Charlotte church leader resigns after ‘conduct unbecoming’

CHARLOTTE, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - The rector of Charlotte's second largest Episcopal church has agreed to resign from his post after a diocesan panel concluded that he engaged in "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy."

The Rev. Paul Winton has been the chief minister at St. John's Episcopal Church on Carmel Road for seven years.

In a Friday letter to the church's 2,000-plus members, Bishop Anne E. Hodges-Copple of the Raleigh-based Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina shed no light on the allegations that cost Winton his job.

"The nature and details of those offenses are confidential," she wrote.

While Winton has resigned from his role as rector, "effective immediately," the bishop wrote that the "Reference Panel" that ruled on the allegations also decided that Winton should remain a priest in the diocese and in the Episcopal Church.

Hodges-Copple, who served on the panel, was in Charlotte on Thursday night to speak in person to members of the congregation. She followed up with the Friday letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Observer.

"This has been a difficult and long process as well as a careful, prayerful and judicious one," she wrote about the private proceedings in the case involving Winton. He went on a leave of absence from the church last December, after the bishop received the allegations about his conduct.

The tone of the bishop's letter was firm but conciliatory. In it, she wrote that Winton "agrees to continue to do the work he has been doing since December to work on his health and well-being. ... He is dearly loved and valued. He has made tremendous progress and I am hopeful this progress will continue."

She also expressed "our mutual hope and expectation that Fr. Paul will return to active ministry at some point in the future."

Reached for further comment, a spokesperson for the diocese said only that "the letter says it all."

Joan Brennan, the senior warden at St. John's, also had no comment.

On Friday, Winton responded to a phone call from the Observer by leaving a message.

"Under agreement with the diocese, I'm not allowed to speak on this matter," he said. "I do wish the parish and the diocese well and look forward to finding other ways to serve the church in the future."

By Friday, the "Our Clergy" section of St. John Episcopal's web site no longer featured Winton. Before, Winton had included a picture of himself and another of his dog, Louie.

"I delight in ministry in a thriving parish and love change in almost all its forms" read the section written by and about Winton. "I have fun developing big visions for the parish and then working through and with others to see them become reality."

The only clergy now featured on the web site is the Rev. Nancee Cekuta, the associate rector known to church members as Mother "Nan."

The next step for the church?

In her letter, Bishop Hodges-Copple wrote that the church's vestry, or lay leadership group, was in the process of finding an interim rector: "Canon (Catherine) Massey (of the diocese) and I have identified some outstanding candidates for this particular season of ministry."

The search for a successor to Winton at St. John's could take a year or two.

"I want you to know that I appreciate how difficult this time has been for everyone involved," Hodges-Coppel wrote in her letter. "Further communications will come. More work will be done. This remains a time of healing and recovery as well as a time to go forward in faith, hope and love."