Great Turmoil in Newport Beach

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The people of St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach, California, thought they had their bishop’s long-term support when they moved into the building in October 2013, after the diocese’s long-term property battle with former members who joined the Anglican Church in North America. He was at the ceremony and offered his blessing.

But now they have no building because the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno signed a deal in May to sell it for $15 million to a luxury housing developer. They feel betrayed, and they are fighting back.

In July church members filed a lengthy complaint, or presentment, against the bishop. It charges Bishop Bruno with 147 violations of church law, ranging from conduct unbecoming a bishop to reckless or intentional misrepresentation, under Title IV of church canons.

Title IV Update

George Conger has published a letter [PDF] by the Rt. Rev. Clayton Matthews that says the Title IV charges against Bishop J. Jon Bruno will proceed to the Episcopal Church’s Reference Panel.

“We have a bishop who is doing wrong,” said church member Sue Rawlings. “This church needs to survive. But we have a man, a very high person in the church, who says, No, I want the money. I want to sell your church. So we are doing what we can, which is why we filed a presentment saying No.”

In a separate measure, members of St. James have asked for an alternate bishop who could replace Bruno in ministering to the congregation and, members hope, possibly scuttle the pending real-estate sale.

Canon Robert Williams of the Diocese of Los Angeles said Bruno is away on sabbatical. Williams declined to comment on the allegations in the presentment, citing pending litigation.

Bruno is suing the land’s original donor, the Griffith Co., for clear title to the property at 3209 Via Lido in Newport Beach. Griffith has said it gave the property decades ago on condition that it would always remain a church, but the diocese’s standing committee says the deed has had no such provision since 1984.

Bruno issued a statement July 8, explaining that his goal in selling the property is to balance “pastoral care with making responsible fiduciary decisions.”

“I sincerely empathize with the sense of loss felt by many, particularly after the joint efforts of local parishioners, the former vicar, and the Bishop’s Office to rebuild the mission congregation there,” he wrote. “However, as I stated to the congregation on May 18, there are options available to us for ministry separate and apart from the Via Lido site.” He noted that three Episcopal parishes are located within a seven-mile radius.

Behind the accusations against Bruno lie a lot of hard feelings and frustration.

The Via Lido site is no newcomer to controversy. From 2004 to 2013, the diocese had waged a legal battle with four theologically conservative congregations, including a predecessor St. James congregation that tried to claim ownership of the Newport Beach property on its way out of the Episcopal Church. Finally victorious, the diocese replanted an Episcopal congregation and named it “St. James the Great.” The congregation was an Episcopal community of Bruno’s own creation, said its vicar, the Rev. Cindy Evans Voorhees.

“We are his children,” she said. “I am not a renegade priest.”

What especially hurts, according to church leaders, is more than the loss of a church home. It’s also how the loss happened: in a real estate deal, forged less than two years after the new church was born, reportedly without any warning to the congregation that a sale was ever in the works or part of the bishop’s long-term plan.

“There has been zero communication,” Voorhees said, adding that Bruno merely informed her and the congregation that he had signed the sale agreement. “He came in and he lowered the boom the last Sunday. The Monday after, he locked the doors, locked me out on my day off, sent the staff home very heavy handedly, end of conversation. Well, wait a minute — can you do that in 2015?”

Another sticking point: Bruno’s authority to sell the property. According to the standing committee, Bruno said in 2009 that he would dispose of properties at his discretion after the litigation. The diocese’s Board of the Corporation enabled that process on May 20 of this year by transferring the St. James building to Corporation Sole, which is controlled by the bishop alone.

The board noted that the property was given originally to Corporation Sole and that same entity had funded the litigation. But St. James parishioners say that’s not how dioceses normally own or sell properties, which is another reason for the Title IV review.

What’s more, the selling price is far below market value, Voorhees said. When the congregation obtained an independent appraisal after the pending sale was announced, the appraiser estimated the value at between $24 million and $32 million, she said.

Seldom has the Episcopal Church seen a case like this one, according to Peter Williams, professor emeritus of church history at Miami University (Ohio). It’s rare for a bishop to battle a congregation and try to sell the building it calls home when the worshiping community is not defiant or trying to leave. It’s also rare for so many people — 79 as of mid-July, including eight priests — to support a legal case against their bishop.

“This sounds like a purely secular struggle because there isn’t a theological or liturgical stake,” Williams said. “It’s just a question of whether a congregation — which has no particular quarrel with the denomination over matters of theology, authority, or whatever — just gets into a dispute over who gets the building. I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

To find a comparison, Williams had to look to Roman Catholicism.

“The only parallels I can think of are going on in the Catholic Church, like in the Boston archdiocese, where they’ve tried to close a number of congregations for financial reasons and some of the parishioners won’t give up,” he said.

Locked out of the building since June 29, the St. James congregation has been worshiping weekly in Lido Park, across the street from the embattled property. As worship begins, processing acolytes carry Tiki torches that can stay lit even in a stiff breeze off the Pacific Ocean. A musician plays hymns on a portable keyboard. Worshipers sit on folding chairs. It’s a Eucharist that’s both worship and protest. Parishioners refuse to move, despite invitations to other Episcopal congregations in the area.

Voorhees began her tenure at St. James as a volunteer vicar in 2013 and was later paid by the congregation. Neither she nor her staff ever received salaries from the diocese, she said. She’s now back to volunteering in her role as priest. She still leads worship, makes hospital visits, and offers counseling to her flock.

“I’m going to see them through this,” Voorhees said. “If [the bishop] won’t, someone needs to. They want to stay together as a church. And I felt like I’m going to be a priest to them.”

St. James the Great has been a growing congregation with a strong track record, Voorhees said. The church takes pride in being a 21st-century congregation, where missions included working with local institutions on outreach projects and hosting a school in which kids could learn to write code for websites.

“We were showing this whole new model, and it was just blossoming,” Voorhees said.

When the congregation met in the building, worship would draw 125 to 150 people on an average Sunday. Attendance at July services in the park has been as large as 250.

Voorhees said the congregation was not a drain on diocesan resources. Its exact financial situation is unclear. Some congregational materials say it was financially sustainable when Bruno changed the locks, while others say it was on track to become sustainable in coming months.

Canon Williams declined to say what the diocese would do with proceeds of the sale or why Bruno deemed the sale necessary. Voorhees said that two other properties in the nine-year litigation, St. David’s in North Hollywood and All Saints in Long Beach, are already generating enough revenue from a sale and a leasing arrangement to cover the $9 million cost of Corporation Sole’s legal bills. In her assessment, the diocese has no compelling financial need to sell St. James.

For her part, Standing Committee President Melissa McCarthy said in a June 11 letter to the diocesan council that “the community of St. James the Great is not, nor has it ever been, the building.”

“Most importantly at this time is the support for the mission of St. James the Great and all it can be,” McCarthy wrote. “We pray they will be able to continue the mission and ministry to which they are being called.”

Image: The former home of St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach sits empty while its members try to stop its sale. • Elizabeth Schairer photo

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