After two years in exile, parishioners from Grace Church and St. Stephen's who stuck with the Episcopal Church got welcome news Tuesday morning. According to a judge's order, the historic church at 601 N. Tejon St. will be returned to them by April 1, ending a long legal battle over who owns the property.
But the urge to celebrate Tuesday was tempered by fear about what will be left inside the church when it's returned to them. Shortly after noon, David Watts, junior warden for the exiled parish, met with private security guards hired to monitor the property during the delicate transition ahead.
Afterward, he explained the problem.
"All personal property belongs to the Episcopal Church," Watts said, "and it's walking."
At least seven boxes with unknown contents, he explained, had already been loaded up and driven from the property.
Two hours later, security guards were trying to do Watt's bidding when the Rev. Don Armstrong, leader of the breakaway congregation that effectively seized the church property two years ago, called police, complaining that the security guards were trespassing on grounds that were still his for another week.
"We tried to make this as civil as possible," said Lynn Olney, Grace Church's senior warden, later that afternoon. "So far, we're off to a shaky start."
Not surprising, considering the saga has blended a theological dispute with mundane accusations of outright theft.
Armstrong, accused by the Episcopal Church of stealing nearly $400,000 from the parish, led the way as members of Grace's vestry voted in March 2007 to ditch the American Episcopal Church and align instead with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a hard-line branch of the church noted for taking a dim view of homosexuality.
Olney, Watt and other members who remained loyal to the Episcopal Church were effectively locked out. They've worshipped in borrowed space at nearby churches for the past two years.
The legal dispute over ownership finally went to trial in February. After listening to five weeks of testimony and examining thousands of documents, District Court Judge Larry Schwartz took less than two weeks to issue a 28-page decision ordering that Grace's buildings, bank accounts, Web site, robes and other property all be handed back to the Episcopal Church.
Episcopal parishioners gathering outside Grace Church Tuesday noted the balance between keeping tabs on church property and being respectful of those who stayed with Armstrong.
"We don't want to be confrontational in any way," said John Hough, standing on a sidewalk in front of the church. Many said they hope members who left the church two years ago consider returning.
But a woman who identified herself only as Cathy sounded determined as she left a Tuesday morning Bible study at Grace: "I now consider myself a member of Grace CANA."
An appeal is possible, though the Rev. Alan Crippen, a Grace CANA clergy member, does not see it as likely. Without elaborating, he says the group has a "Plan B" to stick together.
Colorado Springs police executed a search warrant at the church in December, and Armstrong still faces possible criminal charges. He and other CANA leaders also could face civil penalties in a liability and damages trial scheduled to begin in August.
Attorney Martin Nussbaum, representing the Episcopal Church, said he's delighted with the judge's ruling.
"The 500 members in exile are coming home."
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