In Part 1 and Part 2 I talked about my life in the Episcopal Church. It was my Church, and even though it was not perfect (what church is?), I loved it deeply. But sadly, my time in the Episcopal Church was coming to an end. It is hard to know exactly where to start the story. I could start with Bishop Pike in the 1960s or even Bishop Spong and Bishop Righter in the 1980s. But, for the sake of brevity, we will start with Bishop Robinson. In 2003, Gene Robinson was elected as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. The novelty of his election was not the fact that the new bishop was gay. There had no doubt been gay bishops before him. What made him unique at the time is the fact that he was the first openly practicing homosexual to be elected bishop. While this is no big deal in today’s Episcopal Church, in 2003 the official policy of the Episcopal Church was that all clergy had to be married and faithful or single and celibate, and at this time neither the state nor the Episcopal Church had officially recognized same sex marriage.
In July of 2003, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, held that year in Minneapolis, consented to Robinson’s election. Traditionalists in the Church were saddened but not surprised. After all, this move came right out of the progressive’s playbook. Officially, changes to things like the liturgy, canons, and official doctrine needed to be approved by General Convention before those changes could be implemented. However, in the 1970s progressives learned that it was easier to just go ahead and make the changes themselves on the parish or diocesan level and then dare the House of Bishops or General Convention to stop them. When that didn’t happen, they would make a case to the General Convention that the changes were now normative and they had to officially approve them. The consecration of Gene Robinson was just such a move. It was a line in the sand. The liberals in the Church said, “This is where the Church is going,” and the leadership consented.
It is important to say here that the “sexuality issue” was not the reason I left the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t like everything else was great, but then they did this one thing that we didn’t like. Gene Robinson was the tip of the iceberg. He was a symptom of a much deeper sickness in the Church. This was a natural consequence that resulted from the decades long breakdown of authority in the Episcopal Church. Scripture was no longer understood to be the Word of God. Doctrines such as the resurrection, the virgin birth, and the divinity of Christ were rejected from the pulpit with no consequences. The bishops themselves failed to hold each other accountable, and thus theology, liturgy, and doctrine became a free for all. Rather than operating in a theological river with banks clearly defined by the historic creeds of the Church, the Episcopal Church had become a theological swamp, a mile wide but an inch deep.
As all of this was happening, I was starting a new position at Grace Church & St. Stephen’s in Colorado Springs. It was the largest church in the Diocese of Colorado and the 13th largest parish in the national Church. The Rector was a man named Don Armstrong. Like me, Don was a life long, old school Episcopalian. He had dropped out of college to enlist in the Army and served a tour in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. After the war he completed his degree in business administration before heading off to the Virginia Theological Seminary where he received his M.Div. After serving a year in a parish in Arkansas, Don took a position at the Church of St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis where he served under the future Bishop of South Carolina, Ed Salmon. While in St. Louis, Fr. Salmon put Don in charge of an organization called, “The Anglican Institute,” which put on theological conferences for clergy and laity. When Don left St. Louis to become the Rector of Grace & St. Stephen’s in Colorado Springs in 1987, he took The Anglican Institute with him.
Now, I could probably do an entire series on my relationship with Don, but one of the things that I always appreciated about him was that he knew how to get things done. Don wasn’t a talker, he was a doer. When I told Don that I needed larger rooms for my youth group he had a construction crew in there the next week knocking down walls to give me more space. He had this same attitude when it came to the Institute. If he was going to do it, he was going to be all in and do it right. Before long he had the Archbishop of Canterbury on his board and was putting on conferences with speakers like N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Fleming Rutledge, and Ephraim Radner. Don had a reputation for not only being a voice for traditional Anglicanism, but also for being able to organize other voices. A couple of years before the election of Gene Robinson, the Anglican Institute had published a short booklet entitled, “True Union in the Body,” which addressed the impending crisis over sexuality in the Church. This booklet had enormous influence in the worldwide Anglican Communion and thrust Don to the forefront in the fight for Anglican orthodoxy.
The consecration of Gene Robinson precipitated a crisis not just in the US, but in the Anglican Communion. A global committee was put together to address the crisis and possible ways forward, and Don was consulting with bishops and archbishops all over the world. He was even being called to Lambeth Palace on a regular basis to consult with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. It got to a point where Archbishop Willians was quoted as saying, “I’m not sure where the center of the communion lies today, whether it is Canterbury, Nairobi, or Colorado Springs.” The newly branded “Anglican Communion Institute” became the unofficial think tank of conservative Anglicanism throughout the Communion. Unfortunately, this influence served to put a pretty big target on Don’s back.
Nevertheless, we were committed to staying in the Episcopal Church. Don and I had both watched many of our conservative colleagues leave the Episcopal Church in 2000 for the Anglican Mission in America, but we both felt called to stay and fight for the soul of the church we loved so dearly. In 2003 the Diocese of Colorado had elected a new bishop who was clearly in the progressive camp, and Don and the new bishop butted heads on a regular basis, but we were very clear that we weren’t going anywhere. While I worked within the diocese to organize a movement of conservative clergy and laity, Don traveled around the country trying to organize bishops who wanted to defend truth and orthodoxy.
In 2006, the Episcopal Church elected Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop. Rumor has it that there was a letter to her from outgoing Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold that stated that Don Armstrong and the Anglican Communion Institute were a problem and would need to be dealt with. Earlier that year the Diocese had descended upon Grace & St. Stephen’s and seized all of our financial records on the basis of a general complaint made by a disgruntled former employee. This would have to be the Episcopal Church’s opportunity. The Diocese took their time. After taking our books in March of 2006 we didn’t hear anything from them for months. It got to a point where it was a running joke at our Vestry meetings. We would say, “Do we have our financial records back yet?” and everyone would laugh.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Tension was beginning to build in the Diocese. When we showed up for the Diocesan Convention in November of 2006, not only did they not have any of our registration information, they claimed that they had never even heard of our church (we were the largest church in the Diocese). I can remember someone screaming at Don at one point, “Why don’t you just leave already?” After the convention was over, one of our delegates said to me, “All these years we thought you were exaggerating when you told us how bad things were in the Diocese. Now I know you were actually holding back.” There was also building anxiety in the parish. Our deacon began encouraging people to give to her discretionary fund rather than the general operating budget, the choir was in open revolt, even refusing to sing at times, and news of the months long forensic audit was starting to get out.
It all came to a head on December 28, 2007. The Bishop and Chancellor of the Diocese met with Don to inform him that he was being inhibited for financial misconduct. For the next three months he would not be able to serve as a priest, he was forbidden from coming onto church property, and he could not have any contact with church members or staff. Don called me that night, technically defying his inhibition, and told me that everything was going to be fine and that we would get this all cleared up and be back in no time. The next day the Senior Warden and I met with the Bishop and very quickly realized that this was nothing short of an attempted coup. They fully intended to install their own “priest in charge” and take control of the parish. Unfortunately for them they hadn’t counted on a Vestry full of fighter pilots and war veterans. The Senior Warden made it clear to the Bishop that in the absence of a Rector the Vestry is the ecclesiastical authority in the parish and they already had a priest (yours truly) who was more than capable of performing all the necessary liturgical and sacramental duties of the church.
Those three months were incredibly difficult for all of us. Newspaper headlines all over the country announced that this prominent Episcopal priest was being accused of stealing millions of dollars from the church. Don quickly learned that the Bishop and Standing Committee of the Diocese had already made up their minds that he was guilty and had no interest in allowing him to defend himself. I had been working with Don for almost four years at this point, and I knew he wasn’t a thief. Sure, we had money and we spent money, but everything was there and accounted for. Nothing was missing. There were no phantom accounts or ghost employees on the staff. It had to be a witch hunt. I wanted the parish to know I supported my Rector, so I made sure to mentioned him by name in every sermon I preached during those three months.
And yet, despite my support for Don, I was worried for myself and my family. After all, my livelihood was at stake. The Bishop had started coming after me as well, and I knew that regardless of what happened with Don I wasn’t going to be able to remain in the Diocese of Colorado. I didn’t have a “first career” to fall back on, and at this point there really weren’t many viable options for remaining Anglican. So, I started sending letters to bishops in conservative dioceses. Bishop Stanton of Dallas took me under his protective wing and started looking for a parish for me. There were a number of options, but he though the best fit was an assistant rector position at a large church in Frisco, Texas. My family and I flew to Dallas, met with the Bishop, and I interviewed at the church. It all seemed to go well and I thought it would be a good option for me if I chose to remain in the Episcopal Church.
We flew back to Colorado Springs and that next Sunday I preached what would be my final sermon in the Episcopal Church. It was the beginning of Spring Break, and my family and I had plans to drive to Kansas after church to visit friends for a week. That Monday while I was out of town, the Vestry met and voted to leave the Episcopal Church and come under the authority of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. The Nigerian Church had recently established a missionary district in the United States, and Maryn Minns was consecrated as the first missionary bishop for the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). Bishop Minns agreed to allow our church to come under his authority and restore Don to the position of Rector on the condition that we have an independent forensic audit performed to address the charges against him.
When I heard of the Vestry’s decision, I was excited for the parish, but knew that I would have a choice to make. Would I stay in the Episcopal Church, or would I follow the congregation into CANA. It was a gut wrenching decision for me, and I would need to make it by Sunday morning. After talking with Don, we agreed that he and his wife Jessie would come over to our house for dinner on Saturday night and we would give him a decision then. That Saturday afternoon I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I certainly didn’t agree with the direction of the Episcopal Church or the Diocese of Colorado, but if I left, would I be able to support my family? What would my future be? At this point there was no ACNA, so it was like leaping into a dark void with no idea what was out there. I can remember sitting on my bed praying for the Lord to make his will clear to me.
And then, the phone rang. It was the Senior Warden from the church in Frisco. He thanked me for coming to interview for the position there and told me that they thought I was a great priest with a lot to offer, but that I just wan’t the right fit for their parish. It was the first time in my life that I had applied for a job and not gotten it. I should have been devastated, but instead I felt this incredible sense of relief. When Don and Jessie arrived at our house that evening I told him that we were all in. The four of us embraced and cried and prayed together before enjoying an amazing evening of food and fellowship with each other. We knew we were leaping into the great unknown, but at least we would be doing it together.
The next day was Palm Sunday. The congregation knew I had been struggling with what to do and they were all waiting to see if I would be there on Sunday. When I walked into the building the first person I saw was my friend Ken Emery. I’ll never forget the huge smile on Ken’s face when he saw me, and then the enormous bear hug he gave me. I knew then that everything was going to be alright.
And it was, but it wasn’t easy. The next six years would test us and try us in ways that we never could have imagined, and through it all we would learn of God’s great protection and provision. But that will need to wait until my next article.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.