The Rev. Don Armstrong likened Colorado Bishop Robert O'Neill to a mosquito and called the Episcopal Church of the United States a sect during an impassioned fight on Saturday for the hearts and minds of parishioners at Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish.
Armstrong addressed allegations by the diocese that he stole or defrauded the church of hundreds of thousands of dollars over a decade. He also urged the approximately 300 parishioners in attendance to leave the U.S. Episcopal Church and to affiliate with an Anglican province in Nigeria led by Archbishop Peter Akinola, an outspoken critic of the U.S. church's decision to ordain New Hampshire's openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson.
Armstrong, 58, said he could not have committed fraud because top vestry officers had approved all financial transactions at issue. And Jon Wroblewski, Grace vestry's senior warden, rebuked claims by 19 former vestry members who stated in a public letter they had never given wardens "blanket authority to negotiate "financial arrangements' for Armstrong."
Armstrong told the Independent that O'Neill was seeking to punish him for his role as executive director of the Anglican Communion Institute, a Grace-based think tank critical of the U.S. church's recognition of gays and lesbians.
"I didn't leave the diocese because he had charges against me," Armstrong said. "I have charges against me because [O'Neill] knew I was going to leave the diocese."
Beckett Stokes, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado, dismisses the Saturday forum and Armstrong's statement as an improper way to respond to the diocese's investigation.
"He hasn't answered our questions," Stokes says.
Armstrong said he was unable to answer every allegation in detail, but added that a counter-audit launched by the secessionist vestry is underway. Regarding the diocese's charge that $392,000 was stolen from a church trust to pay for the education of his children, Armstrong told parishioners Saturday that the funds were approved by vestry leaders via the Anglican Communion Institute.
He also invoked the conservative organization when explaining that the congregation should have expected the vestry's vote to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a Virginia-based mission of the Church of Nigeria.
"This congregation has been well-briefed because, through our think tank, we've been writing documents," Armstrong said.
Meanwhile, three Anglican Communion Institute members, including President Christopher Seitz, distanced themselves from the controversy over the weekend. They said the institute is a loose-knit group, and any financial transactions naming the institute must have been wrongly labeled by Grace church.
'A very serious threat'
Another nonprofit, the John Jay Institute for Faith Society and Law, is headquartered at Grace's 601 N. Tejon St. address. The "nonpartisan" research and education nonprofit has, in recent months, provided lectures speaking of the "problem of evil" in the context of post-9/11 Islamic radicalism and urging new theory to justify the use of force abroad.
Alan R. Crippen, the organization's founder and president, who's also serving as spokesman for Armstrong and the breakaway vestry, says the organization only seeks to stimulate discussion.
"Radical Islam is a very serious threat to liberal democracy," he says. "We just want to be helpful in facilitating that conversation in terms of our local community."
He adds that Grace has not given the John Jay Institute any money.
"They give us free rent here, which is kind of nice, but that's the only connection," Crippen says.
Armstrong, though, is on the John Jay group's board of governors. And though the John Jay Institute has not been publicly involved in the latest controversy, Stokes notes that both it and the Anglican Communion Institute have missions that contrast with those of some other Episcopal churches.
"Many are committed to serving the poor," she says.
Vote on the horizon
On May 20, members of Grace will end a 40-day period of discernment and vote whether to ratify the breakaway vestry's decision. Bob Balink, El Paso County's elected clerk and recorder, will oversee the vote, Armstrong says. Balink is also a member of the breakaway vestry.
David Watts, a parishioner who now worships with Episcopalians in exile at Colorado College's Shove Chapel, worries that discernment materials on 40daysofdiscernment.org are one-sided and will fuel secessionist votes.
"I'm concerned, given the importance of this decision," he said after failing to convince Armstrong to extend the deadline for the vote.
The diocese will not recognize the vote because Episcopal canons bar a congregation or vestry from leaving, Stokes says.
Meanwhile, Armstrong fanned fears that parishioners would lose their church if they remain loyal to the Episcopal fold. Hotel developers, he alleged, have been eyeing the property.
Stokes maintains the diocese would not sell the church.
Armstrong also alleged that Episcopal Church loyalists did not have enough support to pay the roughly $20,000 monthly mortgage payment on a $2.5 million loan. A bank owned by the breakaway vestry's junior warden, Chad Friese, provided the loan.
"If the rest of us leave the church, what is the bank going to do?" Armstrong asked. "I think what will happen is they will not be able to make the payments and the bank will be forced to foreclose."
Friese declined to comment on what he would do if the church remains in Episcopal hands.