The controversy at Colorado Springs' Grace Episcopal Church and St. Stephen's Parish is the latest in a tense dispute among Episcopalians and their fellow Anglicans worldwide over how they should interpret what the Bible says about sexuality and other issues.
The vestry of Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish voted Monday to bolt from the national church and instead join a conservative Anglican church based in Nigeria. The move came three months after its pastor was placed on suspension amid an investigation of church finances.
Bishop Robert O'Neill rejected the church's move, dismissing the local leaders and saying the Colorado Springs parish would remain part of the Episcopal Church.
"The fact is people may leave the Episcopal Church but parishes cannot," O'Neill said in a statement.
The church's longtime rector, the Rev. Donald Armstrong III, who was suspended late last year, said O'Neill no longer has jurisdiction over the parish.
"He doesn't have an army. The courts will not interfere in an internal church dispute and the congregation is solidly behind us," Armstrong said.
Beckett Stokes, a spokeswoman for the Colorado diocese, said church law states that all parish property and assets are held in trust for the diocese. She declined to comment on Armstrong's reaction.
The leaders of Grace and St. Stephen's voted to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a missionary diocese of the Church of Nigeria led by Archbishop Peter J. Akinola.
Armstrong has led the 2,500-member congregation for 19 years. The diocese said in a statement Jan. 3 that he had been placed on 90-day leave the previous week, following a nine-month review of the church's finances. It did not release details of the allegations against him.
Parish leaders cited the handling of Armstrong's suspension, along with the denomination's rejection of the "historic faith," as reasons for the vote.
Senior warden Jon Wroblewski said the parish had fought for a return to orthodoxy within the denomination but has lost hope in reform.
"It's clear that The Episcopal Church no longer believes in the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. It's also clear that purported Episcopal values of 'inclusion' do not apply to orthodox believers," Wroblewski said in the statement.
Several Virginia Episcopal churches voted late last year to align with Akinola, including prominent congregations in Fairfax and Falls Church. Clergy in the breakaway churches were warned by Episcopal leaders that they could be removed from the ministry.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. wing of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, a fellowship of churches that traces its roots to the Church of England.
Anglicans have been debating for decades how they should interpret Scripture on salvation, truth and sexuality. Those divisions reached the breaking point in 2003 when Episcopalians consecrated the church's first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
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