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Grace under fire

Schism divides membership of state's largest Episcopal church


Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola - GETTY IMAGES
  • Getty Images
  • Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola

The push to move Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish from the oversight of an American Episcopal bishop to one in Africa is either a battle over gay-embracing theology or an escape hatch for a priest accused of colossal theft and fraud.

Those are characterizations by Grace parishioners who were unexpectedly divided after the Colorado Springs church's lay leaders announced on March 26 a "unanimous" vote to leave the Episcopal Church of the United States.

Parishioners now face aligning with the Diocese of Nigeria, led by an outspoken archbishop who last year initially supported an anti-homosexuality law proposing five-year prison terms for gays and their supporters. Peter Akinola also has blasted the "permissive and satanic spirit" of the U.S. church.

The local schism left by the vote was evident on Palm Sunday as families, some who had for generations worshiped alongside each other, gathered in separate locations, unclear which side would finally inhabit the historic Grace building at 601 N. Tejon St.

Those breaking from the Episcopal Church are passionately defending the Rev. Don Armstrong, the church rector who is accused by the Diocese of Colorado of theft, tax fraud and other financial misdoings involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past decade.

An estimated 600 parishioners gathered at the grand Tejon building for services, which were overseen by Armstrong despite the fact that in recent months the Diocese of Colorado had banned Armstrong from working as a priest and setting foot in Grace.

Grace's breakaway vestry the lay leaders responsible for the business affairs of Colorado's largest Episcopal church also reinstated Armstrong in their vote.

In turn, the Colorado diocese's bishop in Denver, Robert O'Neill, disbanded the vestry, declaring its vote defied the "moral integrity" of the Episcopal Church.

The vestry's membership reads likes a local who's who, including Chuck Brown, a former El Paso County commissioner; Bob Balink, the county's clerk and recorder; and prominent business leaders.

On the other side of the divide, the Rev. Michael O'Donnell, Grace's associate rector, oversaw services for about 500 Episcopal Church loyalists by a count of wafers on Sunday. They gathered in exile at Shove Chapel on the Colorado College campus.

"There have been divisions among friends, splits on who believed what, and there's not been an opportunity for healing," said the Rev. Sally Ziegler, who did not serve as a deacon at Grace last Sunday, instead helping conduct services at Shove.

The battle lines

Less than a week earlier, Ziegler was among the members of Grace in shock to learn the church vestry had voted to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Nigerian diocese. Both are among more than three-dozen provinces in the Anglican Communion that are tied by the moral authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England.

The Nigerian church represents more than a quarter of the roughly 72 million Anglicans worldwide. Its archbishop, Peter Akinola, has railed against the U.S. church's decision in recent years to ordain openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire and its passage of a resolution backing same-gender unions.

"Homosexuality or lesbianism or bestiality is to us a form of slavery, and redemption from it is readily available through repentance and faith in the saving grace of our Lord, Jesus the Christ," Akinola wrote in an essay.

Last year, he backed a strong-worded statement condemning Muslim "fanaticism" in his country, igniting furor and spawning confusion as to whether it encouraged reprisals against those believed responsible for the killing of Christians.

Jon Wroblewski, Grace vestry's senior warden, said the church's decision to leave the Episcopal fold is based in theology.

"The way we think of it is the Episcopal Church has chosen to leave the Anglican Communion because what they believe in their theology just isn't rooted in Anglican tradition," Wroblewski said.

He added the vote was partly strategic.

"If we would have announced that we were going to enter a discernment period for 40 days, like we're going to do now, the feeling on the vestry is that ... [the Diocese of Colorado] wouldn't let us leave and the parishioners would not get a choice," Wroblewski said.

The vestry has forwarded an application to the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, or CANA, a Virginia-based mission of the Church of Nigeria. The application requires only a vestry vote to join not the approval of a congregation.

However, on April 14 Armstrong will hold a meeting to speak about secession, and days later Bishop Martyn Mimms, who heads CANA, will visit Grace parishioners.

"There will be many, we think, that will not want to stay in the Episcopal Church," Wroblewski said, adding that parishioners will be asked to "affirm" or "ratify" the vestry's decision.

An estimated 500 displaced Grace members gathered at - Colorado Colleges Shove Chapel on Palm Sunday. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • An estimated 500 displaced Grace members gathered at Colorado Colleges Shove Chapel on Palm Sunday.

He didn't say exactly how the process would work.

Many allegations

Meanwhile, Bishop O'Neill has stated only individuals can leave the Episcopal Church not congregations.

In a March 27 letter to Grace-goers, he elaborated on allegations of a religious presentment, which is the equivalent of a civil indictment.

Citing a review of six volumes of documents, a report by a forensic accounting firm and dozens of interviews, O'Neill stated that in roughly a decade, Armstrong had:

Stolen more than $392,000 in educational and personal expenses for his family;

Committed tax fraud involving more than $548,000 in non-salary income and benefits;

Received "unlawful" loans of more than $122,000;

Improperly used more than $136,000 in "clergy discretionary funds."

Armstrong also failed to properly maintain accounting records, according to O'Neill.

Armstrong responded with his own letter to members, stating he and church lay leaders "are confident that the operation of our church and my participation in parish decisions will be fully exonerated."

The Independent requested an interview with Armstrong but did not receive a return call.

The misconduct allegations are expected to be heard in the diocese's justice system. Three months ago, the diocese placed Armstrong on "inhibition," a status meant to prevent him from setting foot in Grace and working as a priest.

O'Neill was also unavailable for comment. His spokeswoman, Beckett Stokes, said the diocese has made no decision regarding pursuit of criminal charges.

Colorado Springs police are not currently investigating the case. A spokeswoman for the FBI wouldn't say whether or not there is an investigation at that level, citing a policy to protect the reputations of suspects not formally accused of crimes.

The mere possibility of criminal charges led Fourth Judicial District Attorney John Newsome to resign his role as Grace vestry's junior warden. He declined to comment for this story, but in an e-mail distributed to media said the resignation was because of a potential conflict of interest.

"It is well-known that Father Armstrong has been my priest and friend for over a decade," Newsome wrote, adding that he'd seek a special prosecutor should a law-enforcement agency decide to file charges.

The allegations have not dissuaded CANA from embracing Armstrong and Grace parishioners, according to a source close to Mimms.

"Bishop Mimms has no reservations at all about Father Armstrong," the source said. "They've had lengthy conversations about all this ... there is no basis whatsoever to these allegations against Father Armstrong."

Brown, the former county official, echoed the sentiment. A longtime treasurer for the Grace vestry, he left the role earlier this year amid questions he had held the post longer than church rules allow.

"In my view, [the allegations] have been drummed up by the local bishop, the Colorado bishop, to make a case to inhibit the rector because of his political feelings," Brown said. "This bishop is a very liberal bishop, and our church and those followers that stayed with the church, with the Anglican Communion, are very conservative, and it's a basic disagreement over the way the national church is going."

Grace members Jan Malvern, a public-school teacher, and David Watts, a retired Amtrak executive, said the vestry's decision to leave the church came only after a concerned group of parishioners for months raised questions over the church's finances, demanding answers. The two said despite an open meeting with the vestry in late January meant to supply answers, many questions linger.

"The vestry has lacked openness," Malvern said.

In the wake of the meeting, Wroblewski admitted in the March/April edition of the "Grace Tidings" church newsletter that Grace's finances haven't undergone annual independent audits in recent years.

Rev. Donald Armstrong - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • Rev. Donald Armstrong

"This year, the audit will cover the years 2006, 2005 and 2004 to catch us up on years where it was difficult or impossible to do the audits," he wrote.

Bob McJimsey, a retired Colorado College professor and member of Grace's vestry, happened to be out of town when the vote to secede took place.

Saying the vote came as a surprise, McJimsey declined to discuss the internal operations of the vestry, citing the need to uphold confidentiality promises.

Speaking generally, he said, "I think the reasons [for the vote] were probably a compound of the Rector Donald Armstrong's legal struggles and the concerns about the more, quote, 'liberal' ways the national church had been heading."

Fighting for the assets

Meanwhile, a legal battle for the church's assets, which the diocese is seeking to freeze, looms with both sides predicting a fight.

"It will probably have to go to court," Brown said.

In recent years, Grace created a nonprofit organization to ensure the property remained in the hands of parishioners, Brown added.

"We just felt that that was the way to keep ownership of the church," he said.

Brown was unable to immediately say exactly when the nonprofit was created.

Three church properties on the 600 block of North Tejon Street are listed by the County Assessor's Office as owned by Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish, in care of the "business manager."

Brown was hired earlier this year as Grace's business manager. It is unclear exactly when the position was created.

The diocese, through lawyer Martin Nussbaum of the Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons law firm, is citing a Colorado Supreme Court decision to back claims by the Episcopal Church to the Grace property.

In the mid-1970s, a Denver parish left the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women, but the court concluded there was "no question" the property belonged to the diocese, rather than those who voted to leave.

"The controlling law in Colorado at the present time is the property at Grace Church belongs to the diocese of Colorado and should be under the control of the diocese, which is the part of the parish that remains in The Episcopal Church," said Tim Fuller, a member of Grace who does not support joining the Nigerian church.

The side that takes control of the main church stands to inherit a $2.5 million debt dating to December 2005. The monthly payments are roughly $20,000 per month, at a time when Grace attendance is obviously strained.

The loan on the property was spent on renovations to the north part of the church, refinancing prior debt for prior renovations and perhaps other expenses, according to Brown, Wroblewski and others familiar with vestry finances.

The loan was made by the State Bank of Bartley (Neb.), which is partly owned by Grace vestry member Chad Friese. The bank, in a town of about 350 people, loaned more than 10 percent of its $22.9 million in assets to the church.

By comparison, Kit Carson State Bank, in a Colorado town of 253 people, has assets of about $50 million.

Wroblewski defended using Friese's bank as a "good idea."

"We definitely want somebody who has insight into financial matters concerning the church on the vestry," Wroblewski said.

Brown, who claimed he signed the mortgage documents as treasurer, answered "No" when asked whether he thought it was a conflict of interest to borrow money on Grace's behalf from someone on the vestry.

"His bank is in business to make money," Brown said. "Sure they're going to make a profit, but he doesn't being the owner of a bank, he's not making any huge profit off of it. He's making normal bank profits."

Brown added that Friese "volunteered" to make the loan.

Graces bell tower, patterned after one in England, has - been a Colorado Springs icon for nearly eight decades. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • Graces bell tower, patterned after one in England, has been a Colorado Springs icon for nearly eight decades.

Fuller, a professor of political science at Colorado College who quit the vestry in January after hearing the rumblings of a possible split from the Episcopal Church, frets the loan could create financial problems for Grace.

"It's quite a lot of money," Fuller said.

Difficult options

Both the U.S. Episcopal Church and Nigerian Church are the legacy of King Henry VIII's decision to remove the Church of England from the control of the Roman Catholic pope. Both came into being through the British Empire. CANA has taken about 30 U.S. churches into its fold in recent years. There are 2-3 million members of the U.S. church.

Rev. Ziegler said the Nigerian bishop is essentially meddling in the affairs of the American church. She noted that Nigerians would be unhappy if the tables were turned.

For her, leaving the Episcopal Church one that is part of America's history isn't an option. She's been with Grace since 1997 and her family has generational ties to the Episcopal Church.

"I have no sense of connection or belief that the Diocese of Nigeria, which is just another flawed human institution like the American Episcopal church, would be better or offer anything that would feed my soul more than where I've been forever," Ziegler said.

In recent years Armstrong preached about polarizing issues that divided members of the church more than drew them together.

Armstrong backed war, a parishioner said.

He lashed out at public schools, another said.

He got personal, yet another said.

Now, in the wake of the vestry's vote, many undecided parishioners dread choosing sides as a result of a vestry's vote, Ziegler said.

"The people in the middle," she said, "are the ones who are at the moment in the most pain."

Grace's roots run as deep as the city's

When the subject is history in Colorado Springs, anything that has been around for, say, 50 years would qualify as part of the discussion.

Such is the case for a city whose roots go back only as far as the 1870s.

Grace Episcopal Church has been around for nearly all that time, spanning Colorado Springs' life from infancy to the present. And, believe it or not, this isn't the first time a division has split the church into factions.

Gen. William J. Palmer actually laid out the city in 1871. On the second Sunday of 1872, the town's first Episcopal Church had its initial service on the southeast corner of Cascade Avenue and what is now known as Colorado Avenue, where the Colorado Springs Utilities building is located today.

By 1873, Grace Episcopal Church had organized. Gen. Palmer donated lots for the church's first building, on the south side of Pikes Peak Avenue, between Weber and Wahsatch. That building, completed and occupied in 1874, still stands and has served several purposes over the years it currently houses Eden Nite Club.

In 1893, part of the Grace congregation split, forming Trinity Union Church and St. Stephen's Parish. Two years later, that group finished building the church at Tejon Street and Monument Avenue.

That edifice, still used as the Parish Hall on the northern edge of the Grace complex, was designed by Thomas MacLaren. A native of Scotland, MacLaren served as architect for numerous historic buildings in Colorado Springs from 1894 to 1928, including the City Auditorium and City Hall.

The two churches united in 1922, a half-century after that first service. The rectors, Rev. Chauncey Blodgett of Grace and Rev. Arthur Taft of St. Stephen's, emerged as co-rectors of the new church that was (and still is) known as Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish.

Soon thereafter, plans were conceived for a new addition and tower. E. Donald Robb of Frohman, Robb and Little, which designed the Washington National Cathedral, produced the designs for the east-west sanctuary that adjoined the St. Stephen's northern wing. It was finished in 1926.

Work continued until 1929 on the tower, which has been one of Colorado Springs' most distinctive structures since then. It mirrors the tower of Magdalen College of Oxford University in England.

Over the years, many prominent Colorado Springs residents have attended Grace Church, which also has served as the site for countless weddings and funerals involving community leaders.

Sources: and

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