Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

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.


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