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Diocese Fights To Keep Church

Tue., June 6, 1995

FOR THE RECORD: Saturday, June 10, 1995 CORRECTION: To clarify a Tuesday story, the Rev. Robert Creech and his Antiochan Orthodox congregation, which left the Episcopal Church, have taken no formal position on the issues of sam-sex marriage or the ordination of women.

The throngs of worshipers are gone - locked out.

On Sundays, only 40 or so of the faithful remain, dotting the pews of Spokane’s Holy Trinity Church.

The rest of the flock, some 200 men, women and children, now must gather for services in less spiritually pleasing surroundings - a meeting room at the Ridpath Hotel.

Odd as it sounds, this is the way things will stand if, today, a judge issues a permanent injunction sought by the Episcopal Diocese.

Like two parents in a hostile divorce, the church is fighting a congregation that has broken from the fold, led by its charismatic priest, the Rev. Robert Creech.

Creech and his followers want to practice their new faith - Antiochian Orthodox - in their gabled little century-old church on West Dean.

The converts renounce the Episcopal Church as too liberal, disagreeing with such contemporary changes as the ordination of women and proposals to bless same-sex marriages.

To halt the threatened takeover of the church, nearby properties and trust funds, the diocese sued, arguing that it holds the assets in trust.

Since the April 30 split, the diocese has stepped in to provide fill-in priests and money needed to operate the church and support the remnant congregation. Services still are being held Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, drawing about a fourth of the usual crowd.

Bishop Jeffrey Terry, testifying Monday in Superior Court, vowed to continue that aid “forever.”

Terry said he was surprised by the sudden decision by Creech to switch faiths, although he knew the priest was unhappy with the direction of the Episcopal Church.

The bishop sought a temporary restraining order after learning of plans to have Orthodox converts chrismated - anointed with oil and welcomed into the faith - inside Holy Trinity.

On May 10, hours before the ceremony was to be held, Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor granted the request, effectively evicting the congregation pending a final ruling.

From the witness stand Monday, Terry said he is disappointed that Creech, a former diocese director, did not go through proper channels or attempt to negotiate some sort of compromise.

“We’re not easy and loose about letting (church) property come and go,” Terry said.

To do otherwise, he said, would “simply send the wrong signal. That would say clearly to people that we’ve given up on Holy Trinity Church as an Episcopal church.”

Allowing the takeover to go unchallenged would also be an affront to many families who have loved ones’ ashes buried in the church plots, Terry said.

“That’s consecrated property, one of our historical churches.”

And until now, one of the most successful.

While membership in many Episcopal churches has dwindled in recent years, Holy Trinity’s has doubled under Creech, who became pastor 16 years ago.

The Eastern Washington diocese was recently forced to close St. Timothy’s in Medical Lake because the size of its aging congregation continued to shrink.

Terry said the diocese decided to end the “huge subsidy” needed to keep the tiny church going.

Holy Trinity is currently in a similar situation, but Terry said the circumstances leading up to the crisis are very different. St. Timothy’s decline was debated by church officials for years, while Holy Trinity’s conversion was a sudden blow.

“It never was anything that came to us or anything that anybody was speaking to us about,” Terry maintained.

During a break in Monday’s court hearing, Creech said he is saddened by the legal battle.

The split, he said, became an urgent matter. Members of the congregation were threatening to leave because of their dissatisfaction with church doctrine.

“We didn’t leave the church. The church left us a long time ago,” he said.

Sensing his pain, an elderly woman gave him a squeeze. “Courage, courage,” she whispered.

As if to prove it’s nothing personal, Terry walked up to Creech and gave him a friendly pat on the back. The two men in the black suits and clerical collars exchanged smiles.

Testimony in the hearing concludes this morning. Lawyers on both sides expect O’Connor to rule quickly, perhaps from the bench.

Courts in Washington state have traditionally deferred to the church hierarchy in such disputes. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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