Publication:Colo Spgs Gazette; Date:Jan 29, 2007; Section:Metro; Page Number:13

Frustration simmers at Grace

Petition at church seeks to reinstate suspended rector


    A frustrated and deeply divided congregation met at Grace Episcopal Church and St. Stephen’s Parish on Sunday morning, just weeks after the church’s rector was suspended for allegedly misapplying funds.

    Ostensibly, the meeting was to vote in a handful of new vestry members and to look at the church’s 2007 budget. Underneath were weighty questions of trust: Can the congregants trust their church? Can the church trust its bishop?

    The person at the center of these questions wasn’t allowed to attend.

    The Rev. Donald Armstrong, who has led Grace for the past 19 years, is barred from setting foot on church property during his 90-day suspension. Bishop Robert O’Neill, head of the Episcopal Diocese of
Colorado, temporarily removed Armstrong from the pulpit in late December while the diocese investigates Armstrong — a probe that began in March.

    The diocese has never given the church specific allegations against Armstrong, which has left many congregants frustrated, angry and suspicious.

    “It’s easy to fix this,” said parishioner Jack Gloriod. “You just have to tell us the truth.”

    Many think that Armstrong was suspended more for his politics than financial impropriety.

    Armstrong is a powerful and controversial force within the diocese and its denomination, the U.S. Episcopal Church. He heads perhaps one of its largest churches — 2,400 members, according to officials, though critics say the head count is less — and he’s a member of the Anglican Communion Institute, a conservative think tank within the denomination.

    He’s been a vocal opponent of the Episcopal move to open its clergy to practicing gays and lesbians. Grace Church, like many others, has regularly withheld money from the diocese in protest since 2003, when the Episcopal Church elected an openly gay man as bishop for the Diocese of New Hampshire.

    Armstrong has not advocated breaking with the Episcopal Church, as some other conservative rectors have. Nevertheless, many congregants think that the political friction between O’Neill and Armstrong led to Armstrong’s suspension.

    “When someone attacks us, for reasons that look suspect, we’re a little bit dumbfounded,” Gloriod said. “We want to know what’s going on.”

    As church officials handed out copies of the church budget before Sunday’s meeting, some parishioners distributed printouts of a Washington Times article about Armstrong’s suspension.

    Gloriod, along with other parishioners, has been circulating a petition asking O’Neill to reinstate Armstrong.

    “Without showing probable cause for such an onerous measure you have denied this parish its priest during Christmastide and Epiphany, robbing this parish of its joy during these great feasts,” the petition reads. “You have removed from our community life and fellowship our shepherd of 20 years, our spiritual father-in-God, our counselor and friend.”

    The petition has been signed by nearly 300 congregants.

    Although Gloriod said most parishioners support Armstrong, others question what the rector has been doing with the church’s money.

    “This is not about politics, this is about finances,” Phil Webster told the packed church during the 10 a.m. meeting. “Let’s just open the books and see that everything’s aboveboard.”

    According to sources, Grace Church is carrying about $2.4 million in debt, much the result of recent building projects. Its 2006 revenue was $200,000 less than it originally budgeted for — a shortfall the church partly addressed by whittling the work schedule of its children’s ministry director to 10 hours.

    Church officials say that 2006 shortfall was due to a downturn in pledges. The budget shows that pledges were down nearly $300,000. Many parishioners withheld pledges because they were angry with church leadership, sources say — much like Grace was withholding its own giving to the Colorado Diocese.

    Jon Wroblewski, incoming senior church warden, said that every church expenditure must be signed by two officials, not just the rector. He also said that the church has passed every independent audit it has subjected itself to — though he added the church hasn’t undergone an audit since its 2003 fiscal year. Wroblewski said the church will undergo another independent audit this year, which will cover 2004-06.

    Many members want more transparency from the church and more input into the church’s affairs.

    When it came time to vote in three new vestry members, church critics forced a vote count, rather than a vote by acclamation. About one-fourth of the congregation opposed the vestry’s election — not because of the members, but to protest what opponents saw as church leadership handpicking its successors. By church bylaws, only three applicants were brought forward to fill three vacancies.

    “I think the vestry has a lot of work ahead of it to restore a sense of trust,” said Dr. Rip Hollister, an incoming vestry member.

    CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0367 or