A number of clergy and laypeople have decided to leave The Episcopal Church and to become members of other Anglican Communion bodies – the Church of Nigeria by way of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), the Province of the Southern Cone, the Diocese of Bolivia, the Anglican Church of the Province of Uganda or AMiA (The Anglican Mission in America) part of the Province of Rwanda and so forth.
One of the consequences of this change of venue is that those who go carry with them their own foibles, histories and agendas and the Episcopal authority of record then receives these folk knowing that there will be some pastoral issues to be faced. And that is as it should be, after all, seeking new pastoral oversight implies that pastoral oversight and counsel, Godly or otherwise, might be needed.
Two instances calling for special pastoral attention have come up recently:
The first is seemingly fairly straightforward:
Charged with sexual impropriety Fr. Samuel Pascoe, formerly rector of Grace Church, Orange Park, Florida and now of AMiA , was removed from the active ministry by AMiA bishop Thomas Johnson in early February, 2007. This exercise of Episcopal pastoral oversight was entirely appropriate and in line with what we would expect from a responsible church agent. Had he been a priest in the Diocese of Florida we would have expected an appropriate response from the Diocese of Florida.
The second presents a more complex case:
Fr. Don Armstrong, formerly rector of Grace Church and St. Stephen's, Colorado Springs, Colorado, has aligned himself with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). The website of the parish now announces that it is part of CANA. This was a decision of the Vestry, not of the parish, and the parish is now involved in the "Forty Days of Discernment" program of CANA prior to a congregational vote to stay in the Episcopal Church or leave. The "Discernment" program is heavily weighted to the sins of The Episcopal Church and the need to seek shelter elsewhere, and during the discernment period they will be visited by Bishops Minns of CANA and Bena, late of Albany, now of CANA. Fr. Armstrong has written a remarkable letter to the Parish, which includes a Vestry paper touting the miseries of life in The Episcopal Church , "A Declaration of Anglican Fidelity," but which says nothing about his having left for CANA or about the charges against him. Instead the letter proceeds as if the congregation (i) has a real choice in the matter of the vestry's preemptive move to CANA, and (ii) the charges against him were of no matter in this process.
Fr. Armstrong has been under inhibition in the Diocese of Colorado and presentment has now been made against him for a wide range of charges involving financial mismanagement and malfeasance. He left for CANA in the midst of these charges being presented and while under discipline. He claims no longer to be under the authority of the Bishop of Colorado. It appears that the Bishop of Colorado contests the fact that Fr. Armstrong has left or that he is not under authority there. In a Living Church article Bishop O'Neill is quoted as saying,
"This action, taken by the vestry in consultation with Father Armstrong (still a priest of The Episcopal Church under inhibition by the bishop), has been taken unilaterally and has no canonical or constitutional grounding or effect. The fact is that people may leave The Episcopal Church but parishes cannot," he said. "Grace and St. Stephen's Church remains a parish of The Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and will continue to be so for any and all who desire to be members of The Episcopal Church."
Bishop O'Neill and the Diocese are proceeding with the Presentment with the understanding that Fr. Armstrong is still a priest of the Diocese. Fr. Armstrong claims not, but rather that he is now of CANA. Bishops Minns and Bena are coming to town to support the forty days of discernment, which certainly bespeaks support.
Now, if Fr. Armstrong is still a priest in The Episcopal Church, and the inhibitions placed on him hold, then in addition to the charges of conduct unbecoming the clergy there is, by virtue of his return to the Parish, the clear violation of the inhibitions placed on him. The grounds for removing him from ministry are made all the greater. If he is still a priest in The Episcopal Church his current actions only compound his problems.
If on the other hand he is a priest in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, the ecclesial problems are now in Bishop Minns' hands. But what have we heard from Bishop Minns regarding Fr. Armstrong? There is a passing reference to what Bishop Minns might think in an article in the Colorado Springs Independent Newsweekly : "The allegations have not dissuaded CANA from embracing Armstrong and Grace parishioners, according to a source close to Mimms. "Bishop Mimms has no reservations at all about Father Armstrong," the source said. "They've had lengthy conversations about all this ... there is no basis whatsoever to these allegations against Father Armstrong." Aside from the misspelling of Minns to Mimms, the note is telling. "Bishop Minns has no reservations at all about Fr. Armstrong." I wonder if Bishop Minns has seen the charges of the presentment?
Well, here is the problem, Bishop Minns. IF Fr. Armstrong is part of your clergy community now you will have to decide. Has Fr. Armstrong in fact acted in ways unbecoming to what you or the Constitution and Canons of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), to which you have committed yourself, believe is appropriate for a clergy person? If he is proven to be an embezzler or thief I should think that would count.
There is serious question as to the timing of Fr. Armstrong's announcement of leaving TEC for CANA, mostly having to do with the feeling that this was an effort to sidestep the charges being brought by the Diocese of Colorado.
But if those charges are valid, they are valid in either church jurisdiction, assuming that financial malfeasance constitutes conduct unbecoming a clergyperson in both The Episcopal Church and the Church of Nigeria. If for some reason Fr. Armstrong believes those charges disappear by going to CANA, then that is saying something rather damning about his understanding of CANA as an ecclesial entity.
Bishop Minns is standing by Fr. Armstrong (as it appears from the visits he is making to the Parish), but he must also stand ready at some point to accept the possibility that the charges against Fr. Armstrong are true. In that case Bishop Minns might have to make an Episcopal decision that may run contrary to his friendship with Fr. Armstrong.
It turns out that changing venue for ministry is not a simple matter of leaving for a better land. It turns out there are rules of behavior in those other lands as well. Episcopal oversight involves accountability, something that Fr. Pascoe has faced and Fr. Armstrong may find himself facing. It will also test the authorities under which they serve.