May 2022
Beyond the Pews

Church Without Walls

“Church without walls” isn’t a theoretical discussion in our diocese. It’s our reality.

In my mind, the notion of “church without walls” has two meanings. The first, and most important, is that of a church where all are welcome, where there is no impediment to the full participation of any/all people. The second meaning is a church that is not hemmed in by any preconceived notions about what church “is” or what church “should be.”

Over the past 12 years, only three of the congregations of the Episcopal Church in North Texas (formerly the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth) have continuously had possession of and worshipped in a church building. All the other congregations of our diocese have been dispossessed of land, buildings and funds. And while these congregations’ worship spaces might have changed, they missed not a beat in their outreach and mission work.

Here’s what happened. In November 2008, the then bishop and many diocesan leaders left the Episcopal Church but claimed Episcopal Church property – more than $100 million worth of property. In early 2009, a lawsuit was filed to regain Episcopal Church property, litigation that stretched out for 12 long years.

At that time, Episcopalians from 14 congregations were forced out of their church homes and had to find new places to worship. Over time, all found new places to worship – some rented space, others bought or built a building.

As the Episcopal remnant regathered itself, elected a bishop and began rebuilding the diocese, a collective decision soon emerged to focus on God’s love and welcome for all. A determination to thrive, not just survive, and to focus on what we had to give to others, rather than dwell on what we had lost, was given birth by increasingly confident lay leaders and then nurtured by clergy and a succession of provisional bishops.

In February 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear our appeal, which meant the decision of the Texas Supreme Court became final. The resources of the diocese and the congregations were awarded to the deposed Episcopal bishop and his followers in the Anglican Church of North America.

This meant six more of our congregations were newly dispossessed of their buildings, funds and possessions.

These new losses have been exceedingly difficult. But what faithful Episcopalians learned in 2008 and relearned in 2021 is saving us once again – the best way to deal with such enormous losses is to turn toward love and away from anger and loss, to turn toward our neighbors, our communities and focus on what we have, not the material things we have lost.

Make no mistake, buildings can be useful. (When the Texas sun brings the temperature to 95 degrees before 10:00 am Sunday worship, it’s helpful to have air conditioning, too!) And I understand the passionate connection many of us have to our church buildings. Friends and family members – sometimes multiple generations of family members – have been baptized, confirmed, married and buried, surrounded by stone and wood and stained glass. In our experience of these sacraments, time and place become interwoven with eternity. Every time we set foot in the place where transformation happened, we feel transformed again. Our senses come alive, responding to memory and anticipating possibility.

The buildings which have housed our congregations did not come with a sense of the sacred built in. What sanctifies any space is regular encounter with the presence and power of our loving, liberating, life-giving God.

Being forced out of their buildings has given congregations the opportunity to discern what kind of buildings they need now for the ministries to which they are currently called. Some congregations have built or purchased a church building that looks quite traditional and is used primarily for worship. Other congregations are worshipping in a store-front, college classroom or school chapel. Still other congregations are nesting in with a congregation of another denomination, using their facilities on a temporary or more permanent basis. And in every case, the worship itself – no matter what building it takes place in – forms and feeds the love out of which their successful and varied outreach ministries grow.

Our congregations have continued the mission and ministries to which they are called without missing a beat. The 4Saints Episcopal Food Pantry, a joint ministry of five of our congregations, continued serving clients in the neighborhood without missing a day of service. All Saints’, Fort Worth, shifted the site of their Sunday worship services to a local Episcopal school without missing a Sunday. St. Christopher, Fort Worth, ramped up their ongoing Laundry Love ministry, and St. Mary’s, Hillsboro, did the same with their food ministry to local schools.

New people continue to find us, drawn by the consistent message of unconditional love – a very countercultural message in this part of the world, dominated by messages of judgment and exclusion.

This, then, is what has allowed the congregations and ministries of the Episcopal Church in North Texas to thrive in spite of the loss of beloved buildings – an understanding that the church is primarily constructed of relationships, not bricks and mortar, that the church is the people.

When the Spirit of God is at work among us and God’s people are present, we have everything we need: we are the Church.

The Rev. Dr. Janet Waggoner is Canon to the Ordinary in the Episcopal Church in North Texas. She served on the Task Force for Church Planting and Congregational Redevelopment from 2015-2018 and as its Chair from 2018-2021. She enjoys quilting, hiking, writing and photography; she is the mother of two teenagers.

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This article is part of the May 2022 Vestry Papers issue on Beyond the Pews