Praise God from whom all blessings flow...
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO: Grace Church Loses Property Suit
March 24, 2009
Today the Honorable Larry Schwartz of the El Paso County District Court issued a judgment that determined the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Colorado to be the owners of the 17-million dollar historic landmark property located at 631 N. Tejon Street in downtown Colorado Springs.
Ownership claims of the majestic gothic-style church had been in dispute since its congregation decided to leave the Episcopal Church in March of 2007 and affiliate with the theologically conservative Virginia-based Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).
In a 28 page ruling, Judge Schwartz wrote, "The Diocese over most of its 135 year existence demonstrates a unity of purpose on the part of the parish and general church.... [T]he trust created through past generations of members of Grace Church and St. Stephen's prohibits the departing parish members from taking the property with them."This ruling resolves the complicated issues surrounding the case. In a 5-week long trial that concluded in mid-March attorneys for the Episcopal Church and its Diocese of Colorado argued that the local parish is a subsidiary organization of the Diocese and holds its property in trust for the national denomination.
Therefore, the attorneys argued, when a congregation decides to leave the denomination its real and personal property remains with the Episcopal Church and Diocese.Grace Church & St. Stephen's counter-argued that under Colorado neutral principles of law, most trusts are created by the owner who has title to the property that is placed in trust. In the local congregation's case Grace Church was incorporated as a separate non-profit corporation under Colorado law and not as a subsidiary organization of the Episcopal Church and Diocese.
No property trust was ever explicitly created in clear and unambiguous terms.Even so, the Court found that there was sufficient evidence to determine the existence of an implied trust arrangement with the Diocese and Episcopal denomination. Thousands of pages of exhibits and five weeks of trial argument including expert testimony by property and trust lawyers, church historians and canonists made for a very complicated and difficult case to decide.
"For two years we have been praying for justice in this case, and the Court has now ruled. Judge Schwartz is a fair and honorable man and we appreciate his own sacrifice and considered effort in hearing our case. Our congregation will take some time to review his ruling with our attorneys before we make a formal response. There is much yet to be settled even with this significant ruling now issued," said Father Donald Armstrong, rector of Grace Church & St. Stephen's."
As to the future of our congregation, it's the people and not the building that is at the heart of our life in Christ," Armstrong said. "This decision is one major step out of the ambiguity in which we have lived these past two years and will allow us to more readily refocus on gospel work and service. At the very least this is an occasion for renewal and recommitment to the essential things of gospel work. Our Plan B is well-developed, exciting, and will be announced shortly."
In April of 2007 Grace Church & St. Stephen's filed a complaint in El Paso County District Court to determine ownership of the N. Tejon Street campus. The congregation took legal action after the Diocese attempted to freeze bank accounts and trust funds of the parish. Previous to these measures Colorado Bishop Robert O'Neill and the Diocese had made efforts to remove the vestry (the parish's governing board), dismiss the Rev. Donald Armstrong as rector, and take possession of the church's real property.
Subsequent actions by the Diocese against Grace Church & St. Stephen's have been to initiate civil lawsuits against 18 separate parishioners, most of whom are volunteers. That lawsuit is still pending and expected to go to trial in August.
Grace Church & St. Stephen's legal effort to hold on to its historic house of worship is a national high-profile property dispute and one of at least 55 other cases involving former Episcopal congregations. In related disputes with the Episcopal Church 12 theologically conservative bishops and 104 priests have been defrocked by the denomination.
Last December a court decision in Virginia ruled in favor of a dozen formerly Episcopal congregations to keep their properties. Alternatively, in January the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church in property disputes involving three separating congregations. Other major property battles with the Episcopal Church are ongoing and include disputes involving entire dioceses that have left the Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Forth Worth, Texas, the San Joaquin Valley, California, and Quincy, Illinois.
Although manifested as property disputes in civil courts across the country, the underlying issue is theological. The Episcopal Church has chosen to walk apart from the historical faith and practice of the Anglican Communion upheld in the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Episcopal Church membership has been declining for decades. Recent estimates suggest that Episcopal Church is losing up to 1,000 members per week.
Hundreds of formerly Episcopal congregations in the United States have since aligned with other international Anglican Provinces in Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and the Southern Cone of South America. Last December in Wheaton, Illinois most of these congregations were represented in the formation of a new Anglican Church of North America. Within a few months it is expected that roughly 700 congregations will be included in the new Anglican Church body, including Grace Church & St. Stephen's and nearly thirty other congregations in Colorado.
The Episcopal Church is one of 38 provincial churches in the 74 million member worldwide Anglican Communion whose historical roots date back to the colonizing days of the British Empire. In the aftermath of the American Revolution the Episcopal Church was organized as a constituent member of the Anglican Communion. More recently, international controversy has surrounded the Episcopal Church as it has been drifting away from traditional Christian beliefs and teaching held by the Communion. Its future relationship to the Anglican Communion is now tenuous at best since 22 of the 38 Anglican Provinces have declared that they are in a broken or impaired relationship with the Episcopal Church for its departure from traditional Christian belief and practice.
Anglican worship has been established in Colorado Springs from the founding of the City in the 1872. City founder, General William Jackson Palmer attended Grace Church's first worship service in 1872 and donated its initial property. Until joining CANA in March of 2007, Grace Church & St. Stephen's was the largest Episcopal parish in the Diocese of Colorado and rivaled the Cathedral of St. John's in Denver in weekly, attendance, membership, and influence."This is a new beginning for Grace Church & St. Stephen's in its partnership with CANA," said the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, missionary bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). "Grace Church has a glorious heritage and an exciting future ahead of it.
Although this decision is disappointing, the congregation and its leadership in Don Armstrong are strong in their commitment to gospel work and the renewal of Anglicanism in Colorado Springs and beyond. I fully expect that its members will quickly recover from the sad loss of their historic place of worship. Knowing the people of Grace Church and their buoyant optimism, I anticipate that the parish's best days are yet ahead."