From The Living Church:
Posted on: May 30, 2008
The Rt. Rev. Robert O’Neill, Bishop of Colorado, is seeking to remove from the ministry more than a dozen priests that his predecessor lawfully transferred to another Anglican province after they joined the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA) more than seven years ago.
The initial list included at least one priest, the Rev. Robert John Bryan, who claims not to have received any communication on the matter. He expressed surprise at the news of his inhibition when contacted by The Living Church, and said he had not received any communication from anyone in the Diocese of Colorado since receiving a copy of his letter of transfer nearly eight years ago.
The Rev. Canon Colin Kelly, president of the Diocese of the Rio Grande’s standing committee, confirmed that Fr. Bryan has been a canonically resident priest in good standing of that diocese since 2002. According to several priests in the Rio Grande who spoke with The Living Church, he served with distinction and loyalty as priest-in-charge at St. Matthew’s, Las Lunas, M.M., for about five years. He decided to retire from the active ministry and moved back to Colorado to be nearer to family last year.
In 2000, 17 priests from the Diocese of Colorado, including Fr. Bryan, sought to leave The Episcopal Church after the formation of the AMiA that year. The Rt. Rev. Jerry Winterrowd, who was Bishop of Colorado from 1991-2004, signed and sent letters dimissory for all the priests to the “Ecclesiastical Authority of the Church of the Province of Southeast Asia.”
Copies of the transfer letters also were sent to the Recorder of Ordinations, the Church Pension Fund and The Living Church. Two years later, Fr. Bryan transferred back to The Episcopal Church. His letter dimissory from Southeast Asia to the Diocese of the Rio Grande was received and accepted by the Rt. Rev. Terence Kelshaw, who retired in 2005. Fr. Young’s canonical license was renewed by Bishop Kelshaw’s successor, Jeffrey Steenson.
In February Bishop O’Neill purportedly wrote to the priests stating that the letters dimissory sent Dec. 7, 2000, by Bishop Winterrowd “does not effectively remove you from the jurisdiction of The Episcopal Church.” Bishop O’Neill urged that the priests voluntarily renounce their priestly orders, warning that if they did not, the diocesan standing committee “has already determined that you have abandoned communion of The Episcopal Church” and that they would be deposed from the ministry after a six-month inhibition.
In a follow-up letter sent the following month to one of the other priests, Bishop O’Neill explained that “our canons do not actually provide for the kind of inter-provincial transfer that was used to accommodate your move to the AMiA, and having reviewed it all carefully with both our chancellor and our standing committee, it is simply necessary to clarify your status and that of others with regard to jurisdiction by using the provisions that are allowed under our canons.”
The decision to pursue depositions against these priests nearly eight years after they were lawfully given letters dimissory raises questions about due process. In September 2004 at a special meeting in Spokane, the House of Bishops approved a “mind of the house” resolution whose explanation notes that the “House of Bishops rejects the practice of transfer of canonical residence to allow a priest or bishop to exercise ministry outside of the geographical boundaries of his or her canonical residence.” Bishop Winterrowd’s decision to issue letters dimissory did not meet with objection at the time, however, and resolutions are not canonically binding, according to the polity of The Episcopal Church.
In a telephone interview with a reporter for The Living Church, Bishop Winterrowd explained that he issued letters dimissory for the priests rather than depositions for abandonment in 2000 because he said he wanted to deal equitably with a potentially volatile situation.
“We accomplished our purpose,” he said. “The priests who left did so without acrimony. There are no hard feelings to this day between myself and any of these priests.”
Bishop Winterrowd said he had briefed Bishop O’Neill on the letters dimissory prior to his retirement in 2004. He also said he did not think the decision to depose the priests now was done out of vindictiveness, and that he had great respect for the job Bishop O’Neill is doing.
Beckett Stokes, director of communications for the diocese, described the inhibition letters as a housekeeping measure, noting that “the Bishop and standing committee wanted to ensure that priests who are no longer under the jurisdiction of the diocese have been removed in a canonically appropriate way.” In a follow-up message, she added that “if there is an individual who feels he’s received the letter in error, if our records are incorrect, he can certainly contact the diocese, and we will be happy to make appropriate corrections.”
After Fr. Bryan’s inhibition was brought to his attention by The Living Church, Canon Kelly furnished Bishop O’Neill with a copy of Fr. Bryan’s transfer from Southeast Asia to the Rio Grande and a signed receipt of the letter dimissory signed by Bishop Kelshaw.
“Once the Diocese of Colorado had received those documents, they acknowledged that their records had not been complete and thanked us for updating them,” Canon Kelly said in an email message. “Bishop O’Neill called me to say that he accepted that Fr. Bryan was a priest canonically resident in the Diocese of the Rio Grande and they would correct their records to reflect that fact.”