A Church Without the People

April 26, 1977 - By JIM HARMON ,

WESTCLIFFE - St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Westcliffe stands empty and silent these Sundays. A spotless kitchen at one side of the ground floor seems only to be waiting for the return of the young people who have left their lessons and papers scattered casually across a table in a downstairs classroom. In the church proper, the only movement is of motes dancing in the sunbeams which pierce the stained glass windows. Hymnals and prayer books stand in racks at the backs of pews darkened and polished by generations of worshippers. It would take only a moment to remove the plastic dust cover from the pulpit, and to make the church ready for services.

The congregation, though, is gone. Without any vote of secession or other formal action, they have joined at least 17 other congregations across the country which have separated themselves from the Episcopal Church. In Westcliffe, members say that "months of prayerful deliberation" led to the day on which their priest told them from the pulpit that it was no longer possible for him to function in the official Episcopal 'church, and they decided to follow him. The Rev. Richard C. Willars told the congregation on March 6 that henceforth he would conduct services in the Westcliffe Community Building, and that those who wished could join him there.

Members said last week that "practically all" the church's 50 or so communicants were in sympathy with Father Willars' stand. Services in the community building have been attended by about 30 people-the same attendance as in the old church building. The major issues to Willars and the Westcliffe congregation are the same as have divided Episcopalians across the country for the past several years. Dispute arises over the national church's decisions on the following questions:

Taken all in all, Father Willars says, the changes made by the national church represent "a long downhill run, a headlong rush into secular materialism." The decision to separate was not taken lightly. The ties to the past are strong. Willars himself began his ministry at Westcliffe 24 years ago, and returned to the church four years ago after serving congregations in other places. Many of the congregation date their membership from 30 or even 40 years ago. Some are second- and third-generation members; one woman wistfully recalled to a reporter that "I learned to walk between the pews there." The church-a pleasant, even beautiful little structure on a well-tended lot-has been in continuous use since 1877.

Its 100th birthday would have been celebrated on May 6. Willars recognizes that leaving the building was "terribly hard for some of the congregation." At times like Easter, especially, many of them felt pangs at not being able to attend services in what they still feel is "their church." the congregation was solvent, too, with about $21,000 in its treasury. As Willars says, though, "money and buildings can too easily be the matter of compromise." There was only one way, he says, in which the congregation could have kept using the building-"and that way's name is submission." So the congregation, for matters of conscience, left the building that many of them loved. The money, like the building, belonged to the diocese, and it was dutifully forwarded to Denver. (Members of the congregation recount with some sorrow that their first contact from Denver after the separation "never once asked after the people. The first words from Denver were "What about the money?")

Members of the congregation and Willars speak of a time soon to come when the Episcopal Church "will have relinquished any claim to the apostolic succession." By that time, they say, congregations which believe as they do will have formed a church which will continue the traditions of the Anglican Communion within the world body of Catholic Christendom. A meeting is scheduled in St. Louis for Sept. 14- 16, and observers expect that the priests and laymen who gather there will adopt a constitution for a newly-formed church structure to contain the traditional doctrines. Father Willars has been inhibited, meaning that he is not permitted to function as a priest in the Colorado diocese.

If he does not recant within a specified time, he will be deposed -forbidden to serve as a priest anywhere in the Episcopal Church. Willars is undismayed. "Ordination," he says, "is forever. The church can forbid my acting as a priest, but it cannot keep me from being a priest." During the week, he serves as program director of the Salvation Army's alcoholic rehabilitation center in Denver, and works part- time when St. Mary Church, the first in the nation take a formal action of secession from the national church. On Sundays, he climbs into his own plane to fly to the Wet Mountain Valley. There he conducts services for the Westcliffe congregation. On Sunday nights he holds services for a similar group in Colorado Springs.

In both places, he feels, he is pursuing his priestly mission. "There are thousands who love the Church and do not know where to go. Let us give them a place to go."

His own predicament-inhibition and the threat of deposition-fails to disturb him. Like many members of the Westcliffe congregation, his "heart is quiet over the decision he has made."And long before lam deposed," he says, "a strong and faithful body of Anglicans will have constituted a church in which I can be at home."

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