Tales from ACNA-Land: Colorado
Today’s first installment of Tales from ACNA-Land takes us to Colorado, home of the Rockies. It is also home to Donald Armstrong whose ego must be nearly as large as the famous mountains. First, a little context. The Diocese of Colorado is a pretty diverse place, both geographically and theologically. There are some fairly progressive congregations, and not a few conservative congregations. The Bishop, Rob O’Neill, is no radical lefty. In fact, he co-sponsored resolution B-033 at General Convention 2006. This resolution was (rightly so, in my view) maligned by nearly all progressives and liberals.
So perhaps Bishop O’Neill is one of a rare breed in the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops: a moderate. I don’t know him well enough to say if he tilts left or right. I do know that he does not permit same-sex blessing services in his diocese, at least not if they resemble weddings in any way or if they contain anything resembling a nuptial blessing.
So suppose you are a conservative rector in this environment. You ought to be pretty happy, right? No one’s forcing you to use Wiccan Eucharistic prayers or to ordain lesbians with their concubines. Donald Armstrong (formerly “the Rev’d”) was not content to worry about his own congregation. Armstrong has been battling with authorities (legal and ecclesiastical) since 2006, at least. Like much of the rest of the secessionist saga, it turns out that it’s not all about doctrine.
Back in the happy days of 2006, Armstrong was the “Executive Director” of the Anglican Communion Institute. At the time, this group could have been described as “six guys with a website”, but since then it was dwindled to “four guys with a website”. In any case, Armstrong used this position and his rector’s position to siphon off hundreds of thousands of dollars for his own personal use, without reporting any of that as income — or so it is alleged. The ACI dropped him like an embarrassing hot potato, but his parish doesn’t seem to have minded. (Guess they were content to give their rector illegal bonuses instead of keeping up their property.)
The Diocese investigated Armstrong, and they determined he had misbehaved by improperly using church funds. (This is all very confusing, so if you want more, you can read it here.) He was inhibited from ministry and ordered to leave his church. Then, several months later, just before the charges against Armstrong were to become public, he persuaded his congregation to vote itself out of the Episcopal Church and into CANA. Apparently, the standards for financial conduct are different there. Eventually, Armstrong was deposed by the Episcopal Church.
Got it? The rector swipes money, and gets caught. The Episcopal Church tosses him out of office, pending a full-fledged investigation and forensic audit. Meanwhile, when all of this is about to hit the light of day, the sacked rector gets his church to claim it is part of CANA. That way, you see, he doesn’t have to deal with any meddlesome church discipline or, apparently, fiduciary responsibility.
Since then, Armstrong has been claiming he’s innocent while attempting to shift blame for all of this away from himself and onto the supposed liberal agenda of his diocese and the Episcopal Church. The police, who are not known for their interest in doctrine, see things O’Neill’s way. In May 2009, Armstrong was indicted for 20 counts of felony theft by a grand jury. Days later, he was arrested for failing to make a court appearance, later claiming that it was due to a calendar mixup. I’m surprised he didn’t try to blame it on Gene Robinson.
Over these last couple of years, the Episcopal Church has been battling with a few of the members from Armstrong’s CANA congregation over control of the building. Like most of the other court cases working their way through the system, this one has been going in favor of the diocese and of the Episcopal Church. For almost everyone, it is clear that church buildings are held in trust for the diocese and for the Episcopal Church. It is only a few people, eager to rewrite history, church law, and civil court precedent, who pretend otherwise.
And let us be clear about the main point here: Armstrong claims this is about doctrine, but it cannot be so. He says inflammatory things such as, “I can no longer be under this ungodly authority”, speaking of his former bishop. The reality is that Bishop O’Neill is a godly bishop who makes space for conservatives and who has not embraced all of the so-called liberal agenda that incites such rage in a few conservatives. The reality is that Donald Armstrong appears to have used doctrine as an excuse in his attempt to evade church and civil discipline.
This is a recurring theme in ACNA-Land. The noise is about doctrine and innovation. Peer a little closer, and you discover that much of this is about power, or getting a purple shirt, or about money. (One priest once said to me, “Once we get out of TEC, we don’t have to pay a diocesan apportionment. Won’t that be nice?”)
Liberals should take no pleasure in the case of Donald Armstrong. It’s sad. It’s sad for Armstrong, that his greed appears to have overtaken his obvious gifts as a pastor. It’s sad that CANA would take in someone who was known to have violated the trust he was given as a priest in the Church of God. It’s sad that the resources of a diocese, of those who occupied the church, and of those who departed were all consumed on a needless squabble over property.
Pray for Mr. Armstrong. Pray for all those touched by this long drama. Pray for swift justice — whatever that may be — when Armstrong’s criminal case comes to trial. Pray that this sad chapter may come to an end and that the work of the church may continue.