Flock hears confession

Colo. evangelical issues apology

November 06, 2006|By New York Times News Service

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Long before the first tissue boxes were passed down the aisles for mopping tears, and before the first guitar chords were struck to begin the worship, many of the thousands of people who gathered yesterday morning at the New Life Church knew that it would be a service unlike any other in their lives. Some were curious outsiders, drawn by the moment and the frisson of history. Even church leaders weren't fully sure what to expect.

"We're living this in real time," said Rob Brendle, an associate pastor, as he bustled through the giant, 14,000-member church making last-minute preparations for the 9 a.m. service.

The news was less than 24 hours old by then that the church's founder and senior pastor, Ted Haggard, a prominent author and a national figure on the evangelical Christian stage, had been dismissed by the board of overseers for "sexually immoral" conduct.

A male prostitute in Denver said in a radio interview Wednesday that Haggard had been a monthly customer and a buyer of methamphetamine drugs. Haggard issued denials, but by Saturday the brief, explosive standoff was over. The board members had heard enough -- mostly from Haggard himself, they said in yesterday's service -- to justify firing.

What was left yesterday was to begin sorting out the tangled skein of spiritual and political implications, betrayal, anguish, anger and sadness that the episode left behind in the church and across the evangelical world. The speakers, along with Haggard himself, in a letter that was read from the 8,000-seat auditorium's center stage, urged the church's members to find a way forward without recrimination or bitterness.

Haggard said that people should forgive the Denver man who broke the story, Mike Jones, in particular -- though Jones was not referred to by name.

"He is revealing the deception and sensuality that was in my life," Haggard wrote. "Those sins, and others, need to be dealt with harshly. So forgive him, and actually, thank God for him."

Neither Haggard in his letter, nor the board members who spoke in the service, specified what Haggard's transgressions had been beyond the phrase "sexually immoral."

"The accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true, but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry," Haggard wrote. "I am so embarrassed and ashamed. I caused this, and I have no excuse. I am a sinner. I have fallen."

Many church members interviewed after the service praised the board for acting so quickly and decisively. Others said the service had left them with a new understanding of why many of Haggard's sermons had been so powerful -- that all the talk of temptation, sin and guilt were not just idle words.

"He struggled with the same issues he preached about," said Basil Marotta, who said he runs his own Christian ministry in the Colorado Springs area with his wife.

It wasn't until a letter was read from Haggard's wife, Gayle, that the tissue boxes really came into play. Gayle Haggard was deeply involved with the various women's groups and classes at New Life. She wrote that she loved her husband, with whom she has five children, and would stick with him. But what she wrote next got by far the biggest and most wrenching laugh of the morning.

"For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case," she wrote.

One woman who came to a New Life service for the first time yesterday said that she was drawn by what she believed would be a positive discussion in the church, going forward from here, about sexual addiction. The woman, who asked that she only be identified by her first name, Margaret, said that her husband and father were sex addicts who had shattered their families with affairs. She said she hoped that the church's healing from Haggard's plight would make it a place of healing for people like her.

"I'll be back, definitely," she said.

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