COLORADO SPRINGS — The suspension of a popular Episcopal priest here has touched off outrage among his parishioners and some national leaders, who say the rector has been targeted for his conservative views.
The Rev. Don Armstrong, longtime head of Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, was placed on administrative leave, or “temporary inhibition,” by the Colorado Episcopal Diocese last month over accusations that he misused church funds.
But some parishioners, citing Mr. Armstrong’s past clashes with Bishop Rob O’Neill over issues such as the church’s 2003 decision to ordain active homosexuals as clergy, say the whole thing smells of political persecution.
“I know Don has a business background — he keeps great books — and I think they’re fishing for something because he represents the more conservative wing of the church,” said Becky Gloriod, a 15-year church member and usher.
Parishioners began circulating a petition Sunday calling for Mr. Armstrong’s reinstatement as head of Grace and St. Stephen’s while accusing Bishop O’Neill of “an unconscionable and cruel act against our parish and its principal priest.”
So far, the petition has garnered nearly 300 signatures, but organizers say Bishop O’Neill has refused to meet with them to receive the document. The state’s largest Episcopal church, Grace and St. Stephen’s holds three Sunday services to accommodate its 2,400 members. Mr. Armstrong has led the church for 20 years.
A diocese spokeswoman declined to comment on the unrest, referring to a Jan. 3 statement stressing the investigation’s confidentiality. The statement also said that Mr. Armstrong would be presumed innocent during the inquiry, which would follow procedures outlined in the church’s canons.
“This is clearly a very difficult time for all who are affected by this investigation,” said Bishop O’Neill in the statement.
The conflict draws yet another diocese into the ongoing battle between conservative congregations and the liberal leaders of the U.S. Episcopal Church over biblical authority, particularly with respect to homosexuality and other sexual issues. Dozens of American churches have split with the U.S. church entirely, operating under the authority of African and Asian archbishops.
Some Colorado Springs parishioners compared their situation to this week’s events in Virginia, where 21 clergy were “inhibited” by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. In that case, the priests belonged to the 15 churches that had announced their decision to leave the diocese.
For all his disagreements with the Colorado diocese, Mr. Armstrong had refused to advocate splitting from the church, said Ed Montgomery, a former vestry member heading up the petition drive.
The Rev. David Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, weighed in on Mr. Armstrong’s behalf, calling him “a strong leader for biblical orthodoxy” and questioning the motives of his accusers.
“It is curious that these claims have arisen at this time, when other revisionist bishops across the nation have exhibited great hostility toward priests and churches within their respective dioceses who have taken similar stands to Father Armstrong’s in support of historic Anglicanism and biblical Christianity,” he said.
Since Mr. Armstrong’s departure, tithing has dropped 40 percent as parishioners await the probe’s outcome. The pastor is forbidden from contacting church members or even setting foot on church grounds.
“It’s a difficult set of circumstances. You have a beloved pastor who now can’t minister or even maintain friendships,” said the Rev. Michael O’Donnell, the church’s associate rector.
Frustrated parishioners have also complained about what they describe as the diocese’s secrecy and refusal to provide details about the probe.
“They (other priests) have been told to stay out of it, and the vestry has been told to stay out of it. So we parishioners don’t know what’s going on,” said Jack Gloriod, a former vestry member. “All kinds of stuff stinks to high heaven.”