
Sherrod called that disingenuous.
“What they are offering is for Episcopalians to stay in their buildings, but with a priest who is not an Episcopalian, using a different prayer book and with a vastly different theology,” she wrote in a statement.
A divergence of beliefs
There are some fundamental differences in religious doctrine between the two sides. On the national church-aligned side, the person who occupies Atwood’s job is a woman. The more conservative group that Atwood is a member of does not ordain women as priests at all and also says gay people should remain celibate and cannot be married.
Krista Scott, a member at St. Christopher, said in an email that losing the legal battle feels like “a step backward in human rights.”
“A major reason why we joined and why we stay at St. Christopher is its diversity among the congregation and its inclusion of all people not only in worship but also in worship leadership,” she wrote.
Atwood said there are still ongoing legal issues between the two sides, but he could not discuss them.
“In many ways, this has been like a civil war for the country. Families were divided, friends were divided, all those kinds of things,” he said. “It’s been difficult for people to come back together at the end.”
Meanwhile, members of St. Christopher are preparing for the inevitability of their move.
Kelli Graham has been going to St. Christopher for more than 30 years. Her sister’s ashes are interred there. Her children went to the preschool there.
“The church is the people, but the building also, you know — we’ve gone through a lot together,” she said.
St. Christopher is planning a final in-person service at the church on April 18, a day before they have to vacate.
After the Easter service, Krista Scott remarked on the uncanny significance of this year’s holiday. Christians believe that on Easter, Jesus rose from the grave three days after he was crucified.
“This idea of rebirth and restart is, I think, good for us to all hear at this moment,” she said.