Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Monday, April 30, 2007


I've got a tough decision tonight. And, like most of my difficult decisions, this one involves what to watch on the telly.

Do I watch "24," where perpetually stressed-out Jack Bauer must escape from his co-workers, reclaim a nuclear doo-dad from a Chinese ambassador and snap his beloved honey out of some sort of bizarre, post-traumatic ailment?

Or do I flip over to PBS and watch a promising documentary called "The Mormons"?

My kingdom for a TiVo.

The four-hour documentary, which airs at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow on PBS, showcases a misunderstood and, at times, maligned segment of religious Americana. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was born in the United States, and its adherents were regularly pushed westward by a nervous populace until they finally reached Utah. Even today the debate rages over just what, exactly, Mormons are. Are they a branch of Christianity? Their own faith? A cult? The answers you get depends on who you ask.

The knowledge most non-Mormons have about Mormonism goes as follows: 1) they have a really good choir; 2) college-age Mormons dress really nice; and 3) the religion has something to do with holy underwear.

Mormon kids know the Bible better than most traditional Christians (in Colorado Springs, Mormon teens attend daily religion classes before school), and the faith is producing some of the country's most powerful figures. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, is Mormon. Democratic Senator Harry Reid -- the same guy who said the war in Iraq "is lost" -- is Mormon, too. In Colorado, nearly 5 percent of the religious population is Mormon: There are more Mormons than Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians or Presbyterians in the state.

Mormonism is going mainstream. It's cool to see PBS taking a look at the faith in some depth.

I think if Jack Bauer wasn't so busy shooting people, he might hunker down and watch the show, too. He could use the break.

Friday, April 27, 2007

And on the 28th Day ...

Rocky Mountain Calvary will host a "Back to Genesis Conference" this Saturday, but all you Phil Collins fans can just stay home. This event has nothing to do with a reunion of the British pop band and everything to do with slamming evolution.

"Back to Genesis" is a regional conference produced by the Institute for Creation Research, a California-based think-tank and museum. It's got some players in Colorado Springs, too, and David Noebel of Manitou Springs' Summit Ministries will serve as something of a conference emcee. No land of confusion here.

Conference officials aim to prove that creationist theory is science, darnit, and that the earth was the recipient of a divine invisible touch. Most of the speakers sport Ph.D's, and the roster includes a genetic scientist and a
NASA astronaut.

"Do you believe that the book of Genesis is literal true history or not?" asks David Wismer, one of the conference's organizers. "Our position is that it is history, and the conference is all about showing what the evidence is for that."

According to Wismer, the conference aims to give pastors and creationists ammunition to refute claims made by those who believe in evolution. It's also meant to be a primer for those who are curious about creationism, or even outright skeptical.

Wismer claims that evolutionary theory is as much a faith as fundamental Christianity is.

"We both have the same evidence," he said. "One puts that evidence through the filter of the Bible, the other through the filter of evolutionary thinking."

The all-day conference begins at 8 a.m. and costs $20 including lunch. You can register and pay at the door.

Quick clarification

One thing I love about this blog is how its readers keep me on my toes.

One reader asked me to clarify my blog yesterday ("Armstrong Served") about whether the vestry for Grace Church CANA was actually doing its own investigation -- that is, burrowing into the books themselves -- or have an outside firm doing the actual work.

My understanding from the folks at Grace CANA is that they've hired an outside, independent firm to check Grace's books and help prepare what they hope will be a thorough response to the diocese's presentment. I edited the previous blog to make it a bit clearer. Thanks.

By the way, thanks to all who've offered comments, questions, information and tips. I had no idea there were so many experts in episcopal law out there, and I've read and appreciated all the information y'all have offered.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Armstrong Served

The saga of Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish continues to tick along. The Rev. Donald Armstrong was officially "served" by the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado, according to diocesan sources, notifying him that his case would be tried by an Episcopal Court. Armstrong apparently has until May 10 to respond, but we're still a long way from seeing even this chapter through: According to diocsesan sources, a trial date might not be set for another three months.

Whether Armstrong shows up to such a trial is another matter. Armstrong is now a priest in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America -- an organization connected with the province of Nigeria -- and doesn't consider himself to be under the diocese's authority at all anymore.

Alan Crippen, spokesman for Armstrong and Grace CANA, said Armstrong hasn't actually received any notice from the diocese yet. But, if he had been, Crippen added, "it would be about as relevant as the Presbyterian Church serving him.He's not under their jurisdiction." It seems likely that, if Armstrong speaks in any court, it'll be a secular one, not ecclesiastical.

The diocese alleges Armstrong, the longtime rector for Grace, misused hundreds of thousands of dollars of church funds.

But the diocese could also try Armstrong "in abstentia," according to diocesan spokeswoman Beckett Stokes. If so, it's likely most of the critical details -- at least from the diocesan point of view -- would be made public during the trial. Armstrong's point of view, presumably, would go untold -- at least in this official forum.

But Armstrong and Grace Church's vestry members are examining the books with help from an indpendent firm, and will likely issue their own report -- presumably one that attempts to refute diocesan allegations -- sometime next month. One source says they hope to have it completed and released before the May 20 vote, when Grace parishioners will decide whether to ratify the vestry's decision to leave the Episcopal Church.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Strange Brew

The Java Buddha Coffeehouse, a quirky westside establishment that caters to, among many others, Colorado Springs' faithful fringe, recently unveiled a new blend of coffee that's one-half caffeinated, one-half decaf.

They call it the Haggerd Blend (their spelling, not mine), apparently named after the Rev. Ted Haggard who fell from grace last November after a male escort alleged having a three-year sexual relationship with him.

Their advertising slogan is "Haggerd Blend: When You Just Can't Decide!"

I don't know if Haggard is a big coffee drinker, but I do know he loved his heavily caffeinated Mountain Dew.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tough Stuff

I just talked with Rabbi Anat Moskowitz, Colorado College's rabbi, who told me that she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She was, in a way, lucky to discover it when she did. But she tells me that she's still facing long months of treatment and -- though massive strides have been made in the treatment of breast cancer the last several years -- an uncertain future.

She says she's not afraid of death, but she isn't a big fan of pain, and she's a little concerned that she'll be dealing with some pain for a while.

Moskowitz, who led Colorado Springs' largest Jewish congregation (Temple Shalom) for five years before stepping down in 2006, is something of a reporter's dream. She's eloquent, outspoken and funny, and that made her one of the city's most quotable (and quoted) liberal spiritual leaders. I'm hopeful she'll be a strong voice around here for decades to come.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Growing Compassion

The folks over at Compassion International might be getting kinda hungry right now.

Compassion, a worldwide child aid ministry based in Colorado Springs, is preparing for its annual "Compassion Sunday" (April 22) with a corporate-wide day of prayer and fasting. Compassion Sunday is when the organization joins with thousands of churches nationwide to encourage church congregants to become child sponsors -- and it can draw these sponsors by the truckload. Last year, 20,700 people decided to sponsor a Compassion child on Compassion Sunday.

Several local churches are taking part in the effort this Sunday, including: Sunnyside Christian Church; Heritage Evangelical Free Church (Monument); Crossroads Chapel; Living Word Community Church; Firm Roots Fellowship; Pulpit Rock Church; Audubon Heights Baptist Church; Tri-Lakes Chapel (Monument); Mountain View Wesleyan Church; New Life Church; Austin Bluffs Evangelical Free Church; and Filipino American Community Church.

Compassion is Colorado Springs' largest religious organization and has helped feed, clothe and educate more than 1 million children since its inception in 1952.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Congregants at Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish are going through 40 days of discernment, involving prayer, fasting and Bible study. It also incorporates a booklet called, appropriately, "40 Days of Discernment," designed to help Episcopal congregations decide whether or not to leave the national Episcopal Church denomination.

The booklet was produced by The Falls Church and Truro Church, two parishes that apparently discerned to leave, so the book carries some bias. The six-week study seems as much geared toward helping parishioners come to peace with leaving the Episcopal Church as helping them decide whether or not to do so.

But just the fact such a book was written helps illustrate what a painful process this is for many Episcopalians.

It can be hard for many religious Americans to understand what it means to be Episcopal. Evangelical Christians sometimes hop to a different church because they don't like the color of the carpet. Episcopalians, on the other hand, tend to hold strong allegiance to their denomination. Many I've talked with refer to themselves as "cradle Episcopalians," and many can trace their denominational ancestory through their parents, grandparents and beyond. The Rev. Michael O'Donnell, a priest serving at Grace Episcopal Church (now worshipping at Shove Chapel), says his Episcopal roots go back 400 years.

The Episcopal way, which encompasses things both Catholic and Protestant and is united through the Bible and Book of Common Prayer, is a hard thing to shake. Many who are ready to leave the denomination say the Episcopal Church has already done the shaking -- shrugging off orthodox Christianity for a new doctrine. But even for many Episcopalians who don't like the denomination's turn to the left, the idea of severing ties with the denomination is a painful, nearly unthinkable thing.

The booklet dedicates a full week of study to the process of grieving (week five -- around the middle of May for those at Grace), and never makes light of a decision to leave. It says any decision to leave is a serious one, and if the parish connects itself with an overseas province (Grace has, for now, linked itself with an Anglican province in Nigeria), it'll likely involve some cultural change. It admonishes parishioners to never make decisions in anger and be "truly open to God's call."

"While many -- perhaps most -- of us come into this process with an opinion, we cannot merely define discernment as 'waiting until everyone else agrees with me,'" Jim Oakes writes in the booklet. "We can be certain that God has something greater in store for us than we can even imagine -- and we need to make sure that we hear him when he speaks to us!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The Religion News Service just released a list of its top 10 religiously inclined Republican "Kingmakers" today. Three guesses who they mentioned first.

When Focus on the Family founder James Dobson can raise doubts by questioning whether Fred Thompson is a ‘Christian,’ or prays the nation doesn’t get ‘stuck’ with a President John McCain, that really reflects the power religious conservatives have to shape the GOP run for the White House,” said RNS Editor Kevin Eckstrom in a news release. “We wanted to find out who the GOP candidates are talking to, and maybe more importantly, who is returning their calls.”

Dobson was the only Colorado Springs leader on the list, which also included folks like Richard Land, political honcho for Southern Baptists, Rod Parsley, well-known megachurch pastor, and Don Wildmon, chairman for the influential and vaguely mysterious collection of Christian leaders known as the Arlington Group.

Notably absent were the rest of conservative Christianity's "big four" (of which Dobson is one). Bapist pastor Jerry Falwell, media guru Pat Robertson and Prison Fellowship head Chuck Colson didn't make the list.

33 Days and Counting

Today marks day seven of Grace Church's 40-day discernment process, when parishioners are to talk about, study and pray about their future. The climax will be a May 20 vote, when parishioners will decide whether to ratify their vestry's decision to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America -- an organization linked with an Anglican province in Nigeria.

Bishop Martyn Minns, a leader of CANA, will speak to the church tonight. He's a powerful figure and, apparently, an old friend of the Rev. Donald Armstrong, Grace's longtime rector whose been haunted lately by allegations of financial wrongdoing.

It's the second significant meeting during this 40-day discernment process -- the first being the meeting held at Grace April 14. The meeting was the first time Armstrong addressed some of the allegations levied against him by the diocese. Predictably, Armstrong supporters thought he did quite well. His presentation didn't much to dampen criticism from his detractors.

The vibe of the meeting itself was pretty interesting. Most folks applauded Armstrong frequently, at one point giving him a standing ovation -- essentially to convey their support for Armstrong and his $143,000 salary (commensurate, he says, with what other Episcopal rectors of large churches make). But the congregation is deeply divided, and there were some testy exchanges between factions.

When former vestry member John Hermes said he didn’t yet have the information he needed to be convinced of Armstrong’s innocence and told Armstrong it was inappropriate to publicly call out his critics by name — something Armstrong did several times during the presentation — Armstrong reminded Hermes of an altercation Hermes had with a former parishioner.

“Inappropriate!” Someone called from the back of the church.

“Shut up!” another shouted.

Armstrong's financial presentation was interesting, but incomplete. Jon Wroblewski, senior warden for Grace CANA, said Armstrong was eyeing a potential showdown in court and needed to be cautious with what he said.

But it did clear up a few things: He never denied taking money for his children's education, saying the expenditures were approved by Grace's senior wardens and completely within bounds of what's legal and right. He even admitted the scholarships officially became extra pay in 2006.

One of the lingering questions I have, though, is whether the wardens had the right to authorize these expenses, or whether the vestry should've voted on them. Former vestry members tell me they weren't even aware of how much Armstrong made, even though the vestry is technically in charge of most operations of the church.

Canon law states that the vestry (of which the wardens and rector are members) "shall be agents andlegal representatives of the Parish in all matters concerning its corporate property and the relations of the Parish to its Clergy." I haven't yet found anything in canon law that expressly gives wardens the kind of authority they apparently weilded at Grace.

Armstrong, however, says this parish operates as many others do. I'm trying to get information from like-sized parishes around the country to find out whether that's accurate.

Is it typical? Is it not? Feel free to toss in your own two cents. I'd love to clear this up.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Oh, these Tangled Webs

I've gotten some response from Sunday's story about Grace, Armstrong's meeting and the Anglican Communion Institute. Some thought it was pretty good. Others thought I missed the point of the meeting.

In the midst of it all, some folks said that the story was, frankly, downright confusing.

I can understand that. Any storyline that involves taxes and bookkeeping and financial audits isn't going to be adapted as a movie-of-the-week.

And frankly, all that confusion is central to the issues at play here. During the meeting, Grace senior warden Jon Wroblewski said that Armstrong's hired his own accountant to look through the books to find out just what went on, and that accountant won't likely make a report for a month.

The main confusion over the story revolved around the Anglican Communion Institute -- what it is and why it's important. So with that in mind, let's dive into a bit of detail.

The ACI is a theological think-tank -- a loose group of Anglicans and Episcopalian scholars who swing conservative and want to change the liberal-leaning Episcopal Church from within. Members write papers, speak at conferences and run a Web site.

But while it's an international organization, it is legally a ministry of Grace Church, overseen and run by its executive director which, before ACI broke away from Grace, was Armstrong. Because it was a church ministry, Armstrong used it as a convenient bookkeeping tool to, among other things, fund part of his children's education.

What appears to have happened is that ACI, the organization, was somewhat distinct from ACI, the bookkeeping entity. Make sense so far? The ACI itself never funded Armstrong's college funds, but Armstrong used the ACI as a conduit for those funds, which were in fact supplied by the church.


It's important to note that Armstrong says there's nothing wrong with this: The church's wardens approved the scholarship money, and utilizing the ACI as a conduit to pay those funds was simply a bookkeeping tool: The ACI was already used to provide scholarships, so it made sense (Armstrong says) to extend that ability.

Which is where it gets REALLY confusing, because other folks at the ACI say they weren't aware of the ACI providing scholarships of any kind, though ACI President Christopher Seitz said the organization did issue a grant once. Armstrong said the organization provided lots of money to help Episcopal clergy continue their education.

So we've got a difference of opinion over the ACI's duties from two folks -- Seitz and Armstrong -- intimately involved in the organization. Some folks may find that weird, but there it is.

Every week will bring more clarity to this story. Until then, we'll keep trying to make the matters at play as clear as possible. Maybe we can run a nice little flow chart in the next couple of months. Flow charts always make things easier, don't you think?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Tale of 2 churches

From Paul, working remotely:

When the Rev. Don Armstrong of Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish was suspended by the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado in December, a number of readers got pretty ticked at my story. Their main quibble: I had mentioned Armstrong and the Rev. Ted Haggard in the same paragraph.

Armstrong supporters believed I was comparing Haggard's alleged misdeeds -- that the New Life Church pastor had paid for sex with a male consort and bought methamphetamine -- with Armstrong's alleged misapplication of church funds. "How dare you compare our rector with that fornicator," one caller said. Another said I was guilty of character assassination. There's no comparison, they argued. No comparison at all.

You know, they were right.

The Haggard scandal was pretty simple to follow. The allegations were easy to understand and, for Haggard's followers, easy to nail down as moral no-no's. Armstrong's case is complicated. The allegations deal with theft and fraud, but the trail is mired in alleged shady - or shoddy - bookkeeping, a bewildering web of accounts and dry diocesan law -- not a very sexy story to tell or to follow.

It was far easier to determine whether Haggard was guilty or innocent, too -- largely because Haggard himself admitted he went astray. Once he did so, all that was left to do was pass judgment on the pastor -- and leaders overseeing the church did so swiftly and firmly. Armstrong, meanwhile, says he's innocent. He and his supporters believe the allegations are either overblown or outright nonsense, and argue the REAL issue is one of theology, with a liberal denomination pulling out all the stops to squelch a powerful conservative priest. The vestry was so convinced that they actually brought Armstrong back to the pulpit -- against diocesan orders -- and voted to leave the Episcopal Church.

The Haggard scenario played itself out with incredible swiftness. The story dominated the front page for four days, with allegations, confessions and judgment following in quick succession. The crisis at Grace is now well into its fourth month with no end in sight. The church has split in two. Both sides are flinging new charges at one another. The question of custody of the church property will likely go to court, and Armstrong may wind up there, too.

Yes, there are myriad differences between Haggard and Armstrong, between New Life and Grace. In the end, the Grace case may be more disturbing, however it plays out. If the diocese's allegations have serious merit, parishioners must either live in denial or come to grips with some uncomfortable realizations about their rector. If Armstrong's right, then the diocese's own motivations and even morality should be called into serious question. Both rector and diocese, after all, claim to serve God. That's a pretty high authority to answer to.

New Life amputated a limb, and the operation was short, swift and painful. At Grace, plenty of ties have been severed, but something's still festering. And many are still uncertain exactly what it is.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

More Grace Info ...

This Saturday, the Rev. Donald Armstrong, longtime rector of Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish, will try to explain away allegations that he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his church.

One of the main issues he'll likely address is how he allegedly used the Anglican Communion Institute, a conservative theological think-tank operated as a ministry of Grace. Armstrong is still listed on its Web site as its executive director.

Timothy Fuller, a former vestry member of Grace, said he served on the ACI's board for three years. Not once in those three years, Fuller said, did the board formally meet.

In October 2006, according to Fuller, Armstrong told the vestry that the ACI had borrowed about $170,000 from Grace over several years, and the vestry resolved the Institute would pay it back in $10,000 yearly installments, beginning this year.The vestry meeting was the first time Fuller had heard of the $170,000 the ACI allegedly borrowed. He resigned from the Institute’s board two months later.

According to the Rev. Christopher Seitz, president of the ACI and a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the ACI shouldn’t have been very expensive.

“The only cost of running the Institute is our time, which we give away, and a Web site, which involves nominal costs,” Seitz said in an e-mail. “Travel reimbursements were handled by the executive director, or we paid for these costs ourselves. There are no employees, no overhead in a formal sense, no hard-copy publications and no programs to fund.”

The presentment alleges that Armstrong caused the church to pay $146,316 beginning in March 2003 as “outreach expenses” to the Institute — money it never received. According to the presentment, the checks in question were made payable to “Donald Armstrong College Fund” or “College Fund.”

Armstrong says the ACI actually funded several projects, and acknowledged his children’s education was one of them.

“The institute has funded students going to seminary, clergy sabbatical writing projects, awarding study and continuing education grants, and also was the vehicle through which the parish gave my children scholarship assistance while they were in college,” he said. “Funds given for specific purposes to the Institute were always used for the purposes intended.”

Seitz said he’d need to hear more facts before coming to any conclusions about Armstrong's alleged use of church and ACI funds.

“At several points the document (the presentment that details the charges against Armstrong) would appear to mean ‘The Anglican Institute,’ which was an earlier ministry of Grace Church with which I am unfamiliar,” he wrote. “I suspect we will all need to learn in greater detail what the presentment alleges. Reading things off the Internet is a very limited and potentially misleading way to form judgements.”

The presentment states the Anglican Institute was an earlier incarnation of the Anglican Communion Institute.

Breaking Ranks

Tomorrow's edition of The Gazette will contain a letter from 19 ex-vestry members of Grace who, in essence, are publicly questioning their former rector's honesty.

"(The Rev. Donald) Armstrong is exploiting theological divisions within the Episcopal Church to avoid a canonical investigation about his alleged financial wrongdoing," the letter says. "He has defied church and civil law by occupying and taking property from the church he and his allies left. We cannot keep silent."

I talked with one of these former vestry members a few days ago. Timothy Fuller served on the vestry only a year, and resigned in January after learning, he says, that the vestry was secretly talking with Armstrong (which violated Armstrong's suspension) and was plotting to break away from The Episcopal Church.

Fuller said some members of the vestry were talking with Armstrong by January.

Through an e-mail sent to The Gazette April 11, Armstrong admitted he broke the inhibition early, but only to “answer questions relative to the right running of the parish as well as alerting the clergy to pastoral problems.” He said he broke it through one "channel of communication." I'm not quite sure what he means by that, and when I asked for clarification, he didn't get back with me.

A larger issue, at this point, are church finances. Armstrong's accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the church -- money used largely, according to the accusations leveled at Armstrong, to fund his children's college educations. The vestry said it never approved such funds, nor did it authorize the church's senior and junior wardens (leading members of the vestry) to approve the expenditure of such funds.

Fuller says he has no idea what's up with the money, simply because the vestry was kept in the dark. Budget reports contained little detail, he said, adding that most of the vestry wasn’t even aware how much Armstrong was earning.

According to state Episcopal canons, the vestry are a board of directors in a nonprofit corporation (the church itself), and the rector is considered an officer. National canons say that members of the vestry are “agents and legal representatives of the parish,” that handle the church’s property and manages relations between parish members and the clergy.

Fuller believes the vestry should have been consulted with major financial decisions, and the diocesan Standing Committee, which leveled the charges against Armstrong, seemed to agree in its presentment.“All such transactions should have formal approval from the vestry,” Fuller said. “None of that was ever discussed.”

Armstrong says he never kept the vestry in the dark, saying he communicated with it when appropriate.

“The wardens with the rector run the day to day operations of the parish from a budget established by the vestry,” he wrote. “That is how Grace Church has operated since before I ever became its rector.”

Jesus Links

Golf is as "holey" a sport as you're going to find. Just look at The Masters last weekend: One stretch of the course is called "Amen Corner," the final round was held on Easter Sunday and Zach Johnson, the unheralded golfer who won the thing, has Bible verses inscribed on his ball marker.

It was only a matter of time before someone came out with a golfer's Bible.

The wait is over.

The Golfer's Bible, sponsored by an organization called the In His Grip Golf Association (get it?), has inspirational stories from pro golfers, prayers and devotionals that illustrate "the parallel between golf and faith," and, of course, the Scripture itself.

I'd say that makes this a real hole-y Bible, but it wouldn't be that funny.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Odds and ends

In other Grace news, I promised I'd update you on whether the purpose of the discretionary fund has changed at all during Armstrong's 20-year tenure. According to Larry Hitt, chancellor for Colorado's Episcopal Diocese, the purpose of the discretionary fund has been essentially the same since 1814 -- though the actual canon has been renumbered a few times.

Also, check out this link to Armstrong's Easter sermon. In it, Armstrong offers some thoughts on the current upheaval, some personal revelations and, perhaps, a clue why his constituency has remained so loyal throughout this ordeal.

Grace reaches England

It appears the situation at Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish has attracted some attention in England. I just received an e-mail from the British Broadcasting Corporation asking for a bit more information.

England, of course, is the home of the Church of England and holy center for the Anglican Communion, the 77-million member body that encompasses both the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican province of Nigeria, the entity that the Rev. Don Armstrong and the majority of his flock have attached themselves to. The Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, is the Anglican Communion's spiritual figurehead, though he wields very little power.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Clear and Presentment Danger?

The Episcopal Diocese of Colorado recently released its official outline of charges against Grace Church's longtime rector the Rev. Donald Armstrong. I wrote a brief story about the charges -- which are called a presentment -- for Saturday's paper. But The Gazette also posted the full presentment online. I'd encourage those who are following the story to take a look. It's pretty interesting.

It's important to note that Armstrong says he has answers for everything the presentment contains, and will reveal all at a meeting at Grace this Saturday, April 14. The most alarming charges are found at the beginning of the presentment -- accusations of stealing from church funds and taking out illegal loans and such -- but the stuff toward the back is pretty interesting, too.

I was particularly interested in Armstrong's alleged use of the church's discretionary funds. According to Episcopal Canon, these funds are to be used only to help the poor and needy -- not to pay for parking tickets or tip the cable guy. Armstrong admits he used discretionary funds for a variety of things, but in a letter to parishioners in March, he said the diocese's definition of discretionary funds accounts have changed -- that at one time, these funds were indeed spent at the discretion of the rector.

The diocese hasn't gotten back to me to verify if that's true or not. But even if Armstrong didn't illegally spend discretionary funding, it's still interesting to see what he allegedly spent the money on.

According to the presentment, discretionary funds went to pay for repairs for his Jeep ($362.59), parking tickets ($55 for three of them, all paid Sept. 27) and a tip for the cable guy ($200). He spent $1,347.94 at Best Buy for an unknown purchase, and a whopping $18,869.97 to Norwest Bank, which the check labeled as "Proceeds for bank rewrite loan." Some of the checks appear to cover church expenses, and a few don't say what they're for at all.

Again, let me stress that we don't know, at this point, whether this discretionary fund was available for broader use. Nor have we heard Armstrong's full explanation. I'll update you as I get more.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Episcopal Diversity

I went to Grace Episcopal Church this Easter. No, not Grace Church -- the big, beautiful Gothic building at 601 N. Tejon Street. I went to Grace Episcopal Church -- the one worshipping over at Colorado College's Shove Memorial Chapel.

Confused? Well, chances are the folks at both Graces are feeling a bit of that themselves.

This is a confusing story, and sometimes it can be miscast simply as a battle over theology or a dispute over church finances. It is that, but there's more at play here -- and newspapers don't always have the time or space to get into the nuance.

Worshippers at Shove run the theological gamut, according to Father Michael O'Donnell, who's leading the Shove contingent. Sure, some split with that "other" Grace Church over theological differences: Grace Church split from the Episcopal Church last month, ostensibly over the issue of the roles gays and lesbians could play in the church. They worship at Shove because they run counter to what Grace has taught for years -- that homosexuality is a sin. My guess is that some attend because of the controversy -- liberal Christians who want to support loyal Episcopalians in a time of crisis.

But many others, including O'Donnell himself, believe the Episcopal Church is wrong -- that it shouldn't be ordaining openly gay clergy. In fact, O'Donnell was wooed back to the Episcopal Church in part through the writings of the Anglican Communion Institute, a conservative think-tank founded by Grace Rector the Rev. Donald Armstrong. O'Donnell, a former employee of Focus on the Family, has strangely become a local liberal Christian darling. Many might condone breaking from the Episcopal Church one day, but don't want to do it now -- not while their rector is under a cloud of suspicion, and not in the wake of an unexpected vote by the vestry. Episcopalians like to mull things over, and many don't feel they've been given enough time to mull.

Many worshippers simply can't bear to part with their mother church. As a rule, Episcopalians are either born Episcopalian or drawn to the denomination in part because of its glorious history. More U.S. Presidents have been Episcopalian than any other denomination, and the American church traces its roots back to Jamestown, Va., in 1607.

That lineage can be difficult to give up, even in the midst of theological strife.

As this story develops, the narrative sometimes will -- by the necessity for clarity -- filter into two distinct camps. I'd encourage you to remember that, within both camps, there's a huge swath of diversity at play that won't always be spelled out, but it will still be there.

The actual service was interesting, by the way, but not explosive. Bishop Robert O'Neill, head of the Colorado Episcopal Diocese, led services. Though he never spoke to the controversy directly, he did acknowledge the folks at Shove had been through some serious strife, and he declared that celebrating the miracle of Easter was particularly appropriate in times such as these.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Passion of the Pixels?

As it turns out, some people believe virtual worlds need salvation, too.

I just read a fascinating story from USA Today's religion writer, Kathy Lynn Grossman, about faith in the online world Second Life.

Yes, it's true: Second Life -- an entirely made-up online realm populated by about 5.3 million "avatars" -- has found religion. If your own personal avatar takes a walk through Second Life, it'll find churches, mosques and even a few wild-eyed zealots.

"This week," Grossman writes, "Second Life will feature Easter events and Passover celebrations, as well as the usual meditation meet-ups, Muslim prayers and legions of gatherings for spiritual freelancers."

There's even a virtual re-enactment of the life of Jesus, which comes complete with virtual T-shirt souvenirs.

Granted, faith is still on the fringe in Second Life. According to Grossman, only about 1,000 of the site's 451,000 weekly visiting avatars go to church or synagogue. But as Second Life grows, religiosity in it seems to be growing, as well. It'll be interesting to see what develops.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Armstrong takes to the Air

After nearly three months of public silence, the Rev. Don Armstrong is speaking again -- and pulling no punches.

Armstrong spent two hours on KVOR Radio's Joseph Michelli show Tuesday afternoon, giving his own spin on the furor that has torn apart Grace Episcopal Church. The show was fairly free from fireworks: Subbing host Jeff Crank was clearly supportive of Armstrong, as were most of the callers. But Armstrong did answer a handful of critical questions, most notably about his children's church-provided college scholarships (many Episcopal churches do that sort of thing, Armstrong said). And Armstrong did accuse his former boss (Colorado Episcopal Bishop Rob O'Neill) of "felony slander."

Will he sue? Armstrong says no, because "Christians don't do that sort of thing."

As you recall, Armstrong was suspended by the Episcopal Church for having allegedly misapplied church funds. Armstrong's supporters thought the charges were politically motivated -- an attempt to silence a conservative priest who's been critical of the Episcopal Church and its stance on homosexuality.

The battle took a stunning turn last week, when the vestry voted to take Grace out of the Episcopal Church and reinstate Armstrong. One day later, the Episcopal Church for the first time revealed the charges against Armstrong -- that the priest had essentially pocketed or misused hundreds of thousands of dollars of church funds.

Congregants split over the matter, the majority standing staunchly behind their priest. Armstrong told one supporter in Tuesday's show that "I want to clear my name to prove that I did not betray you."

The diocese is mulling whether to file criminal charges against Armstrong, and the matter of church ownership still must be settled. Technically, the diocese owns all the churches in the state, but it's at least possible that a court could give the property to the congregation that's been using it.

Look for many updates on this matter. Really, the battle at Grace is just beginning.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I'm Baaaaack

Wouldn't you know it -- I leave on vacation and all heck breaks loose on my beat.

I'm sure I'll be writing much more on the situation at Grace Episcopal Church (or should we say "churches" now?) and the Rev. Don Armstrong in the days and weeks to come.

News of Grace's split didn't reach Great Britain, which is where I've been the last week or so. Some folks might find that surprising, considering that England is the home of the Church of England, the grand mum of the Episcopal Church and all other Anglican denominations around the world. Collectively, these denominations are called the Anglican Communion, and adherents hover around 77 million.

The Church of England is, frankly, one of the smaller denominations in the Anglican Communion these days. Like the rest of Europe, England is growing increasingly secular, and about 2 million people there are members, according to But the church is still integral to the island's history and culture. It's everywhere. The English crown jewels include golden spoons, which I thought was rather a curious addition to the crown and scepter and such. I asked a guard what the spoons were for, and he said they were anointing spoons: When a king or queen is officially installed, they're anointed with holy oil doled out by one of these spoons. Who knew?

English kings and queens are still considered the head of the church, and most of them are buried at Westminster Abbey, one of the church's holiest spots. The other biggie -- in London, anyway -- is St. Paul's, once the city's highest building. We climbed all the way to the top of the dome, which was cool in a rather tiring way.

But the churches gave off a dual vibe. The architecture of these places was breathtaking, and both Westminster and St. Paul's retained an air of reverence: We tourists weren't allowed to take pictures of the inside, and I surmised later that it was because these churches are still places of worship.

Yet they were also tourist attractions, and tourists aren't always that reverential. The climb to St. Paul's dome involved several flights of stairs, and a few climbers periodically cursed in various languages as they grasped their way up. Even stranger, there's a church-sanctioned cafe in the church's crypt, where you can dine around the last resting places of 18th-century British heroes.

But then again, faith is probably never pure, wherever you search for it.