Losing faith in amicable resolution to saving Grace

The fate of Grace Episcopal Church will likely only be decided after a long and bitter legal battle.

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.
— Charles Dickens, “Bleak House”
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes…
— Shakespeare, “Hamlet”

The law’s delay. I thought about that venerable phrase the other day as I joined my co-religionists in worship at Shove Chapel on Easter Sunday. I’m not particularly religious, nor do I go to church very often, but when I do, I re-affirm the faith of my ancestors.
For centuries, we have been Episcopalians. And since we settled in Colorado Springs during the 1870s, we have attended Grace Episcopal Church. We have been baptized there, married there and buried there. My parents were the first couple to be married in the magnificent building that stands on North Tejon Street.
But, thanks to a bitter split in the congregation, I no longer enter the building where I was baptized, where I went to Sunday School, where I wept at the funerals of my parents and my grandparents, where my sister was married.
Half the parishioners, led by then-Rector Don Armstrong, left the Episcopal Church and retained control of the building.
We who remained faithful to the Episcopal Church and refused to join the secessionists became a floating congregation, gratefully accepting the hospitality of the First Christian Church downtown, which has graciously allowed us to hold services in their downtown building.
For Easter week, we moved to Shove Chapel on the campus of Colorado College.
Both sides have retained lawyers. The air is thick with court filings of various kinds, but we seem to be no closer to resolution than we were a year ago.
I don’t know what the eventual outcome will be. I hope that we will, at some future date, be able to reclaim the building that my grandparents helped to construct, but that might be a forlorn hope.
The one thing that seems certain is that many years will elapse until the fate of the building, and the congregations that claim it as their own, is settled. Neither group seems inclined to reconcile — indeed, the anger and bitterness has increased, if anything.
Just a month ago, Don Armstrong spoke from the pulpit of Grace Church and asked his congregants to contribute to the secessionist legal fund. In his remarks, Armstrong apparently compared leaders of the Episcopal Church to the Gadarene swine, who drowned themselves after Christ had allowed demons to dwell among them. Armstrong said that, just as Christ had cast aside the demons, he would run today’s demonic swine “over the cliff.”
In response, the traditionalists notified the police, saying that Armstrong was not so subtly threatening them with bodily harm.
This dispute involves about 1,000 people and an extraordinarily valuable and historic property, and is deeply emotional. You would think that the legal system, recognizing the importance of the issue both to the community and to the individuals involved, would move with all deliberate speed toward resolution.
But as we all know, that’s not going to happen. There will be filings and responses, claims and counterclaims, trials and appeals … and, eventually, an outcome.
By then, years will have elapsed. Dickens’ famous lawsuit in “Bleak House,” Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, dragged on for generations, until the vast fortune that was at issue in the suit had been entirely consumed by legal fees.
The outcome here may not be dissimilar, as the national Episcopal Church and the local secessionists spend hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars fighting each other. That’s money that ought to be used to provide for the poor, or to fight AIDS in Africa or for any of the manifold good works that the church, through the generosity of its parishioners, has always supported.
It’s a sad place that we find ourselves in, especially in this most joyous season, when all Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
In his biography, Pope Benedict (born Joseph Ratzinger) tells how Easter was celebrated in the church of his youth.
As a boy, Ratzinger was deeply moved by a then-common ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. At the beginning of Easter services, the windows in his small-town Bavarian church were curtained, and worshippers sat in stygian darkness. But at the point in the Mass when the priest announces “Christ is risen!” every curtain was simultaneously dropped, and the church was flooded with light.
That image is central to the belief of all Christians. Light replaces darkness, and the world is redeemed.
But for both congregations, secessionists and traditionalists alike, the curtains still cover the windows. We’re in limbo, a place no longer defined by faith, but by courts, judges and lawyers. We wait — and we’ll wait for years. I hope for resolution, or, better still, for reconciliation.
I’d like to go back to Grace Church, and see the light filtering through the magnificent stained glass windows — the light that I saw as a boy, that illuminated my parents and grandparents, and that I would like my granddaughter to see as well.
But I won’t. I’m on the wrong side of our very own Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.
So I wait.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.