Jack Iker, Anglican bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth:
The Bishop’s Address, November 15, 2008
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:2)
As we all know, this 26th annual meeting of our Diocesan Convention is anything but “business as usual.” Through a long process of spiritual discernment and prayer over the past year and a half or more, we have come to this historic moment of decision making. The eyes of many others beyond our own diocese are upon us today, and we are deeply grateful for their prayers and support as we deliberate on the matters that are before us.
At our first Convention in 1982, we voted to accede to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and to “be admitted into union with the General Convention.” Today, as a matter of conscience and conviction, we will vote to rescind that action and to align ourselves instead with an orthodox Province of the Anglican Communion, the Province of the Southern Cone.
I will not attempt to rehearse all of the reasons and explanations for this course of action. By now, we have heard them many times before, and most of us are tired of debating them. The clergy and lay delegates to this Convention are probably the most well informed and best prepared in the history of this diocese when it comes to the issues that are before us. I doubt that anyone’s vote will be changed by any of the debates that take place here today. Our minds are made up. The time for discussion has come to an end, and the time for decision is upon us.
This past year has been a tense and at times contentious period in the life of our diocese. Every one of our congregations has engaged the controversies that are before us, some more than others. Most of our churches have hosted forums and conducted study groups on why we are doing what we are doing. Differences of opinion remain in our church family, but we cannot avoid the decision that is before us. Some can no longer remain within the structures of The Episcopal Church, and others cannot bring themselves to leave TEC, even though they may disagree with the direction it is headed. Some have encouraged us to stay and fight as the faithful remnant in TEC, to work for reform from within. I can only reply by quoting the saying that “the definition of insanity is to keep on doing the same thing, expecting different results.” The time has come to choose a new path and direction, to secure a spiritual future for our children and our grand-children.
Today we shall make the decision in the only way we can – by the constitutional, legislative process of this Diocesan Convention, which is the only body that can speak with authority on behalf of all the congregations of this Diocese. No Vestry can override or disregard what is decided here today. Once the vote is cast, we have decided what we will do as a Diocese. If some must separate from the Diocese as a result, then so be it. But let the parting of the ways be as between friends in Christ, without rancor or ill will, without trying to punish or force one another to do what we cannot do.
I have chosen “Contending for the Faith” as the theme of this year’s Convention, for it speaks to the heart of the matter that is before us. It comes from the Epistle of Jude, a letter written to warn the faithful against false teachers who had made their way into the church of the first century. Though we are not told much about the content of their teaching, we are told that they were immoral and covetous men, who rejected authority and created divisions in the Church of God. St. Jude urges his readers to “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (verse 3) and to stand firm against false teaching and immorality. And so we shall at this Convention, for the controversies that surround us have to do with standing for the truth of the Gospel.
Our consistent witness in this Diocese over the past 26 years has been to contend for the catholic faith in the midst of a church that is increasingly unfaithful and disobedient to the Word of God – a church that has caused division and dissension both at home and abroad – a church that has torn the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level – a church that acts more and more like a rebellious protestant sect and less and less like an integral part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. It is time to say enough is enough – we will have no more of this. To acquiesce is to allow the slow deterioration of the Biblical faith to continue. This diocese stands for orthodox Christianity, and we are increasingly at odds with the revisionist practices and teachings of the official leadership of The Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church we once knew no longer exists. To contend for the faith as traditional Episcopalians has brought us to this time of realignment in the Body of Christ.
The constitutional and canonical amendments proposed to this Convention offer us a faithful way forward as a traditional diocese of the Anglican Communion. First, we will separate from the errors of General Convention religion. Second, we will affiliate with an orthodox Province of the Anglican Communion. And third we will work with others in the Common Cause Partnership to establish a new Province of the Anglican Communion in North America. In fact, those efforts are already well underway. The future will not be easy, and many will oppose what we intend to accomplish. However, it is my conviction as your Bishop, having struggled with General Convention decisions for the past 16 years, that it is the best way forward for us as a faithful diocese. Now is the time to act.
I realize that for some of you this means that at the conclusion of this Convention, you will no longer recognize me as your Bishop and that the House of Bishops of TEC will initiate plans to depose me as a Bishop of TEC. However, it is important to understand what such an action can do and what it cannot do. I cannot be un-ordained any more than I can be un-baptized. Holy Orders, like Holy Baptism, bestows an indelible character and imparts a grace that is irrevocable. A deacon, priest or bishop who is deposed may be deprived of exercising his ordained ministry in congregations of The Episcopal Church, but he is not thereby un-ordained or removed from Holy Orders. The clergy of this Diocese were ordained not just for The Episcopal Church, but for the one holy catholic and apostolic church. We are deacons, priests and bishops of the Church of God, not an American denomination. As the Preface to the Ordination Rites says on page 510 of the Prayer Book, “The threefold ministry is not the exclusive property of this portion of Christ’s catholic Church.” I can assure you that all the clergy of this Diocese, under the authority and protection of the Province of the Southern Cone, will continue to exercise our ordained ministry as deacons, priests and bishops in good standing in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Our Province will change, but the validity of our sacred orders will remain unchanged.
I am certain that in the months ahead, leaders of TEC will move to depose not only me, but every deacon and priest here present who votes for realignment at this Convention. Sad to say, some of you here in this Convention hall will cooperate with and facilitate those plans. It is my belief that such a course of action is not only unreasonable and uncharitable, but violates our ecclesiological understanding of what the Anglican Communion claims to be. If we are a worldwide Communion of Provinces who share a common faith, practice and ministry, then it does not make sense to depose clergy who move from one Province to another. No one is abandoning the Communion of the Church by realigning with another Province. The far better way to proceed would be for TEC to accept the fact that a realignment has occurred, to recognize the transfer of this Diocese to another Province of the Anglican Communion, and to wish us well in the name of the Lord. There is something deeply disturbing about a Church that would prefer to litigate and depose rather than to negotiate a peaceful, amicable separation among brothers and sisters in Christ who can no longer walk together.
I call upon the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church and her colleagues to halt the litigation, to stop the depositions, and to cease the intimidation of traditional believers. Instead, let us pursue a mediated settlement, a negotiated agreement that provides for a fair and equitable solution for all parties, and let us resist taking punitive actions against our opponents. Christians are called to work out our differences with one another, not sue one another in secular courts. I call upon those who dissent from the decision we make today as a Diocese to remain as faithful worshipping members in your local congregation. If we could welcome diversity and still worship with those who disagree with us before this Convention, then surely we can continue to do so after this Convention.
Your church family will still be there for you tomorrow and next Sunday and the Sunday after that. I urge you to remain fully active in your church home, where you have been nurtured and fed, where you are still wanted and loved. I urge you to resist the appeals to go off and find alternative meeting places so that you might worship separately from the rest of your parish family in the weeks ahead. Regardless of the decision of this Convention, there is no reason why we cannot continue to worship together in the future just as we have in the past. Let us strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace, in every congregation of this Diocese, where there is room for everyone.
Some have asked, “Will we still be Episcopalians after our realignment vote is taken?” And the answer is, “Well, yes and no – that all depends.” After all, no one can “un-Episcopalian-ize” you, and no one is being kicked out of the family. We will still be The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. We are not changing our name, because we are not changing our identity. We will still have an Episcopal form of polity, which means being in a church that is under a Bishop. We will continue to stand for what our forebears meant when they called themselves Episcopalians. But we will no longer be a part of the ecclesiastical structure sometimes known as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, which is governed by the General Convention. TEC is not the only Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion, and it does not own the name “Episcopalian.” There are the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, the Episcopal Church in the Philippines, and the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, to name a few. Members of those Provinces consider themselves Episcopalians, but not as members of TEC. In many parts of the world, the word Episcopal and the word Anglican are used interchangeably. You may have even visited a church in another part of the world, like near the Canadian border, where the church sign says “Anglican/Episcopal.”
There are various groups of Lutherans – Missouri Synod Lutherans, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – but they all call themselves Lutherans, and rightly so. They simply are members of different jurisdictions or synods. The same may be said of Presbyterians and Baptists. There is more than one kind of Presbyterian or one kind of Baptist. They both have congregations that are under different judicatory bodies or conventions, but they are entitled to use the church family name that has been theirs over the decades. No one group owns the name, to the exclusion of others.
Regardless of what your vote will be at this Convention, if you want to continue to consider yourself an Episcopalian, by all means, do so. On the other hand, if that label embarrasses you or if you want to be free of it because of what it conveys or implies to others, then by all means, proudly call yourself an Anglican. You are entitled to either or both names. Perhaps you prefer to be called an “Angli-palian” or an “Epis-glican.” But to tell you the truth, God does not care so much about denominational labels and what the church sign says out front, as He does for what you believe in your heart, and profess with your lips, and show forth in your lives. And that, my friends, is why we are contending for the faith of the ages in the stance we take at this Convention.
Several years ago my convention address focused on the theme, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” This is always a challenge for the Church and especially so in times of controversy. I would like to recall us to this theme when today’s Convention concludes. The main thing for us, of course, is the saving mission of Jesus Christ in the world. We are a missionary diocese, and our focus is on bringing others into a life changing relationship with Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. I am grateful to Bishop Godfrey for the message in his sermon yesterday afternoon, that mission is the main thing. It has been encouraging over this past year to see how many of our congregations have remained mission focused in spite of the controversies that have distracted us. It was a joy yesterday to license and commission 13 people who have completed a course of training for Lay Mission Leaders. In the past year, missionary trips by a number of groups and individuals have gone out from Fort Worth not only to various parts of the United States, but also to other several other countries – to Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Thailand, Belize and Cambodia, just to name a few. May our new freedom in an orthodox, missionary Province, enhance and foster this kind of missionary zeal and enthusiasm.
Here at home, within the diocese, I have rejoiced in a number of other signs of vitality and mission, such as the purchase of property for a new mission start in Crowley and the launching of the Christ the Redeemer church plant under the leadership of Fr. Chris Culpepper. We hope to seat them as a new congregation at our next Convention. It was a joy to worship with the people of St. Barnabas the Apostle in the first service in their new building in late August and to see evidence of what is surely a very bright future of missionary growth that is before them.
Physical plant improvements have been completed at Iglesia San Miguel and are still underway at St. Alban’s in Arlington. Significant building additions are nearly complete at St. Christopher’s in Fort Worth and at the Church of the Ascension and St. Mark in Wise County. We commend each of these congregations on their expansion and growth.
In conclusion, I would underscore once again that the proposals before this Convention have one clear message: We here in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth intend to be who we have always been, to believe what we have always believed, and to do what we have always done. We are not going away, nor are we abandoning anything. We are not leaving the Church – we are the Church. We will remain an orthodox diocese of catholic Christians, full members of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Above all else, we remain committed to serving and obeying the Lord Jesus Christ, upholding the authority of the Holy Scriptures as the revealed Word of God and our ultimate authority in all matters of faith, morals and doctrine. I am proud and honored to be the Bishop of this Diocese, and I am deeply grateful for the courage and support of all of you in these challenging times. As we move forward with firm resolve and confident faith, I see a future full of promise and hope. We contend for the faith as we make our stand this day, trusting alone in the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and He will never fail us. Thank you, and God bless you in your witness.