The Faithless

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.

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When they continued to ask questions, they and five others were told that their membership had been revoked — and that they'd be arrested if they showed up again on church property.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