The latest withdrawal from The Episcopal Church has left the breakaway Colorado Springs parish divided between congregants assured of their split and others who are confused.
A day after a vote to break away from The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Colorado, Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish held its three weekly worship services on Pentecost Sunday with over 500 parishioners who agreed with the vote. Although the congregation was reduced by about 27 percent, the spirit of the breakaway church was anything but somber.
Parishioners carried the Anglican Communion's Compass Rose flag, replacing the flag of The Episcopal Church, in a procession as the congregation celebrated their continued commitment to the Anglican Communion. After the Rev. Don Armstrong, rector of the church, announced the final votes, the congregation applauded. And after he delivered a message on Pentecost, they clapped again.
Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish is a conservative church and Alan Crippen, spokesman for the church, has never heard applause after a sermon, he said.
The service marked a time to celebrate "the rebirth of Grace Church," said Armstrong.
"We are released from all that has divided us, embittered us, distracted us, and diminished us," he said in his sermon. "And on this day we are empowered by the Holy Spirit for a new life, a new witness, new community, and new worship."
Meanwhile, parishioners who do not agree with the split held their own worship service at the nearby First Christian Church. Some, who are undecided, are attending both.
On Saturday, 370 votes were cast out of the 763 congregants who were eligible to vote by canon (church) law. An overwhelming 93 percent approved the church vestry (governing board)'s earlier decision to secede from The Episcopal Church and join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America - the conservative offshoot group of the Church of Nigeria.
"We are no longer a part of a corrupt and apostate Episcopal Church," Armstrong told parishioners on Sunday.
However, Beckett Stokes, the communications director for the Diocese of Colorado, argues the vote has no legal grounding.
"Because The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church, parishes are not established by the vote of a congregation but only by actions taken by a diocesan convention and ecclesiastical authority. Conversely, no vote taken by a congregation or by its vestry can dissolve a parish or change its affiliation to another religious body," the spokesperson said.
Still, the vote strongly affirmed the vestry decision to secede, the parish says. And the vote was also good news to Bishop Alpha Mohamed of Tanzania who had visited the church earlier. "We have learned with much relief to learn that Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish has followed the Orthodox and scriptural basis," he said.
Since The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003, Armstrong has spoken out against gay clergy and has been featured on news networks like Fox News' "O-Reilly Factor" and radio programs.
His conservative stance has been clear – homosexual practices are contrary to Scripture.
Armstrong, however, is currently being investigated by the Diocese of Colorado for allegedly misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in parish funds – a charge he is confident he will be cleared of.
Meanwhile, both the splinter group and those who remain in the Episcopal diocese say the multi-million dollar church property is theirs. The Diocese of Colorado, which claims some 200 to 400 loyal members from the Colorado Springs parish, argues that the seceding Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish group is illegally occupying the church property and that it rightfully belongs to The Episcopal Church. Armstrong argues the historic building predates the diocese, according to Rocky Mountain News.
As the church property battle is currently in the courts, the divided groups say they will thrive.
But members of the breakaway Colorado Springs parish believe The Episcopal Church is decaying. According to Crippen, there are more Global South Anglicans (who are largely conservative) in Colorado Springs than there are Episcopalians. In the last year, four Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Colorado closed, according to The Gazette. And the existing churches within the diocese are either in decline in membership or in financial trouble, the spokesperson added.
"We're just glad to be out of it," said Crippen.
"So to put the past behind us and the future before us let make certain resolutions: Never again from this pulpit will you hear about The Episcopal Church, Rob O'Neill (bishop of Colorado), or the issue of homosexuality," Armstrong preached.