:Colo Spgs Gazette; :Apr 13, 2007; :Opinion; :19

Pastor must answer important questions

    Question: What is thy duty toward thy neighbor? Answer: My duty toward my Neighbor is . . . to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: . . . To be true and just in all my dealings: . . . To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil speaking, lying, and slandering: . . . Not to desire other men’s goods; But to learn and labor truly to get my own living.

    — The Book of Common Prayer (1928).

    We are 19 former vestry members from Grace and St. Stephens Episcopal Church. Between us, we served almost every year when Father Don Armstrong was rector. Though we represent a variety of views on the moral issues facing our church, those issues are not in question here.

    At issue is the commandment: Thou shalt not steal. Armstrong is exploiting theological divisions within the Episcopal Church to avoid a canonical investigation about his alleged financial wrongdoing. He has defied church and civil law by occupying and taking property from the church he and his allies left. We cannot keep silent.

    Armstrong dismisses inquiries into his financial activities. He cries “religious persecution.” Consider the facts and ask: Is Armstrong trustworthy? Is he guilty of financial wrongdoing? Do he and his followers have a lawful basis for taking church property?

    Is he trustworthy? Consider three examples: Armstrong claims the secessionist vestry members voted on March 26 to leave the Episcopal Church. They had already published the results of that “vote” on March 25.

    In his March 30 letter, he claims he was “prevented by inhibition from responding to allegations.” The inhibition never prevented his private response to diocesan representatives. Diocesan representatives asked for his explanations or evidence eight times. He refused every time. Based on our experience, we are not surprised that he refuses to speak in settings he cannot control, nor to answer inquiries by informed questioners. Armstrong wrote on March 30, “the bishop’s own audit found no money missing” even though he is accused of “theft of $392,409.93.”

    Is he guilty of financial wrongdoing? The presentment alleges that Armstrong took the nearly $400,000 for his personal expenses and for his son and daughter’s education, rent, cars, cell phones and computers. It alleges that he personally directed incorrect accounting entries for many of these checks. According to the presentment, he himself initialed many incorrect accounting entries. Such entries made it unlikely that those reviewing parish financial statements would identify payments benefiting Armstrong. The presentment alleges these sums and an additional $150,000 were never reported to the IRS. It also alleges that two checks totaling $3,433 received by Armstrong every month since 2001, suddenly began to be treated as taxable salary the month after the diocesan audit began. If so, this new practice is a tacit admission of previous wrongdoing.

    In his March 30 letter, Armstrong admits the parish paid unlawful pay advances and loans and that questions have arisen regarding his use of funds set aside for the poor. Will he admit that he was the recipient? Has he repaid these sums?

    In the same letter, Armstrong argues the “scholarships” for his children represent “a common practice in the church,” saying that staff financial arrangements were “handled by the wardens.” Four persons served as senior or junior warden from 2001 through 2007: Marge Goss, Craig Whitney, Jon Wroblewski and John Newsome. (Newsome resigned shortly after the diocesan attorney showed the vestry documents regarding Armstrong’s alleged misappropriations, and two days before the secession “vote”). We served as vestry members. We never gave the wardens blanket authority to negotiate “financial arrangements” for Armstrong. We know of no provision in the parish governing documents or canon law giving wardens this authority. If such payments were a lawful “common practice,” why not report them to the IRS?

    Is there a lawful basis for taking the church property? Grace Church and St. Stephen’s has been a parish of the Episcopal church for more than 130 years. Those who serve as parish leaders have no authority to raid this parish or place it under a foreign leader. Dissenters can stay and work for reform. They can leave and join another church. But they cannot change church law or take church property as they leave.

    Armstrong attempts to blind the Episcopal faithful to his own wrongdoing by accusing Bishop Robert O’Neill of “fantasy” and “obsession.” We reject this rhetoric. We reject it as strongly as we reaffirm our faith in our lord, Jesus Christ. We reject it as strongly as we reaffirm our affection for Grace and St. Stephen’s.

This letter is signed by Edward Brown, Garry Butcher, Bob Carlile, Timothy Fuller, Larry Gaddis, John Hermes, John E. Hill, Jr., Marianna McJimsey, Robert McJimsey, Elizabeth Lilly, Terry Lilly, Carol Nuss, George “Pat” Patterson, Beth Phillips, Jim Phillips, John Scrivner, Frear Simons, John

    Simons and David Watts.

Grace and St. Stephens Episcopal Church