Episcopal Church To Sue Breakaway Leader

(AP) COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. The leader of a conservative breakaway Episcopal parish will face financial misconduct allegations in the Colorado Diocese judicial system, officials said Wednesday amid an escalating dispute over homosexuality and other issues.

The diocese also said it may take action in state court to reclaim the parish property if leaders don’t relinquish their claims to it.

Leaders of Grace Church and St. Stephen’s Parish in Colorado Springs, the state’s largest Episcopal parish, voted Monday to leave the denomination and join a Nigerian-linked missionary diocese. They were upset over the liberal theological direction of the national church, including questions about whether gay sexual relationships should be accepted.

They also criticized the “kangaroo court” investigation of their rector, the Rev. Donald Armstrong, over allegations of financial improprieties. The diocese suspended him Jan. 3 and barred him from the parish property because of the investigation.

Diocese officials on Monday handed down the church equivalent of an indictment against Armstrong but declined to give any specifics. Hours earlier, the leaders of Grace and St. Stephen’s had voted to bolt from the denomination, a move which allowed Armstrong to return to his position.

“It certainly calls into question the motive,” diocese spokeswoman Beckett Stokes said of the vote’s timing.

Armstrong did not immediately return a telephone message.

The dispute over who controls the Grace and St. Stephen’s property comes just before the start of solemn Holy Week observations.

Armstrong has said Palm Sunday services this weekend would continue as normal at the parish. The diocese, meanwhile, was working to set up an alternative service at another location for parish members who did not want to be part of the breakaway group.

At issue was whether the property is owned by the parish or if parish members hold it in trust for the diocese.

An Episcopal Church law passed in 1979 states that parish property is held in trust for dioceses. However, if the issue goes to state court, a judge would still have to review deeds and other documents and the history of the relationship between the parish and the diocese to decide who owns what, said Valerie Munson, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who specializes in religion and law.

After a Denver Episcopal church left the denomination to protest the ordination of women in 1976, the state Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that the parish couldn’t take the property. Munson said the court found there was enough evidence to support the diocese’s claim to the property even without the 1979 church law.

“We have that one strong precedent in Colorado but that doesn’t mean that (a victory for the diocese) would be the result,” Munson said of the latest dispute.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion, a fellowship of churches that traces its roots to the Church of England.

Anglicans have been debating for decades how they should interpret Scripture on salvation, truth and sexuality. Those divisions reached the breaking point in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated the church’s first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Grace and St. Stephen’s leaders said they had hoped to remain in the denomination but were upset with last week’s decision by the Episcopal Church not to allow leaders outside the U.S. to oversee dissenting, conservative dioceses.

Their decision to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a missionary diocese of the Church of Nigeria, heightens the tension of the dispute. Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, one of the most vocal Anglican critics of gay relationships, formed the convocation to create a rival to the Episcopal Church in the U.S.

The Episcopal Church says only about 45 of its 7,600 congregations nationwide have left the denomination since 2003, but they include some of the largest and most active.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 29, 2007.
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