Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Monday, March 26, 2007

Schism at Grace

While our intrepid religion reporter is busy exploring the cradle of the Anglican Church, his hometown has become the crucible of a pitched battle between the conservative and liberal factions of Episcopalians. Grace Church leveled a strong counterpunch at its diocese today, with the decision to withdraw rather than submit to its authority.

This is big news, and will probably reverberate nationally and internationally among Episcopalians. Conservatives will probably see the members of Grace Church -- and the Rev. Don Armstrong -- as heroes. Liberals may see this as a misguided attempt to protect a rector or avoid progressive change. Either way, it is an intriguing drama.

Here's a report on the split from Virtue Online, with a clear conservative bias that is sympathetic with our local parish.

Also, we will be updating this story throughout the day on

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Graceful battle?

The March 25 meeting at Grace Episcopal has apparently been pushed back until after Easter. Here's an update on the situation at Grace that Paul left behind before his vacation...

Leaders for Grace Episcopal Church say they now know more facts surrounding the suspension of the church’s powerful rector.

They’re not telling anyone else what those facts are just yet.

The vestry for Grace sent a letter out to its parishioners March 19, which said that the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado received “written documentation and information” from the dioceses’ year-long investigation of the church and its rector, the Rev. Don Armstrong.

Armstrong was suspended in late December by Bishop Rob O’Neill, head of the diocese, while it investigated him for misapplying church funds.

Jon Wroblewski, senior warden for Grace, declined to discuss the allegations against Armstrong, saying the church is still receiving information. The vestry plans to schedule a parish meeting to discuss the allegations. The meeting probably won’t take place until after Easter.

“When the Diocese is more forthcoming with complete details of its investigation, as once again promised,” the vestry’s letter read, “the Vestry will finally be able to address each allegation presented and seek the truth as to what, if any, misapplication of funds may have occurred.”

According to the letter, the diocese did ask Grace leadership to do certain things, including: not tolerate improper use of trust, designated or restricted funds; to make sure parish compensation and benefits have been properly reported to the Internal Revenue Service; to not allow loans to the church’s officers or directors, “including past or future rectors;” and to seek reimbursement of any money found to be misappropriated.

Grace has agreed to all those terms. Wroblewski says they all under “normal financial stewardship,” and he believes the church is doing all those things anyway.

But he did say the church will re-examine their financial practices and fix anything that needs to be fixed.

“Everything that they said in that portion in the report is reasonable,” Wroblewski said.

Armstrong’s suspension has deeply divided Grace, one of the state’s most prominent Episcopal parishes.

Armstrong has been a vocal and visible critic of the Episcopal Church, a national denomination of around 2.3 million believers, regarding issues of human sexuality. When the Episcopal Church elected an openly gay man as its New Hampshire bishop, Armstrong was one of the denomination’s most vocal opponents.

When Armstrong was suspended, many parishioners rallied to his defense, unsuccessfully petitioning the diocese to lift the suspension and donating to the priest’s legal defense fund — preparations for a looming date in ecclesiastical court.

But other parishioners began wondering where their offerings have been going all these years. Some of them, forming what they call the Grace Concerns Committee, recently wrote a letter to other parishioners, asking them to pressure Grace to be more financially transparent.

“As a group, we’re saying that we’d like to know what’s going on,” said John Hermes, a member of the Grace Concerns Committee. “We’d like to know, (regardless of) whether it works for Don or against Don.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Wee Breather

I'm going on vacation for a few days -- well, OK, I won't be back until April 3 -- which means my editors, Bill Reed and Dena Rosenberry, will be filling this spot for a while. There will surely be plenty to follow while I'm gone. Easter and Passover are nearing. The situation at Grace Episcopal Church continues to brew. Focus on the Family will celebrate its 30th anniversary. And Mike Jones may decide to sell his infamous massage table elsewhere.

In the meantime, I leave the following links for you -- for serious seekers and the not-so-serious.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Percolating Grace

I went to Grace Episcopal Church this weekend. On the surface, it felt like a pretty typical church service. People sang, prayed and greeted one another with "peace be with you." Announcements were about a high school mission trip. The Rev. Eric Zolner spoke about the need to surrender to God during difficult times.

Truth is, Grace has been through some very difficult times the past 10 weeks, and Zolner and the entire congregation knew it. Though the Rev. Don Armstrong -- Grace's rector suspended for allegedly misapplying funds -- was nowhere to be seen, his presence is everywhere these days. Zolner talked about how Armstrong picked him and his buddies up when they went on an ill-advised bike ride in the snow -- a foul-weather savior, as it were. The church's Web site is loaded up with news, including information on how to donate to Armstrong's legal defense fund and an announcement for a parish meeting March 25.

The meeting, oddly enough, wasn't mentioned during the service I went to.

Armstrong's suspension is supposedly due to expire before the month is out, though Colorado's Episcopal Bishop Rob O'Neill could extend it. The Diocesan Review Committee -- the body tasked with deciding whether to pursue charges against Armstrong -- is expected to meet sometime this week, according to the diocese. The Review Committee still has 30 days to review the matter in confidence, but it appears that this struggle is nearing a boiling point.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Rumors from the Outside World

Sometimes folks call Colorado Springs the "evangelical Vatican." And sometimes people take that moniker a little too seriously.

Case in point: A recent letter to the Arizona Daily Star.

The letter was written by a guy named Bryan Scott in response to a story about Southern Baptist churches sprouting in Tucson, though many hide their affiliation. The letter writer assumed they wanted to distance themselves from the "bad press the denomination has gotten lately."

"But before Tucson embraces even more of these churches into our 'heavily unchurched' city," writes Scott, "we should remember their core beliefs: The Bible is the literal word of God, wives must submit to their husbands, homosexuality and abortion are inherently sinful, and prayer and the teaching of intelligent design belong in schools. Heaven help us from becoming another Colorado Springs, where evangelical religion has permeated almost every facet of daily life."

Some outsiders assume that Colorado Springs observes mandatory morning prayers and we name our streets after Bible verses: "Let's meet at Job 16:21 for coffee."

But, as I've written, Colorado Springs is statistically more secular than the average American city, and if you want to find evangelical influence around here, you've got to look for it.

Sure, it's there. Drive down I-25 from the north and you'll see a sign directing folks to Focus on the Family. To the east of the highway you'll see the arena-sized New Life Church. The city is home to lots of very prominent evangelical organizations (and prominent evangelicals, for that matter). And certainly many local evangelicals would like to influence the city more. Focus on the Family will be sending a voter guide to residents through their March 21 Gazette, as a matter of fact, telling voters what city council candidates think about issues such as abortion and gay pride.

But you can spend all day in a downtown coffee shop and not hear the name "Jesus" once -- unless it's someone cursing the temperature of the coffee. You can buy "Plan B" emergency contraceptives over the counter. You can see R-rated movies without the cuss words being bleeped out.

Faith is an important motivator in Colorado Springs, just as it is in most American cities. But around here, it seems the amount of influence religion has in our daily lives depends largely on how much influence we want it to have.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Guy in Town

Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs has hired Jason Christensen (former regional director of Catholic Charities in Rockford, Ill.) as its new executive director. According to a press release, he'll be starting his new duties by the end of the month.

Hiring Christensen means that the Rev. Don Dunn, rector for St. Mary's Cathedral, can take off one of his hats. Dunn, 70, has been Catholic Charities' interim director for about four months now, all the while pushing forward as head of the city's most important Catholic parish. He volunteered for the gig even though he's planning to retire this summer, and he's been putting in 60-hour weeks ever since. Now, maybe, he can ease back to a mere 55 or so.

When I talked with Dunn a week or so ago, he said Catholic Charities was, curiously, a way to prepare him for retirement. It allowed him to wean himself a bit from St. Mary's -- the job he'll most miss when he steps down.

I'll be writing a profile on the priest that will run in The Gazette in the next few weeks. He's a fascinating guy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No Slap for Cizik

Richard Cizik, policy director for the National Association of Evangelicals, received an understated nod of confidence from the NAE during the organization's meetings this weekend, in the wake of criticism from conservative evangelicals like Focus on the Family's James Dobson.

Dobson and other conservatives took issue with Cizik's outspoken emphasis on the environment, saying Cizik's views didn't necessarily represent the view of all or even most evangelicals. These conservatives wrote a letter to the NAE, criticizing Cizik. I talked about the issue earlier here.

"If he cannot be trusted to articulate the view of American evangelicals on environmental issues," reads the letter, "then we respectfully suggest that he be encouraged to resign his position with the NAE."

But according to a news story by the New York Times, the NAE never considered censoring Cizik.

“There’s one Lord, but not just one issue,” one board member, the Rev. Paul de Vries, president of the New York Divinity School, told the Times. “I am as much against abortion as Jim Dobson and the others, but I want that baby to live in a healthful environment, inside the womb as well as outside of the womb.”

Of War and Peace and Christianity

Every now and then, I see a bumper sticker that reads "peace is a moral value."

The bumper sticker references the 2004 elections, when a good chunk of voters said "moral values" (interepreted by pollsters as issues revolving around abortion and same-sex marriage) was their No. 1 concern. These voters helped push George W. Bush to his second presidential term.

But issues of war and peace have always been the most moral of issues, and the conflict in Iraq is an increasing point of debate among faith groups.

This weekend, a handful of faith-centric organizations, helped along by the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, will be holding events to commemorate -- and protest --the war's fourth anniversary. Several buddhist groups will hold a three-hour silent meditation at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Colorado College (write to for more information or to RSVP). First Congregational Church-United Church of Christ -- long one of Colorado Springs' most vocal liberal presences -- is sponsoring a prayer vigil for peace at noon Sunday on the front steps of their church at 20 E. St. Vrain St.

Advocating peace is in the very DNA of these groups, so none of this is too surprising.

More interesting -- at least to me -- is the fact that Focus on the Family has been vocally pro-war lately. James Dobson, the organization's founder and leader, has called Islamic terrorism a huge threat to the United States. The current war in Iraq is part of the effort to combat that terrorism, he believes, and he hammered at that point again and again in advance of last November's mid-term elections. Last week, Dobson hosted Newt Gingrich on his daily radio program, where Gingrich advocated suspending certain civil liberties if it would help the country combat terrorism. During the program, Dobson said many politicians -- Republican and Democrat -- need to "wake up" to the dangers of militant Islam.

Dobson's stance is particularly interesting because he's taken other evangelicals to task for trying to broaden their agenda to include issues such as the environment. He says that evangelicals need to be tightly focused on combatting abortion and same-sex marriage: Broadening the agenda, Dobson and other evangelicals have said, just dilutes the message and gets evangelicals off-point.

The war is, apparently, an exception. Why? Well, Focus on the Family is all about -- well, families -- and Dobson believes that militant Islam poses a huge risk to America and, consequently, to the American family.

While conservative Christians have been supportive of the war, there are indications that Dobson's push for continued support may run into problems. The National Association of Evangelicals recently issued a statement condemning torture, saying the U.S. treatment of suspected terrorists has gone beyond the "boundaries of what is legally and morally permissible."

Dobson hasn't spoken specifically on torture, to my knowledge, but I think back Dobson's recent radio broadcast, where Gingrich insisted that a new set of rules will have to be drawn up to deal with terrorism: Could those new rules include torture?

Conservative evangelicals, according to one national writer, may be wavering in their support of the war itself.

"No polling data conclusively demonstrate that opinion among the broad national base of conservative evangelicals has shifted," writes Julie Sullivan for the Newhouse News service. "But some prominent national evangelical leaders say that debate about —and, in some cases, outright opposition to — the war is breaking out among Christian conservatives whose support was key to President Bush’s election victories. For those evangelicals, they say, frustration with Republicans’ failure to overturn abortionrights has fueled their skepticism. Others decry the war’s human toll and financial cost, and they’re concerned about any use of torture."

Sullivan's story appeared to be fairly anecdotal (I'd link to it, but it doesn't look like papers have had time to pick the story up off the wire yet), and I'd wager evangelicals still support the war in greater numbers than the population as a whole. But it will be interesting to watch.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Madness has Begun

Hey, I'm as excited about the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament as anybody. I love March Madness.

But it doesn't do much to scratch my geeky-religious itch this year.

Sure, there are plenty of Catholic colleges in the field of 64. Lots of schools have Protestant connections, too. And the evangelical Oral Roberts University is back.

But there aren't many teams with cool, religious-sounding nicknames. Yes, the Duke Blue Devils are in there -- a team that could meet the Holy Cross Crusaders in the Elite Eight (assuming you-know-where freezes over). And there is an intriguing first-round matchup between the Louisville Cardinals and the Stanford Cardinal -- but I don't think either school was thinking about the red-clad Catholic leaders when they picked those nicknames.

Me, I'd like to see a religious nickname tourney. The Preachers of Johnson Bible College could take on the Quakers of the University of Pennsylvania. and the Battlin' Bishops of Ohio Wesleyan could tangle with the Deacons of Bloomfield College. There could be a whole neo-pagan-nickname division, where the Norse of North Kentucky U. would vie against the Celts of the University of St. Thomas. There'd be an Ancient Jewish division, too, where the Prophets of Oklahoma Baptist College and Institute could battle the Maccabees of Yeshiva University.

The game I'd like to see, though, would pit the Blue Angels of Mount Mary College against DePauw University's Blue Demons. It'd look like blue Armageddon.

And the winner, just for kicks, could take on Presbyterian College's Blue Hose.

Monday, March 12, 2007


The folks from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., are coming to visit -- but don't feel bad if you can't offer them a place to stay.

Westboro, led by Fred Phelps, is not so much a church as a tight-knit family cult, known for its intense rhetoric against gays and lesbians. Westboro members likely spend more time picketing other churches than they spend praying in their own, and the squad earned a measure of national notoriety when many states (including Colorado) enacted laws specifically designed to keep Phelps et al some distance away from military funerals. Folks at Westboro believe that the war in Iraq is God's divine retribution for what they consider the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

Colorado Springs is a favorite stopover for Westboro members -- perhaps because folks like me sometimes write about them when they come. They've picketed churches, funerals, Palmer High School and even Focus on the Family. This time around, they'll be picketing the city's five largest churches -- New Life Church, Woodmen Valley Chapel, First Presbyterian Church, Rocky Mountain Calvary and Mountain Springs Church. Westboro says these churches have "created the evil Zeitgeist in which sodomy and adultery (including divorce and remarriage) have brought the wrath of God upon America."

Here's the link to Westboro, for those who are curious about what else they have to say. Be warned, though: The site will likely be offensive to most.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Newt and the Doc

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and longtime conservative firebrand, will be James Dobson's guest today and Friday on his daily Focus on the Family radio program. On today's program, Gingrich promoted his book, "Rediscovering God in America" by calling for the abolition of the controversial Ninth Circuit court.

"The Ninth Circuit is so consistently wrong, it is so consistently radical, it is such a violation of the spirit of American history, that we'd be better off if we simply abolished it," he said. Gingrich will be back tomorrow to discuss radical Islam -- and I think it's safe to say he won't be asking Dobson's listeners to sing "Peace Train."

Gingrich was the latest in a long string of political and cultural heavyweights who have appeared on Focus on the Family's flagship program -- another sign that Dobson still wields a great deal of clout. Many pundits believe Dobson's the unquestioned leader of traditional evangelicalism. I blogged a couple of days ago on Dan Gilgoff's new book "Jesus Machine," which makes precisely that point.

But others believe Dobson's "Jesus Machine" may be running out of gas.

Case in point: This article from The Economist, a well-respected and fairly conservative news magazine, which suggests that Dobson may be falling out of step with his diverse and changing evangelical base.

"The 70-year-old Mr. Dobson (who has already suffered a heart attack and a stroke) is increasingly looking like a relic of an ancient regime rather than a harbinger of a new order," the Economist article reads.

Dobson's still a power. Republican presidential candidates will surely make pilgrimages to Colorado Springs to talk with the longtime kingmaker. But Focus' constituency is aging, and Dobson's main mode of communication is through a half-hour radio program - a forum nearly as antiquated as, um, newspapers. A cadre of up-and-coming evangelicals now question whether the evangelical movement's preoccupation with abortion and same-sex marriage is really the way to go.

Stay tuned. This will be one of the most interesting religion stories to follow through the 2008 election.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ninja Nuns

Many grown adults who went to Catholic schools still have lingering fear of nuns. Here's perhaps a reason why.

Seriously, why are nuns so funny? This clip would not be nearly as entertaining if it featured, say, Lutheran pastors.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

No Graceful Exit

We Colorado Springsians love our semi-faith-themed movies.

"Amazing Grace," the story of William Wilberforce's 18th-century battle against the British slave trade, was the fifth most-seen movie this past week around here, while it fell plumb out of the Top 10 nationally. It's taken in about $45,000 locally during the past two weeks, though it's been showing in only two theaters.

That's not nearly enough to pay even the catering costs for the film, but its strong local showing may illustrate the city's quirky Christian personality.

While Colorado Springs is actually fairly secular, many local churches talked up "Grace" weeks before its release, encouraging its congregants to go and send another bottom-line message to Hollywood. The film itself isn't overtly Christian, but its message and themes hit to the heart of many Christian sensibilities. It is, in fact, a bit of a Christian crossover flick -- something conservative and liberal Christians can enjoy for both its underlying faith content and its overt social justice themes.

Films that have catered to Colorado Springs churchgoers have done well here. The "Narnia" film had a multi-week run at the top of the charts, performing far better here than it did nationally (though it did pretty well across the country). But it's about quality, too -- and maybe about subtlety. The city's seen its share of low-budget, overtly Christian-themed films make their debuts, and most didn't make a dent in the Top 10.

Monday, March 05, 2007

God's Layoffs

Layoffs are tough no matter how you slice it. When they occur in a place of faith, I'd imagine they're particularly difficult.

New Life Church just released 44 of its employees -- victims, officials say, of overstaffing and a dip in revenue. The layoffs, surely, weren't a surprise. New Life has been through a rocky time, beset with scandal and turmoil. All the upheaval was bound to affect the bottom line. And with millions of dollars wrapped up in paying the church's 250 employees, something had to give.

Those affected, though, not only must deal with the pain of being let go and the uncertainty as to where they'll get their next steady paycheck, these folks may deal with added psychological trauma. For many who work at church or one of Colorado Springs' religious organizations, their jobs are more than jobs -- they're callings. Many feel they've been pegged by God to do this sort of work. When that work is unexpectedly taken away, where do they go? What do they do? Does it mess with their image of God? Can they feel equally "called" to work for, say, Hewlett-Packard?

Sounds like an interesting story.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Evangelical Cooling

James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, and a cadre of like-minded evangelicals are calling on the National Association of Evangelicals to reign in its outspoken vice president, Richard Cizik, on the issue of global warming. A clue: Cizik thinks it's a big problem. Focus ... not so much.

"If he cannot be trusted to articulate the view of American evangelicals on environmental issues," reads a letter signed by Dobson and 24 other evangelical leaders, "then we respectfully suggest that he be encouraged to resign his position with the NAE."

It's another sign that evangelicals are far from being the monolithic political power-broker some think they are. There are significant differences among evangelical ranks, and even the occasional squabble.

The NAE is a loose confederation of evangelical churches and denominations said to represent more than 30 million Christians. Once headed by the Rev. Ted Haggard, founding and now fallen pastor of Colorado Springs' New Life Church, the NAE has encouraged evangelicals to widen their public interests beyond traditional evangelical issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Cizik, the NAE's vice president of governmental relations, has been one of the organization's leading voices, often speaking out on environmental issues.

Dobson et al believe Cizik isn't necessarily representative of the NAE. More to the point, they believe fretting over global warming draws evangelical attention away from the issues Focus says REALLY matter -- again, those core issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.

The signees (who also include Focus' President Jim Daly) also took exception to Cizik apparently separating evangelicals into "the future" and the "old guard" -- with groups including Focus falling squarely in the latter.

"To paraphrase, Cizik apparently believes 'the old guard' which defends traditional values is like a rotting corpse that will not die," the letter reads. "Are these the words of a man who seeks to bring unity and understanding within the NAE?"

These aren't new divisions, but to my knowledge, this is the first time the schism has been addressed quite so directly and -- well, harshly.

It'll be interesting to see how this shakes out, and how it might affect the 2008 election. With Democrats trying to incorporate more overt faith talk into their rhetoric, and with evangelicals growing more concerned with issues such as the environment, the Republican power-lock on the evangelical vote may be fading. It may also suggest a wider struggle as to who -- or what -- will control the evangelical movement in the 21st century. Both Cizik and Dobson would stress evangelicals are a diverse bunch (Dobson's letter says as much), and one NAE official once told me getting evangelical leaders to agree on anything can be like herding cats. But evangelicals have gotten where they are by staying on point. It'll be interesting to see just what that point, or those points, will be in the future.

Sucky T-shirt

It's true: This is a Christian T-shirt.

It comes from, one of the more enjoyable satirical faith sites out there. The full T-shirt reads "You Suck: Which is Why You Need Jesus."

It's rare for a T-shirt to both curse and evangelize in one sentence.

It appears that LarkNews has a mini-industry around this and other irreverent shirts (another favorite: "I Love Cheeses." Get it?). The one pictured to the left here is $15.99, but you can spend as much as $26.99 for a hooded sweatshirt, or as little as $12.99 for a trucker's hat.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Land of Os

Grace Episcopal Church was packed to the rafters tonight to hear British author Os Guinness discuss Christianity, Islam and the Culture Wars.

Guinness' lecture, "Islam and the Challenge of a Civil Public Square," was sponsored by the John Jay Institute, a conservative philosophical organization located in Colorado Springs that is, in some respects, concerned about what it perceives as Christianity's diminishing role in public discourse.

But Guinness -- certainly a philosophical conservative -- told the audience that the Christian right, in its efforts to smudge the line between church and state, may be "part of the problem, not part of the solution."

Guinness said America's forefathers showed particular genius in drafting the First Amendment, of which "freedom of religion" was its primary clause. It unshackled the church from the state and allowed a curious but reasonably civil free marketplace of faith, in which a host of denominations could vie for market share. As a consequence, religion has flourished here even as it diminished in Europe, where people often rebelled against the church because it was seen as corrupt.

But Guinness sees in the current Culture Wars the seeds of religious revolt: That the religious right, in its efforts to make Christianity a de facto American faith, has actually "stoked the very repudiation they fear."

Ironically, Guinness spoke little about Islam, other than the religion's idealism and, he says, insistence on integration into all aspects of a believer's life, which is a particular challenge for a "Civil Public Square." He didn't outline exactly how that public square should look -- only that it would be rooted in civil discourse in the midst of irreconcilable differences, and that if we don't find out how to do it, the American republic will be "doomed."

Audio of the lecture will soon be posted on the John Jay Web site, I am told.

The Jesus Machine

Someone just plunked a book on my desk called "The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War," by Dan Gilgoff of U.S. News and World Report.

The press release says that "the Christian right has achieved more in the last few years than at any time in its history." That, on the surface, may be true, if one believes the Christian Right really got going in the 20th century. Dobson, Gilgoff appears to believe, enjoys the kind of influence that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson can only pine for.

But Dobson's movement has suffered its share of setbacks, as well. Gilgoff points to the battle over the life of Terry Schiavo -- a woman locked in what doctors described as a persistent vegetative state -- as an illustration of evangelical influence. But lest we forget, evangelicals could not prevent doctors from eventually pulling the plug on Schiavo. In November, Arizona became the first U.S. state to fail to pass a so-called "marriage protection amendment." And despite strong support from Dobson and others, conservatives suffered a series of setbacks in the most recent national election.

I'll read the book and let you know what it says.