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COLORADO: Two Priests charge two Bishops with Deception and Perjury

COLORADO: Two Priests and a two Bishops duke it out in the press
Charges made of deception, "secret protocols" and perjury

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

COLORADO SPRINGS, July 10, 2004--Two orthodox ECUSA priests have charged two revisionist Colorado bishops with deception, "secret protocols" and perjury, with one bishop taunting the priests saying "present me if you dare" in response.

The Rev. Don Armstrong and the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner have taken on the former Bishop of Colorado Jerry Winterrowd and the present incumbent Bishop Rob O'Neill in the press and a private letter, charging the bishops with covert blessings of same-sex unions and running the diocese with a wholesale disregard of the church's received teaching on sexuality.

The war of words escalated into the media with the Rocky Mountain News screaming in a headline, "Rift over same-sex ceremonies frays Colorado Episcopal diocese. Clergy exchange volleys as church weighs gay rights."

The diocese's leading orthodox 'take no prisoners' rector is the Rev. Don Armstrong of Grace Church and St. Stephen's in Colorado Springs, who traces the diocese's decline into pansexuality back to former Bishop Winterrowd who knew these covert blessings were being done and who paved the way for today's disputes by secretly laying down guidelines for same-sex blessings 10 years ago - but testified otherwise during a 1999 lawsuit brought by a lesbian youth minister.

"Jerry Winterrowd knew such covert blessings were being done," said Armstrong. "That's a bald-faced lie," Winterrowd retorted. "If Mr. Armstrong feels that way, he ought to make a presentment (church complaint) against me," he told Jean Torkelson of the Rocky Mountain News.

Such is the rift between two men who once played tennis and enjoyed dinner together with their wives.

Winterrowd bristles at the notion he did anything wrong, saying what he allowed was gay couples "to improvise and write their own prayers" - clearly the right of any Episcopalian under church law, he says. However, he says, he added a crucial caveat: "Under no circumstances may a priest bless that relationship."

Winterrowd's policy became important to a 1998 lawsuit brought by Boulder youth minister Lee Ann Bryce, who charged she had been wrongfully fired for participating in a same-sex ceremony with her partner at St. Aidan's parish in Boulder. The bishop won the case.

But Armstrong has also blasted the relatively new bishop, O'Neill accusing him of being soft on the issues, unwilling to take a stand for orthodox biblical faith on same-sex unions. In June a number of orthodox priests met to hash things out. At that meeting, O'Neill confirmed what conservatives found startling: that the diocese had "at least 11 same-sex blessings performed," according to a private process Winterrowd set up in 1994.

In a letter to the Colorado clergy in anticipation of the article appearing in the press, O'Neill wrote about the deceptions by himself and his predecessor saying, "Although some clergy now allege that there was a "secret protocol" established by Bishop Winterrowd for "the blessing of same-sex relationships," that is simply not accurate. What can be said accurately is this: That Bishop Winterrowd did establish an agreement with some clergy of the Diocese that made provision for honoring same-gender relationships in the context of the Eucharist at the time of the Prayers of the People; and that the agreement specifically excluded the pronouncement of any blessing and required the expressed permission of the Bishop."

O'Neill, in effect, denied that the process amounted to "secret protocols," though he conceded "some variations" existed in the ceremonies that could be misconstrued as outright same-sex blessings, he told the Rocky Mountain News.

Both Winterrowd and his successor, Rob O'Neill, favor the idea of blessing same-sex unions, but to placate orthodox clergy O'Neill promised in January he would not authorize same-sex blessings until a task force study was finished.

The study ended this week but he declined to give details, but he told Torkelson that the findings "don't call for same-sex blessings right now."

But Colorado scholar and theologian the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner joined the fray, and in a letter blasted O'Neill saying: "I feel deceived. Deeply so. I worked for 5 years as missioner of this diocese, struggled to maintain order within a fracturing common life riven by conflicts over same-sex relationships and their affirmation, and none of this was laid out to me within the formal life of our deliberations. Indeed, it appears that some of my colleagues simply went their own way in the shadows, pretending "dialogue" while moving ahead secretly with agenda that certainly preempted the decision-making of this diocese and church."

The Pueblo-based rector outlined four areas of concern.

"Firstly, we didn't know about such an agreement beyond mutual thanksgivings in the context of the prayers of the people. Yet you told us "it was much more than that". Indeed, I have now been told by one of your chancellors that it was "much more than that". You yourself told us of "guidelines in the files of the bishop's office". These guidelines are not in the files of any priest I know of.

Secondly, we still haven't been told about what exactly this "agreement" was -- since it apparently included "far more" than mutual thanksgivings in the prayers of the people. Did it in fact include the exchange of rings, as took place at Good Shepherd? mutual vows? just what? But we don't know, and though you seem to think it was "all discussed" at clergy conference, we have not now -- nor in the past 7 years -- been told what "more" this is.

Thirdly we still have not been given access to these guidelines -- everything you have said has been vague (despite the fact that you claim it was all discussed at some clergy conference). Your response has been: "wait for the taskforce to explain (maybe)... but meanwhile I'll avoid discipline based on something you don't know about (and I know you don't know it, and I still won't tell you about it until I'm ready to tell you about it").

Fourthly, in your public letter to clergy of the diocese regarding your response to the Good Shepherd exchange-of-vows, you made no mention whatsoever of any agreement from the past upon which these actions might be happily accepted. Why not, if you knew of some common "agreement" that would make sense of all this?

Radner said the guidelines were a "protocol" and accused the bishop of keeping them "secret".

"Until they are published and made available, so that they can be examined and compared to actions of your predecessor, yourself...they will remain "secret". Radner said he felt "deceived" and urged the bishop to "come clean".

Is there any chance, as conservatives hope, that O'Neill will reconsider his gay rights stand, asked Torkelson?

"I don't know how to answer that," O'Neill replies. "I believe, in the life of our church, there is room for those who hold different perspectives to live together with integrity and goodwill."

Winterrowd, too, is solidifying his gay rights beliefs. He's bitter and regretful now about the vote he cast with the Anglican majority at the 1998 worldwide Lambeth Conference, which asserted that homosexuality is contrary to scripture.

Today, Winterrowd calls that vote "a very ugly moment in the long and glorious history of the Anglican church."

What happens now?

"If there's no discipline, the communion (the Episcopal church) will probably fall apart," predicts Armstrong.

One thing he and O'Neill agree on: The crisis may require an outside body to step in and settle the issue.

But who?

Says the bishop: "The issue Don is raising is, what is the authority of the worldwide Anglican Communion over individual provinces (such as the U.S.)? That question hasn't been answered yet."

It has been the hope of orthodox priests like Armstrong and Radner that O'Neill would "repent" of his pro-gay positions, which they believe is a violation of 2,000 years of church teaching. Both men have founded the Anglican Communion Institute, an organization with international ties to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. George Carey. They recently submitted a 50-page document to Lambeth (Eames) Commission arguing that the Episcopal church should be disciplined for its actions in consecrating an openly homoerotic priest to the episcopacy.

In Colorado, orthodox priests claim to have the behind-the-scenes support of about 40 clergy in 30 parishes - about a quarter of the total number. Armstrong is a member of the Standing Committee, a diocesan advisory board, and he projects a $500,000 budget deficit because parishes are withholding funds from O'Neill's control, though the bishop disputes that figure.

This weekend marks a nationwide campaign to urge church members to support the federal marriage amendment, which defines marriage as solely a union between a man and a woman. It's scheduled for a Senate vote next week.

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