- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

COLORADO SPRINGS — The Palm Sunday face-off at Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church ended yesterday in a draw, with the conservatives keeping the historic church building for now, but parishioners who wish to stay with the liberal Diocese of Colorado nabbing the choir robes.

Not bad, considering it was the first service since the Rev. Don Armstrong and the vestry announced that the church would secede from the Episcopal Church and join the Nigerian-based Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

More than 600 worshippers attended Mr. Armstrong’s three services at the towering stone sanctuary, which he has refused to relinquish to the Diocese of Colorado. Another 400 opted to worship a few blocks away at Shrove Chapel on the Colorado College campus, where the diocese held a hastily called service for members who want to remain with the Episcopal Church.

Those included the church’s choir director and 40-member choir, who ignited a schism over choir robes last week by removing them from the Grace and St. Stephen’s music room.

The secessionists said the choir director did so at the direction of the diocese, a charge denied by diocese spokeswoman Beckett Stokes. Choir members yesterday said they were entitled to the black-and-white garments because they paid for them themselves.

“I gave them to Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, not to Nigeria,” said singer Bobbi Bradford. “So all I did was take back what was mine.”

Also choosing to stick with the Episcopal Church were the Rev. Michael O’Donnell and Deacon Sally Ziegler, who broke with Mr. Armstrong to lead yesterday’s off-site liturgy. They borrowed clergy robes, Communion wafers and the processional cross from St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.

Mr. O’Donnell said his decision was personal, not political.

“It was part obedience to my bishop, and also to these lovely lambs,” he said, gesturing to the hundreds of worshippers who stood in line to shake his hand or hug him after the service.

“I don’t care about politics; I care about sheep. I didn’t want them to be sheep without a shepherd,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who served with Mr. Armstrong for four years.

On March 26, nine of the church’s 11-member vestry voted to secede from the Episcopal Church, a move made out of frustration with both the church’s veer to the left and the diocese’s decision to place Mr. Armstrong on administrative leave during an investigation into accusations of financial misconduct.

Days later, the diocese charged that Mr. Armstrong had misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars of church money over the course of 10 years. Mr. Armstrong rebutted those charges in a letter to parishioners Friday, and plans to provide more detail, along with his tax forms, at a public meeting April 14.

Mr. Armstrong, who led all yesterday’s services for the first time since he was banished in December, said he felt “blessed” to be back with the congregation, which he called “my home for the last 20 years.”

At the same time, he had some harsh words for Bishop Robert O’Neill, who launched the financial investigation and whom he has clashed with politically for years.

“We have a long history of being on the opposite side of the fence, and maybe my success is an attack on his narcissistic core,” said Mr. Armstrong. “The bishop has some pathological obsession with me, and he’s putting the diocese at financial risk to spend $200,000 on this investigation.”

Parishioners, meanwhile, were giddy at his return, saying it was a relief to see and talk to him after being forbidden to do so since he was forced to leave.

“I think everyone feels a tremendous sense of relief to see Father Don Armstrong and Father [Eric] Zolner up there,” said vestry senior warden Jon Wroblewski. “We made a big decision, and we’ve taken a big step. They’re in a tricky position. It’s a profile in courage.”

Ed and Lucia Montgomery said they had no idea how many people would attend, especially after word reached them about the choir’s decision to side with the Episcopal Church. A makeshift choir of a dozen high school students was thrown together at the last minute.

“We were filled with trepidation coming today. Who will show up? Who won’t? We came early to make sure we had enough ushers, because you never know,” said Mrs. Montgomery. “We were thrilled that so many people were here.”

Karl Weiskopf called it “a day of rejoicing, not only for Palm Sunday but for the return of the rector.”

He praised the decision to break with the Episcopalians. A final vote of the congregation on whether to join the Nigerian-based convocation is scheduled for May.

“We were all pushed to the brink,” Mr. Weiskopf said. “If this church had not left on its own, I would have left on my own as soon as the matter with Father Armstrong was resolved.”

The only vestry member to stay with the Episcopal Church was Bob McJimsey, who received a loud round of applause when he spoke at the loyalist service. Their numbers were bolstered by the presence of Episcopalians like Nancy Ryan, a regular at St. Michael’s who said she came to support the Grace and St. Stephen’s congregation.

She predicted the church would survive the current schism over the leadership’s leftward political tilt, notably the 2003 decisions to offer same-sex blessings and support an openly homosexual bishop.

“We’ve survived Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and all the changes over the ‘70s. We can survive this,” said Mrs. Ryan. “We have liberals and conservatives, but we’re all working together in a loving manner. We’re not supposed to fight with each other.”

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