Monday, July 30, 2007

Religion of the Absurd

Ok, I admit it. I can't follow this...LOL

So, God is NOT dead, He just has a few issues to work out?

And He was last seen in Africa? I really am confused.

Each time I try to read this story, I end up saying, "The world is really quite mad, you know."

Colorado Springs Church Undergoes Legal Battle

Legal Spotlight - POSTED: 2007/07/29

The Gothic Revival tower of Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish stands as a monument to staid tradition - but this sanctuary has turned into a battleground.

Rebellious parishioners left the American Episcopal Church this spring, protesting its acceptance of gay unions and other departures from orthodoxy, to join a Nigerian Anglican diocese.

Now, the congregation is locked in a legal battle with the Colorado Diocese over ownership of the church, valued at $17 million. The congregation also is trying to keep its conservative priest of 20 years, the Rev. Don Armstrong, in his pulpit, despite allegations of theft and fraud.

Tuesday, an Episcopal ecclesiastical court will weigh charges against Armstrong, who is accused by the diocese of stealing or misusing more than $500,000. The battle for Grace Church is part of a global theological conflict within the worldwide 77-million-member Anglican Communion.

Liberal church members are pitted against conservative Anglicans in Africa, Asia and South America. In Colorado, 14 congregations have moved to affiliate with African-led dioceses rather than the Episcopal Diocese in Denver.

Active membership in the American Episcopal Church has been in decline for four decades, hitting 2.3 million in 2004, according to church reports. Active membership in Colorado that year was about 33,000.

"The crisis of the Episcopal Church, the fault lines that run through that, run right through Grace Church," said Alan Crippen, a spokesman for St. Stephen's breakaway congregation.

"The Episcopal Church is dying," Crippen said. "It's dying in the United States. It's dying in Colorado. It's a denomination that's lost its relevance by accommodating the culture."

The split in the Anglican community widened in 2003 when the American church consecrated New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, who is openly gay.

This past February, leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion gave U.S. and Canadian churches an ultimatum: Stop blessing same-sex unions and consecrating openly gay bishops by Sept. 30 or face being asked to leave the Anglican Communion.

St. Stephen's Parish's breaking point came the night of March 26, hours after Armstrong had been charged by the diocese.

Nine of 10 church vestry members, the parish's lay leaders, voted to secede from the diocese and an American church they saw drifting left - away from Scripture and toward secular humanism.

"The people around that table believed the bishop was trying to destroy this parish," Crippen said. Bishop Robert O'Neill, an outspoken liberal, had placed Armstrong on leave in the midst of the 2006 Christmas holidays. Although forbidden to have contact with parishioners, Armstrong defied the ban. On the night of the vestry vote, Armstrong sent an e-mail to the senior warden, Jon Wroblewsi, saying of O'Neill: "He has no army and no keys and no authority - possession is nine-tenths of the law - and I have the microphone."

By Palm Sunday, Armstrong and parishioners had changed the church's locks. About 250 exiled parishioners still loyal to the diocese had to worship at a borrowed church a few blocks away. Some 450 to 550 Armstrong followers held Grace Church.

"It was a big shock," said Tim Fuller, vestry member in the exiled parish. "This was done without consultation with the parish."

Before the split, Grace's rolls stood at about 2,000. Average Sunday attendance had been about 800 people, about the size of the congregation of St. John's Cathedral in Denver.

The diocese froze some parish bank accounts, Crippen said. Breakaway parishioners filed a lawsuit on Good Friday asking the court to determine ownership of the parish's real and personal property.

Clash over motives

The breakaway group contends that it can better care for the property and that the diocese probably can't afford to keep Grace Church, Crippen said.

It costs $20,000 a month to run the church, he estimates. Programs and salaries aside, maintenance and utilities run about $8,000 monthly.

"That is a specious argument. You make that argument when the law is not on your side," said Lawrence Hitt II, chancellor of the diocese.

The parishioners can leave the Episcopal Church - but they can't take Grace Church with them, Hitt said. The exit, he added, appears to be motivated less by theology and more by a desire to salvage Armstrong's ministerial career.

By late May, parishioners remaining at Grace with Armstrong had ratified the church vestry decision to join the African mission by a vote of 342 to 28.

The group chose to align themselves with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, CANA, a mission of the 17-million-member Nigerian Anglican Church.

The Diocese of Nigeria, the largest, after Great Britain, of Anglican Communion's 38 provinces, holds itself out as a safe harbor for conservative congregations estranged from North American dioceses. CANA, founded in 2005, now includes 37 churches in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Another African group - the 7-year-old Anglican Mission in the Americas - with oversight from Rwanda's Anglican province, claims affiliation with 116 congregations in North America, including 13 in Colorado, from Cortez to Broomfield.

Altogether, at least 200 of 7,200 Episcopal congregations in North America have aligned themselves with overseas provinces.

"Within the Episcopal Church, there is a lack of ability to draw clear boundaries ... regarding what is true and faithful to what God has revealed," said associate pastor Rob Paris of the Wellspring Anglican Church in Englewood, which is affiliated with the Rwanda mission.

Among the questions of orthodoxy, the congregations have split on how literally to interpret Scripture, whether Jesus' resurrection was a physical fact or a spiritual symbol, and whether the Bible forbids homosexuality.

Whatever the reason for churches leaving, the Colorado diocese said the legal precedent in this state is very clear since the 1986 Colorado Supreme Court decision Bishop and Diocese of Colorado vs. Mote. When a faction within an Episcopal parish seeks to secede from the Episcopal Church, the property of the parish is held in trust by the local church for the general church and may not be taken by the seceding faction.

A hearing on the Grace dispute is set for October in district court in El Paso County.

"We love the building, but it's not an idol for us. It's a home, a heritage, but at the end of the day, the church is not a building," Crippen said. "It's the people." If the diocese gets the building, Crippen predicts, it likely will have to sell it. Hitt said there is no basis to that claim.

Still, Crippen worries that Grace Church could suffer the same fate as the former St. Mark's at 12th Avenue and Lincoln Street in Denver, where a congregation seceded a decade ago over ordination of women priests.

"It's a nightclub now," he said. "There are some who fear that might be our destiny."

Nightclub, Schmightclub - as long as you're on the road to recovery. Or something.

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