Grace's paper chase 

'Donation' document from 1929 pledges Grace Church to Denver diocese

click to enlarge Control of the divided Grace Churchs property might be - determined by a 1929 document.
  • Control of the divided Grace Churchs property might be determined by a 1929 document.

Nearly 80 years ago, leaders at Grace Church joined and, in writing, invoked "the name of God."

With a few pen strokes, Grace's rector, wardens and vestry its board signed away their grand, young church, placing it under the "spiritual jurisdiction and authority" of Bishop Irving P. Johnson, then the highest Episcopal authority in Colorado.

The leaders relinquished "all claim to any right of disposing" the building at 601 N. Tejon St. in Colorado Springs without Johnson's consent or that of his successors, according to the "instrument of donation," signed on Nov. 15, 1929.

The one-page form could be a Holy Grail for a diocese eager to return to the building now being used by hundreds of entrenched Episcopal secessionists and their embattled patriarch, the Rev. Don Armstrong.

Martin Nussbaum, an attorney for the diocese, says the form, which surfaced as part of the legal battle for the building, bodes well for hundreds of exiled Episcopal loyalists hoping to return to the gray building described when it opened in 1926 as perhaps the most beautiful church west of the Mississippi River.

Alan Crippen, a spokesman for the secessionists, downplayed the document's significance, saying only that it "looks ceremonial, but not legal."

"It will be up to the court to determine," he says.

Once the largest Episcopal parish in Colorado, Grace Church split in March following a vote by the vestry.

Secessionists also left the 2.4 million-member U.S. Episcopal Church, one of 38 independent provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion linked by the Church of England, and joined a U.S. mission of the communion's intrusive Nigerian province.

That province's archbishop, Peter Akinola, has condemned the ordination of New Hampshire's openly gay bishop and blasted the U.S. church for its "permissive and satanic spirit."

The secession vote came after Armstrong spurned accusations by the diocese in Denver that he stole or defrauded hundreds of thousands of church dollars.

Crippen says theology, not the allegations, led to the division at Grace. Last week, he blamed diocese Bishop Robert O'Neill for fueling the schism.

"The diocese escalated this when the bishop came down and set up a separate congregation," Crippen said.

In a legal complaint, secessionists argue the Grace building belongs to the local church, a non-profit corporation that has, for its "entire history," held title to the property.

The complaint, filed by local attorney Gregory Walta, accuses the diocese of "purposely and publicly" aiming "to cast clouds on the legal title to Grace Church."

Nussbaum argues the property is subject to diocese ownership and control. He is asking an El Paso County District Court judge to dismiss the case.

In court filings, Nussbaum highlights several past court rulings that favor the diocese, including The Bishop and Diocese of Colorado v. Mote. In that case, a Denver church left the Episcopal fold in the 1970s and kept the property, which the diocese opposed.

In 1986, the case snaked its way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled the U.S. Episcopal Church is "hierarchical" and that even if parishes affiliate elsewhere within Anglicanism, the property remains under diocese control.

In June, secessionists posted at graceandststephens.org a message soliciting credit-card donations to "overturn" the Mote decision.

Seeing the posting, Episcopal loyalists, who hold services at the nearby First Christian Church, issued a press release stating secessionists seemed to admit they had "no legal basis for seizing and occupying Episcopal Church property."

"Father Armstrong and the secessionist parish have started a national advertising campaign to raise funds to overturn the key Colorado Supreme Court case, which says they can't take property from the church they've left," Nussbaum says, adding, "That's a giant admission that what they've done is against Colorado law."

The language on the Web site now emphasizes secessionists' fight for a "new legal precedent."

There's also indication that vestry members were aware they could face an uphill legal battle for control of the property.

On Dec. 8 several months before the vestry's vote stunned many parishioners former Grace attorney Derry Beach Adams penned a memorandum warning the vestry that Grace property is "subject to the trust imposed upon it by the national church."

"All real and personal property held by the parish is held in trust for the national church ... and for the diocese in which the parish is located," she wrote.

Walta could not be reached for comment. He is expected in early August to file the required legal paperwork. Oral arguments are scheduled for Oct. 12.

Should the judge side with the diocese, exiles could return.

If the secessionists prevail, Nussbaum says, a trial would take place in February 2008.



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