Defrocked priest cries foul
It was a sombre occasion.
At 10:34 a.m. last Monday, an Episcopal bishop entered a tiny chapel in New York and in six minutes ended a pastoral relationship of more than 30 years between a Barbadian cleric and the American church.
In the presence of six priests, all dressed in black suits and wearing their clerical collars, The Right Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano, bishop of the Long Island Diocese, which consists of scores of Episcopal parish churches in Brooklyn, Queens and Nassau and Suffolk counties, defrocked 76-year-old Canon Llewellyn Armstrong, preventing the Codrington College and Columbia University trained minister from performing priestly duties anywhere in the Episcopal Church in the United States.
“It was a sad occasion, quite sad, actually,” said Canon Shawn P. Duncan, a diocesan spokesman, after the ceremony at the Mercer College of Theology in the upscale suburban community of Garden City.
Armstrong, a priest for 50 years in Barbados, Canada and the United States and who was made a canon in the Barbados Diocese in 1990, said: “I have moved on. I have transferred from the Episcopal Church and I have joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, CANA, which is a member of the Anglican Communion to which the same Episcopal Church, the West Indies Province of the Anglican Church, the Church of England and provinces in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other parts of the world belong.
“I became a priest in good standing in CANA in 2012, several months before the action and I am continuing my religious ministry,” said the Bajan who was ordained a priest in Barbados in 1963.
“The deposition was predetermined. It was the culmination of an unfair process that was started after I initiated a lawsuit in New York State civil court against the diocese to collect US$65 000 (BDS$127 000) which the church still owes me today.
“I am convinced the process was also started because of my view on the biblical standard of human sexuality and Christian marriage, which is different from the official position of the Episcopal Church.”
Last week’s defrocking came in the wake of the canon’s conviction by an ecclesiastical court last May and after the church’s Court of Review upheld the verdict and ordered the deposition.
“It was a kangaroo court,” complained Armstrong, who had walked out of the original trial, charging that most of the allegations were utterly unfounded.
He insisted he had been denied the right of access to a consultant or legal counsel to advise him on proceedings as the church’s rules required.
“Once the actions against me were started, there was no way I could prove my innocence.”
Armstrong was found guilty of committing an array of charges that included:
• performing a marriage ceremony and functioning “liturgically” at a Harlem funeral mass after being barred by the bishop from carrying out any “public, pastoral, liturgical and sacramental ministry”;
• engaging in “conduct unbecoming of a priest” by “disrupting” the annual 2010 diocesan convention;
• making an “intimidating phone call” to a parishioner;
• failing to return books and records of Calvary &?St Cyprian’s Episcopal Church where he had served as rector for 21 years until his retirement in 2008; and
• engaging in “unexplained irregularities in the discretionary account” of the Brooklyn parish.
In an interview at his home several hours after the deposition, the former rector of St Augustine’s Anglican Church in St George, who once served at St Michael’s Cathedral, placed the allegation about financial “irregularities” at the top of the list of untrue charges.
According to Bishop Provenzano, during Armstrong’s tenure at Calvary & St Cyprian’s, more than US$240 000 (BDS$470 000) was deposited directly into the discretionary account “from unknown sources and were withdrawn” by the priest almost immediately. The priest was adamant he never used church funds to meet personal expenses or engaged in financial shenanigans.
“They were all legitimate transactions but I was never asked by the accounting firm which conducted an examination of the parish’s accounts or by the diocese to explain anything,” he said. “They carried out a ‘review and analysis of the discretionary account’ without ever contacting me or seeking explanations from me.
“The discretionary account was used by me to help people buy food, pay tuition for students, pay rent for others and do things to assist people who had fallen on hard times.
“Some of it was used to employ persons at the church and assist Caribbean worshippers with immigration problems by seeking legitimately to change their status so they could become green card holders,” he said.
As for performing priestly duties after being barred by the bishop from doing so, Armstrong acknowledged that he married a Bajan couple at a wedding in a private home in 2010 but said it took place outside of the diocese’s jurisdiction.
“I genuinely believed at the time that the inhibition only covered the diocese. In that regard, I was mistaken. As for the funeral mass, which was held at a Harlem church outside of the diocese, I was asked by a relative to say the opening sentences at the service – ‘I am the Resurrection and the Light’ – and then was invited by the priest of the church to say a few words. The request caught me by surprise but I accepted.”
Turning to the convention which he was accused of disrupting, Armstrong said he was invited to the meeting and given credentials to participate.
“When I rose to speak I was told I didn’t have a right to be present because of the inhibition,” he said. “I was asked to leave. Then I was accused of disrupting the convention to which I had been properly invited as a priest. I was escorted out of the room by security guards. Under the canons, a priest under inhibition can speak but not vote on issues, but Bishop Provenzano ruled otherwise.”
Commenting on his “failure” to hand over church books and records after his retirement, Armstrong insisted that he had made efforts in good faith to deliver the records to the vestry but was unable to do so through no fault of his own.
“The books and records must be handed over at the time of retirement but that was never completed because some vestry members were going on vacation. I subsequently handed over some of them but because of a series of misunderstandings with the vestry, it was never completed. I sent some of the books,” he said.
“I was never given adequate time to collect my personal possessions and some of the records from the church. I was denied access to the rectory and the office after I left. I didn’t fail to hand over all the books because I didn’t have the opportunity to do so.”
Next was the “intimidating phone call”. He said he spoke to a worshipper about the unacceptable behaviour of her daughter but the woman became offended and later complained to the diocese.
“I didn’t intimidate anybody.”
Armstrong traced the origins of the civil lawsuit to an unpaid debt of US$65 000, money he said he had lent to the parish church.
“I had lent US$75 000 to the church and the obligation was outlined in a promissory note signed by senior members of the vestry. But after repaying me US$10 000 (BDS$20 000), the bishop at that time, The Right Rev. Oris Walker, ordered that no more payments should be made,” he said.
“After waiting for some time I initiated a lawsuit to collect the unpaid balance and I secured a favourable preliminary judgment from the New York State court, but no final ruling was ever issued and the money remains outstanding.”
Armstrong contended it was all part of an effort to get at him because of his stance against the church’s policy on homosexuality and gay marriage.
When asked about the defrocking, the diocese declined to speak on any aspect of the case.
However, CANA Bishop Julian Dobbs, an Anglican priest from New Zealand, said the move against Armstrong didn’t come as a surprise and insisted it wouldn’t have any effect on his standing in the convocation of Anglicans.
“Canon Armstrong is a priest in good standing. What happened with him recently is a continuation of a trend we have seen in the Episcopal Church.
“Many priests and bishops have been deposed because of their stance against Episcopal Church policy on homosexuality and gay marriage and they were brought up on somewhat similar charges. They have been accused of all kinds of things. I wasn’t caught off-guard by the action.”