The rector of a fast-growing parish in Tampa, Florida, involved in a bitter dispute with the Diocese of Southwest Florida, is leaving the Episcopal Church and starting a new congregation affiliated with the Anglican Mission in America.
At least 200 of the 500-member congregation of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church are expected to follow the Rev. Kevin F. Donlon in walking away from a $10 million sanctuary and day school renovation, completed just two months ago.
Donlon renounced his ordination vows in a letter to Bishop John B. Lipscomb dated April 21. In a statement released April 22, Lipscomb acknowledged receipt of the letter and said procedures to remove Donlon from the Episcopal priesthood are underway. Lipscomb also said disciplinary proceedings against Donlon have been halted.
“The Bishop and the Diocese of Southwest Florida continue to pray for and work towards healing of the congregation of St. Mary’s and the rebuilding of the life of this important congregation in our faith community,” the statement said.
Until an interim rector is found, the Rev. William McLean will serve the parish as a visiting priest, spending three days a week at St. Mary’s. McLean said one of his main priorities will be to fill the church. “We’re going to have to go after new members. We’re going to have to start over again,” he said.
Allegations stun congregation
In February, eight members of the congregation, including the senior warden, filed 26 pages of allegations against Donlon. The charges, which have only now become public, included allegations of an inappropriate supervisory relationship with a former staff member, abusive conduct toward staff members, inappropriate interaction with members of the parish community, a conflict with the headmaster of an elite day school affiliated with the parish, and the unauthorized disclosure of privileged communications.
After the allegations were filed, Lipscomb issued a temporary inhibition against Donlon and referred the case to the diocesan standing committee for review. Hundreds of parishioners protested Lipscomb’s actions by walking out of the church during his sermon at St. Mary’s the following Sunday.
The congregation was further angered when the diocese, citing church canons regarding confidentiality in disciplinary matters, refused to discuss the case with them. Lack of information fueled speculation about the case, which was covered extensively by Tampa Bay-area newspapers and television stations.
Through it all, Donlon has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and until now was preparing for the possibility of an ecclesiastical trial.
Donlon announced his plans to about 200 parishioners April 21 at the Tampa Women's Club. Many of those in attendance were expected to join the new congregation, named the Church of the Resurrection, which will worship at the Women's Club, a few miles from his former parish.
In a six-page explanation of his decision, Donlon described his accusers as “spiritual terrorists” imposing “ill will upon a Christian community.” Donlon wrote that he realized the disciplinary process is fatally flawed and that “the indicators are that fairness and justice are unlikely.”
Donlon had a chance to defend himself in a March 4 meeting with Lipscomb and the Standing Committee, which had the authority to lift Donlon's temporary inhibition. In that hearing, Donlon and his attorney, Charles Nalls, presented more than 100 pages of testimony from witnesses refuting the charges.
Nalls, ordained a deacon in the Anglican Province of Christ the King--a 'continuing Anglican' group--is executive director of the Canon Law Institute and lead counsel in a number of recent cases involving disputes between clergy or parishes and diocesan authorities.
“We’ve presented more than enough evidence to show that not only is the inhibition unwarranted but really, the charges are, to the extent that there’s anything there, are specious,” Nalls told the diocesan newsmagazine, The Southern Cross, recently.
However, the committee refused to lift the inhibition and ordered the investigation to continue.
Jay Greener, communications officer for the Anglican Mission in America, said AMiA Bishop Charles Murphy would be at Church of the Resurrection’s first worship service April 28.
The AMiA, formed in July of 2000, is a group of about 40 US congregations which have broken away from the Episcopal Church over their perception that the church has strayed from traditional Anglican theology. The AMiA operates under the authority of the Anglican provinces of Rwanda and South East Asia.
The consecrations of two American priest as bishops in the AMiA in January 2000 and four more in June 2001 have been criticized by church leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In an AMiA news release, Murphy welcomed Donlon and the new church. 'Kevin has enjoyed tremendous success in his ministry, where the church in Tampa has exploded in terms of growth, and where he has engendered deep loyalty among the people he serves. Our decision to receive him and re-instate him as an Anglican priest is based on our careful evaluation of his present situation and his strong record, which exhibits remarkable leadership,' the release said.
Text of the official statement from Bishop John Lipscomb:
From the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida
The Rt. Rev. John B. Lipscomb, Bishop
For Immediate Release
Re: The Renunciation of the Ministry of the Episcopal Church by Kevin Francis Donlon, Ph.D.
On Sunday April 21, the Bishop of Southwest Florida received by fax and e-mail the Formal Notice of Renunciation from the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church by Kevin Francis Donlon, Ph.D., former rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Tampa, Florida. The renunciation was received at a time Dr. Donlon was amenable for Presentment for Conduct Unbecoming a Member of the Clergy of the Church and before the conclusion of the Church’s investigation of a series of allegations brought against him this past February.
The disciplinary procedures of the Episcopal Church require that the Bishop may accept a renunciation when the clergyperson is amenable for disciplinary action only with the consent of the majority of the members of the Standing Committee of the diocese. When the bishop has received their consent, he will accept the renunciation and remove Dr. Donlon from the priesthood of the Episcopal Church which is the constituent member of the Anglican Communion in the United States of America. Upon the acceptance of his renunciation and his removal from the ordained ministry, disciplinary action to which he has been subject comes to an end.
The Bishop and the Diocese of Southwest Florida continue to pray for and work towards healing of the congregation of St. Mary’s and the rebuilding of the life of this important congregation in our faith community. The bishop will meet with the Wardens and Vestry this coming Sunday during the course of his scheduled visitation to the congregation to discuss the immediate need for an interim rector to work with the congregation until the appropriate time to begin the search process for a new rector for St. Mary’s Church.