The Faithless

Heaven help the Valley Cathedral

Carol Davidson is an Arcadia housewife, a grandmother, a missionary's mom, and until recently, someone who spent every Wednesday night practicing with the church choir.

But she is also, as she puts it, a gutsy broad. And that's where the trouble at Valley Cathedral began.

She didn't go looking to ignite a civil war. Not when she started stirring things up; not even in the end, when she was, literally, excommunicated. Davidson and her husband, Ron, had been members of the Valley Cathedral, the large Christian church in affluent north central Phoenix, for 22 years. Ron was even the secretary of the board of trustees. Gadflies operate outside the power structure; the Davidsons, both in their mid-60s, were part of it.

Stephane Denis
Ron and Carol Davidson's questions about their pastor led to their expulsion from the church.
courtesy of Carol Davidson
Ron and Carol Davidson's questions about their pastor led to their expulsion from the church.

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Valley Cathedral

6225 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85012

Category: Religion and Spirituality

Region: Central Phoenix

But trouble found Carol.

"When people were upset, they'd come to talk to me," she explains. "'Let's go see Mama Carol.'"

And plenty of people at Valley Cathedral, as it turned out, were upset. Upset about the church's pastor, Charles Combs.

There's never been any allegation of, say, serious transgression (think: crystal meth, Jessica Hahn, tax fraud) regarding Combs. And there was certainly no doctrinal dispute between him and his parishioners. At Valley Cathedral, Jesus is the only path to salvation, and the Bible is God's infallible Word. Everybody was on the same page, Combs included.

But staff members whispered that their newly hired pastor was never in the office, that his wife was rude to them, that there had been angry arguments and abrupt dismissals.

At a place as consciously nice as Valley Cathedral, that was something to talk about. And pretty much everybody who wanted to talk seemed to find Carol Davidson, eventually.

So she started asking her question. She'd ask it, casually, at choir practice, in the lobby after church services, in the hallway if someone wanted to talk.

"If you knew the CEO of a corporation, would you expect them to work Monday through Friday?" she'd ask.

Invariably, the answer was "yes." Carol Davidson was no dummy — she was counting on that.

"Well," she'd say. "Are you aware the CEO of Valley Cathedral is rarely on campus, except a few hours on Wednesday and Sunday?"

That was it.

But this is what happened, in rapid succession:

Pastor Combs removed the Davidsons from church leadership and told them, just like that, that he was booting them out of the choir.

When they continued to ask questions, they and five others were told that their membership had been revoked — and that they'd be arrested if they showed up again on church property.

Most of the staff quit.

Dozens of members left. Others tried to fight: The congregation's annual business meeting ended with shouts and sobs as a band of rebels attempted to question Combs' credit card purchases, which included hundreds of dollars for golf and dining.

Worst of all, when the Davidsons' son, a missionary in China, publicly questioned Combs' actions, he says the church abruptly cut off his financial support. After eight years in the mission field, Eric Davidson's association with Valley Cathedral ended without so much as a "thank you" note.

Combs has made it clear that he's not leaving unless forced. (That would take a vote by the trustees, and it's worth noting that the ones who have been outspokenly critical of him have almost all been booted or weren't allowed on the most recent ballot.) But one member claims that he has petitions from almost 100 people calling for his removal — and they aren't giving up, either.

History is full of churches splitting, sometimes with brutal consequences. When the Reformation caused the divide that would forever splinter part of the Catholic Church into a hundred Protestant pieces, the result was reform — but also years of bloodshed.

Few modern congregations, however, have endured battles as brutal as Valley Cathedral's. These days, after all, not too many pastors are into that whole excommunication thing, not if they can avoid it.

And it's hard to think of any church that has suffered such a brutal crackdown over what began as an innocuous dissent: a question or two about office hours from a 64-year-old grandmother.

"This is what started all this," Carol Davidson says, smiling ruefully. "I never kept my mouth shut."


If Hollywood would ever deign to make a film about Valley Cathedral, the casting agents would have to dial up John Lithgow. No other actor could do Charles Combs justice.

And it's not just that Lithgow was so good as the priggish minister in Footloose — or the priggish father in Kinsey. Picture the height, the slightly beakish face, the ring of balding silver hair: That's Lithgow, but it's also Combs.

More than that, Lithgow could handle the oratory. For Charles Combs is a skilled speaker, a very skilled speaker.

(Through the church's lawyer, Anne Tiffen, Combs declined an interview. In a written statement, Tiffen defended Combs' "extraordinary pastoral experiences" and noted that the pastor is not even considering offering his resignation. She also notes some arguments about worship that took place before Combs' arrival at the cathedral: Pastor Combs, she wrote, "accepted this call so that he could unify and shepherd a hurting flock.")

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4 comments
Katharine
Katharine

I have to agree with Dennis that Pastor Combs was right in revoking memberships as we called it. The way the people handled their problems was very immature. Instead of talking to the pastor about it they went behind his back and trash talked everyone who didn�t seem to think the way they thought. One thing i disagree on is the fact that he "evicted" the school from the property. They school was sucking money out of the church and the church was not getting anything in return, not even thank you. Also considering the school was under the corporation of the Valley Cathedral, all of the computers and other resources the school was using belonged to the church board, not the school...so before you make accusations, find out the facts first. If you weren�t part of the issue then what gives you the right to comment the way you did and accuse the church board and pastor of things Diane?

Dennis
Dennis

After reading this very long rant from a discusted former church member/leader about their pastor and his wife I can only come to the conclusion...Combs probably did the right thing in most of the removals. I pastored for 18 years and most of the things said in this article are simply bourish tattletail from one that can not keep their peace. Something that one who is in Christ must learn to do. That's not to say some of the things may need to be addressed. But if an elder is in fault, those that are spiritual go to them. If they do not listen, take another elder with you. In other words, it is to be handled in house. Taking it outside the leadership and copying papers and handing them out was enough to remove them. That's not being expressive, that's being divisive.

Diane
Diane

I thought you'd be interested to know what's happening with the Valley Classical Christian School that was housed in the Valley Cathedral. Not only were they evicted but the church kept all the furniture, computer equipment and supplies that were donated to the school saying that those items fell under the umbrella of the church. Valley Classical Christian School now has had to find another location and will have to furnish the school with all newly "purchase" materials. I'm not sure I understand that kind of Christianity. It's surely not the kind that was modeled by the Son of God.

zrcalos
zrcalos

@Dennis I personally find this and "katharine"'s post to be pretty blatant parroting that is ignoring the main issues at hand. 

If you pastored for eighteen years, I would assume you would know how to spell "disgusted". 

troll. troll. troll.

Also you are saying that people who are "one with christ" need to constantly keep their heads in the sand and obey the pastor without question.

Nice one there.

 
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