Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

:) Haggard admitted his guilt, and is ready to start a 'New Life', but Armstrong hasn't, and is going to need a lot of 'Grace.'

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who would you expect to cave first, one who is haggard or one whose arm is strong?:)

Seriously, one has to wonder if these two pastor friends enabled each other's non-accountable style of leadership, even though their actual ecclesiastical polity was worlds apart.

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are all flawed creatures, despite our hopes and dreams. I think "anonymous" is right to question "non-accountable" lifestyles. Without proper checks and balances, even the best ideals can fall victim to base temptations. Catholic priests, evangelical pastors, secular humanists, and anglican rectors can all fall victim to, and feel the sting of, the accuser of men.

9:32 PM  
Blogger John B. Chilton said...

And those checks and balances must come from the church leadership - the elected vestry, for example. Trust, but verifty. All the more so when the minister is charismatic. Even in the church it's good business practice. May be I should say especially in the church.

Remember Ken Lay (Enron). Remember the treasurer of the national Episcopal church not so long ago.

11:01 PM  
Blogger healtheland said...

Hey, thank you so much for pointing out that sin is sin. It is cultural chauvinism that has NOTHING to do with the Bible that has people thinking that homosexuality is somehow worse than stealing church funds. Haven't these people heard of Ananais and Sapphira in Acts? I am going to put a trackback to this on my weblog if you do not mind.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone in Colorado Springs know what happened this morning at Grace?

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Zen said...

We don't know what will ultimately shake out here. But it is worth noting that when the Haggard scandal broke, Focus on the Family denounced it as a liberal smear campaign too.

7:38 PM  

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