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Religion | Accusations of financial misconduct put conservative Episcopalian leader under a microscope

Issue: "Don't fence me out," April 21, 2007

Influential conservative clergyman Don Armstrong is under fire for his handling of finances at Grace Church & St. Stephens (academy) in Colorado Springs. The Episcopal Diocese of Colorado just before Easter publicly released charges filed against him following a nearly year-long probe by diocesan lawyers and a forensic auditor who formerly investigated fraud for the IRS. Acting on insider tips, the diocese had seized the church's financial records in March 2006.

Among other things, the diocese accused Armstrong over the past 10 years of: "theft" of more than $392,000 through misappropriated church scholarship funds; failure to report more than $500,000 as non-salary income on his tax returns; making and receiving unauthorized loans; misuse of clergy discretionary funds; and unauthorized mortgaging of church property.

Armstrong, rector (pastor) of the church for 21 years, was scheduled to explain his version of the matters to his congregation on April 14. In recent interviews with reporters and others, he denied any wrongdoing and seemed to suggest imprecise bookkeeping entries and failure of investigators to understand how church finances "work" could be part of the problem. Members of Grace's vestry, or official board, include some of the city's most prominent leaders, and they denied knowledge of any improprieties.

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Armstrong had been feuding with the bishop, Robert O'Neil, over theological liberalism in the Episcopal Church (TEC). Many of the pastor's allies saw sinister motives aimed at silencing Armstrong and discrediting the conservative cause. However, the diocesan standing committee, which signed off on the decision to try Armstrong on the charges in an ecclesiastical court, included close friends of Armstrong.

Armstrong's and Grace's futures are in question. Grace carried more than 2,000 members on its rolls, making it the largest Episcopal church in Colorado. Average worship attendance was less than 800, though, and finances of late were sagging.

On Good Friday, Armstrong-whom O'Neil had suspended for 90 days-and the vestry abruptly announced they had voted to leave the denomination and join the Anglican Church of Nigeria. The congregation would vote for confirmation in May, they said.

The move split the church. After conferring with O'Neil, the music director went off with the choir robes. The church choir, along with two of Grace's clergy and about one-fifth of the regular attenders, celebrated Palm Sunday and Easter services at a nearby college auditorium.

The diocese filed a lawsuit, laying claim to the church property. Officials insisted that Armstrong was still under discipline and would have to face the charges.

One of the casualties is the scholarly think tank Armstrong headed until recently, the Anglican Communion Institute. It is listed as one of Grace's ministries and depended heavily on Armstrong's funding.

The Archbishop of Canterbury tapped ACI scholars, who now have tried to distance themselves from Armstrong, to help write a proposed Anglican Covenant to define boundaries and restore unity to the troubled global Anglican Communion. Many liberal TEC leaders feared such a covenant could force TEC to be excluded from membership in the Anglican body.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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