Seven Episcopal Bishops File Amicus Brief Against Diocese, Claim “Hierarchy Stops With Me”

On April 23, 2012, ten Episcopal clergy filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief with the Texas Supreme Court. The filing amici are Bishops Maurice M. Benitez (retired, Diocese of Texas); John W. Howe (retired, Diocese of Central Florida); Paul E. Lambert (suffragan, Diocese of Dallas); William H. Love (diocesan, Diocese of Albany); D. Bruce MacPherson (diocesan, Diocese of W. Louisiana and formerly suffragan, Diocese of Dallas); Daniel H. Martins (diocesan, Diocese of Springfield); and James M. Stanton (diocesan, Diocese of Dallas). Three priests also joined in the brief.

Their brief supports the efforts of former Bishop Jack Iker and his breakaway faction, after they severed ties with The Episcopal Church, to continue holding themselves out as the “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth” and to take historic property dedicated to the mission and ministry of The Episcopal Church for the use of their new organization.

Their primary argument is that The Episcopal Church is indeed hierarchical, but only to the diocesan level. Among other things, this position ignores the numerous courts across the nation that have unanimously recognized The Episcopal Church’s three-tier hierarchy. It ignores the Episcopal Diocese’s solemn promise upon formation “to fully subscribe to and accede to the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church” and that “the several Parishes and Missions of the Diocese may be opened only for the services, rites and ceremonies, or other purposes, either authorized or approved by this Church, and for no other use.” And of course it ignores former-Bishop Iker’s past statements to several courts, including his 2002 statement to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that an “Episcopal bishop . . . is governed by the constitution and canons of the Church” and “must adhere to the constitution and canons of the Church or be subject to discipline.” The Episcopal Church and Local Episcopal Parties and Congregations have rebutted similar “hierarchy stops with me” arguments HERE and HERE, for example.

The amici, a group of retired and current clergy sympathetic to Iker’s agenda, also argue that determining that the hierarchy stops with them is a straightforward process but determining that it goes all the way up to the highest levels of the Church requires a “searching” inquiry. However, the same oaths and promises of loyalty and discipline that show hierarchy between the parish and the diocese also show hierarchy between the diocese and the General Church. The inquiry is the same, as is obvious from the plain words on the face of Church documents, and as courts around the nation have unanimously found.

The sympathizing amici claim that Texas courts must defer to Iker as the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, despite the plain facts and even though all sides agree that all ties between Iker and The Episcopal Church have been severed and that Bishop Wallis Ohl is the only Bishop recognized by The Episcopal Church as the Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

As former-Bishop Iker warned another appellate court: “[T]o allow each diocesan bishop absolute freedom to determine who is and is not [duly qualified] would, in part, render ECUSA a loose association of independent regional church bodies. There must be some national standard by which [duly qualified] can be determined.” And as former-Bishop Iker told another Tarrant County District Court in the 1990s, in a sworn statement, a breakaway faction is “a new creation, having no relation to [the true continuing church] and no right to its property” specifically “because they have joined [a different church] and thereby have abandoned communion with The Episcopal Church.”(Emphasis added).

Iker’s numerous representations to other courts, along with the plain documents showing over and over the obvious three-tier hierarchy of The Episcopal Church, have been cited by the Episcopal parties at each stage of the diocesan litigation and are in the record before the Texas Supreme Court now as it considers our case.

Kathleen Wells, Chancellor
Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth