Thursday, March 29, 2007

DENVER — The Episcopal Diocese of Colorado is accusing the pastor of a conservative Colorado Springs parish of financial misconduct just days after the parish voted to secede over the church’s liberal direction.

The diocese charged the Rev. Don Armstrong, rector of Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the largest Episcopal parish in Colorado, with stealing and misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars over a 10-year period.

The accusations, sent in a letter to parishioners Wednesday, came two days after the parish’s vestry voted to leave the Episcopal Church over issues of sexuality and biblical authority and unite with the Nigerian-led Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

At the same time, Mr. Armstrong, a nationally known spokesman for the conservative cause, took back control of the church after a four-month administrative leave, during which he was under investigation for misapplication of church funds. He has denied charges of financial impropriety, noting that his taxes and the church’s finances are being independently audited. He plans to respond in detail to the charges at an April 14 public meeting.

He and his supporters have accused Bishop Robert O’Neill of trumping up charges as punishment for his refusal to toe the liberal diocese line.

“I maintain my complete innocence of all charges. I fear that Bishop O’Neill’s monomaniacal pursuit of the politics of personal destruction may ultimately result in the financial demise of the Diocese of Colorado and the loss of his episcopacy,” said Mr. Armstrong in a statement.

Diocese spokeswoman Beckett Stokes said the investigation had nothing to do with Mr. Armstrong’s views. The accusations include not paying taxes on a home provided by the diocese, not reporting funeral and wedding stipends, and accepting scholarships for his children from the vestry.

Bishop O’Neill “takes his responsibility to looking into allegations of wrongdoing very seriously, and he would never play politics with any allegation of wrongdoing against any member of the clergy,” she said.

The clash comes as the latest chapter in the gradual dissolution of the Episcopal Church as dozens of traditional parishes have seceded since 2003, when the denomination consecrated a homosexual bishop and some churches began to bless same-sex unions. The Colorado church’s last straw came when the American prelates at last week’s House of Bishops meeting refused to retreat from those positions despite demands from the worldwide Anglican Communion.

“The Episcopal Church is dying,” church spokesman Alan Crippen said. “In 1960, it was the seventh-largest denomination in the country; now it’s the 33rd. And the churches that are leaving are like ours — growing, vibrant, energetic.”

Like other breakaway churches, Grace and St. Stephen’s now faces a dispute over property. Bishop O’Neill sent an eviction notice Tuesday, but Mr. Armstrong and the vestry plan to continue operating in the venerable church building, erected in 1926.

Diocese attorney Martin Nussbaum said in a statement that the diocese would bring civil litigation if the “secessionists” refuse to leave the church building. He cited a Colorado Supreme Court decision in which leaders of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Denver were forced to turn over their church building after they split over the 1976 decision to ordain women.

That church is now a nightclub.

“That’s what happens when the people who take care of the church and maintain it can’t hold onto it,” said vestry leader Jon Wroblewski.

The division also sets up a Palm Sunday standoff between Mr. Armstrong and the diocese. The rector is scheduled to lead all three services Sunday for the first time since December, while Bishop O’Neill has announced plans for an alternative off-site service.

Not all of the church’s 2,000 members plan to secede. About 100 people attended a diocese meeting Wednesday for church members who want to remain with the Episcopal Church.

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