After court loss, displaced North Texas congregations settle in school chapel, former bank, other churches

All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Fort Worth is now worshipping at its school. Photo: All Saints’ Facebook page

[Episcopal News Service] One Episcopal congregation started worshiping this summer in a former bank drive-thru in Hillsboro, Texas. In Wichita Falls, Episcopalians secured space in a Disciples of Christ church so they could continue holding services, on Saturday evenings instead of Sunday mornings. Members of a congregation in Fort Worth chose to close their church and worship apart, but they continue to keep in touch, including through online prayer services.

It has been four months since six congregations were evicted from their worship spaces after the former Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth lost its 12-year legal battle with a breakaway group affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA. The Episcopal diocese has since changed its name to the Episcopal Church of North Texas, and all but one of its evicted congregations have found temporary homes and resumed worship.

“People have been trying to take time to settle and get over the shock that is still reverberating and come to terms with this unimaginable new reality we have found ourselves in,” Katie Sherrod, the diocese’s communications director, told Episcopal News Service. “And at the same time, we know we have to go into some kind of discernment about what we do next.”

Sherrod and other church leaders provided ENS with the following updates on the status of each of the six displaced congregations:

  • All Saints’, Fort Worth: The congregation began worshiping in the chapel at All Saints’ Episcopal School on a separate campus from the congregation’s former church property. The school was not part of the lawsuit. An ACNA congregation moved into the church building and has begun worshiping there.
  • St. Luke’s in the Meadow, Fort Worth: Worship services moved to a building on the Fort Worth campus of Texas Wesleyan University, which also accommodated the congregation’s 4Saints Food Pantry, a joint ministry with four other congregations. ACNA has begun removing fixtures from the old church but has not held worship services there.
  • St. Christopher’s, Fort Worth: While the old church sits empty, the Episcopal congregation’s parishioners have begun worshipping Sunday afternoons at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church.
  • St. Elisabeth and Christ the King, Fort Worth: The congregation chose to disband, and members dispersed to worship at other Episcopal churches in the area. ACNA now is working with a developer who plans to tear down the church and build 20 single-family homes there.
  • Episcopal Church of Wichita Falls: Worship services now are held at Park Place Christian Church and scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Saturdays, to not conflict with Sunday morning worship of the Disciples of Christ congregation that is sharing the space. The Episcopal congregation previously worshipped at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which now sits empty.
  • St. Mary’s, Hillsboro: This is the congregation that now worships in a former bank drive-thru. After the 2008 split, it had received permission from the breakaway group’s leaders to share the worship space with an ACNA congregation, but when the decision came this year in the court case, the ACNA congregation changed the locks on the doors, forcing the small Episcopal congregation to relocate.

As difficult as it was for St. Mary’s to leave, the congregation of about a dozen worshippers counts itself fortunate for finding a suitable new home, said David Skelton, St. Mary’s senior warden.

Initially, Skelton and other members worshiped in the back room of a real estate business for nearly four months. A friend of Skelton’s had purchased the vacant bank drive-thru with the intention of eventually moving his auto repair shop there. Skelton asked if the shop owner would let the congregation worship in the bank building in the interim if St. Mary’s committed to fixing up the property.

Church members swept and scrubbed the 1,600-square-foot space, replaced old ceiling tiles, resurfaced and sealed floors, repaired Sheetrock and upgraded the air conditioning. The Diocese of West Texas donated church furniture, as well as altar linens, prayer books and hymnals. The building’s two rooms now serve as a worship space and parish hall in a central location, Skelton told ENS, though the congregation is trying not to focus solely on the physical structure.

“The build is a building. It’s not the church,” Skelton told ENS. “The congregation is the church. I’m really sorry we lost the building, but we didn’t lose the church. We, the congregation, moved somewhere else.”

St. Mary’s and the other displaced congregations are grateful for the hospitality they have found, but eventually, they will need to find permanent homes, said Sherrod, who is a member of St. Luke’s in the Meadow. “All of our congregations feel the need for a more permanent place for their ongoing ministries, to say nothing about their worship,” she told ENS.

That is especially true as congregations respond to the diocese’s emphasis on “looking outside ourselves” and “focusing on the needs of the communities around us,” Sherrod said. “That has been what has anchored us and kept us all going in the midst of all this.”

Relocating to Texas Wesleyan University is a “stopgap measure” for St. Luke’s in the Meadow and the 4Saints Food Pantry, Sherrod said. The pantry “never missed a day of food distribution” but lost some of its regular clients after the move, partly because the new location isn’t as convenient for public transportation. The congregation’s discernment process will include seeking a new location that can adequately accommodate the church and its ministries.

The diocese lost more than $100 million in diocesan property to ACNA in the court battle, and its membership has dropped from more than 17,000 to fewer than 4,000 since 2008 when the diocese’s leaders persuaded a majority of Episcopalians to leave The Episcopal Church over the church’s ordination of female and LGBTQ+ clergy.

The diocese still has 14 active congregations, but that list no longer includes St. Elisabeth and Christ the King Episcopal Church. With the latest ACNA evictions looming in April, the congregation of about 35 to 40 worshippers decided against looking for a new location.

“We were just too small and not enough energy to start again somewhere else, so we just sort of closed,” said the Rev. Sandi Michels, who had served as priest-in-charge since 2011. She maintains contact with her former congregation by phone and email and invites them to join her for brief Compline services on Zoom three evenings a week. Usually, at least a half dozen former members of the congregation attend.

While the recently displaced congregations consider their long-term options, the diocese’s other nine active congregations have followed a range of paths since 2008.

  • Three churches never lost their buildings in the split: Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Keller and St Luke’s in Stephenville.
  • St. Mary’s in Hamilton bought an existing church building and moved in, while St. Stephen’s in Hurst leased and renovated space in a shopping center. Church of the Good Shepherd in Granbury raised money to build a new church.
  • Church of the Resurrection is a church plant that opened in a historic church building in Decatur in 2015.
  • St. Alban’s settled in a theater in Arlington. As it outgrows that space, it now is looking for a bigger facility, Sherrod said. St. Alban’s averaged about 95 worshippers on Sundays in 2019, according to the latest parochial report data, up from 50 a decade earlier.
  • St. Andrew’s in Fort Worth had been worshipping in a chapel across the street from Texas Christian University, but services moved online at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The congregation has yet to return to in-person services.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Source: Episcopal News