Breakaway Colo. Parish Loses Property to Episcopal Church

A breakaway Episcopal parish in Colorado Springs lost a court battle over its historic property on Tuesday after a judge ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church.

After a two-year long dispute, District Judge Larry Schwartz of El Paso County ruled that the $17 million gothic-style church belongs to the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and not Grace Church & St. Stephen's.

Father Donald Armstrong, rector of Grace Church & St. Stephen's, respected the judge's decision but said they will review the ruling with their attorneys before making a formal response.

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"There is much yet to be settled even with this significant ruling now issued," Armstrong said in a statement.

It is not likely, however, that the parish will appeal, according to the Rev. Alan R. Crippen, spokesman for the parish.

"It's a sad day, but we look forward to a new life," Crippen said, according to The Associated Press. "We didn't leave The Episcopal Church – The Episcopal Church left us."

Grace Church & St. Stephen's, one of the oldest Anglican churches in Colorado, voted to secede from the Episcopal diocese in May 2007 and join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) – a breakaway group and offshoot of the Church of Nigeria.

Armstrong had cited "theological drift" as a reason for leaving. The parish believes The Episcopal Church is departing from Christian orthodoxy and Anglican tradition.

CANA's missionary bishop, the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, expressed disappointment with Tuesday's ruling but said they will press ahead with their ministry and mission work.

"The Gospel is not spread by church buildings or church property," Minns said Tuesday. "It is the living Christ that works in people, and we are praying for the orthodox Anglicans in Colorado Springs that the work of the Lord will continue.

"We remain steadfast in our effort to defend the historic Christian faith across the country. There is clearly a division within The Episcopal Church which broke its relationship with the worldwide Anglican Communion and fell out of step with much of Christendom by choosing to redefine and reinterpret Scripture."

CANA is among several breakaway groups forming a new Anglican province in North America. The new province is seen as a rival body to The Episcopal Church – the U.S. arm of the Anglican Communion – as well as to the Anglican Church of Canada.

Grace Church & St. Stephen's legal case is one of at least 55 other cases involving breakaway Episcopal congregations. Among the more high-profile property disputes was the court decision last December that ruled in favor of a dozen breakaway parishes in Virginia, and more recently the California Supreme Court ruling against three congregations that left The Episcopal Church.

Membership in The Episcopal Church, meanwhile, continues to decline. Over the past ten years, the denomination has experienced a 10 percent decline in active membership, according to Episcopal Church reports. Slightly more than 167,000 people left The Episcopal Church between 2003 – when the denomination consecrated its first openly gay bishop – and 2007. The number of congregations in that time period declined from 7,220 to 7,055, as reported by the Episcopal News Service. Moreover, in 2007, 43 percent of congregations experienced membership declines of 10 percent or more over the past five years, while 26 percent saw increases by 10 percent or more.

The data does not include membership losses from the departure of four dioceses – the Dioceses of Fort Worth, Quincy, Pittsburgh and San Joaquin.

Also, the recent findings show that theologically conservative Episcopalians have declined in the denomination while those in the "middle" of the theological spectrum and the "somewhat-more-liberal" Episcopalians have grown.

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