Members of St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach learned Aug. 14 that what they thought might be a tentative agreement to sell the property is in fact a binding contract, and the developer plans to complete the purchase.
In June, both Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and a disciplinary hearing panel ordered the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles, not to sell the property, after learning of his intention to do so. But it was already too late, as Bruno had committed the diocese to the sale. The congregation has been locked out of the 40,000-square-foot building, which sits empty, since June 2015.
“The buyer has the legal right to expect the seller to honor the contract,” wrote the Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor, Bishop Coadjutor, whom Curry put in charge of all St. James matters. “Much as we might wish it were otherwise, we do not believe that it would be in the interests of the diocese or consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities” to breach the contract.
Walter Stahr, an attorney and parishioner who has played a leading role in efforts to recover the church property, told members via email Aug. 14 that he and the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees met that morning with Taylor and two other diocesan officials.
In a subsequent interview, Stahr rejected the idea that Taylor had to proceed with the sale because of the binding contract. “That’s not true, and I told Bishop Taylor that this morning. All the time, people terminate contracts. … It was open to Bishop Taylor to negotiate with the purchaser to terminate the agreement, and he has chosen not to do that.”
Despite the sale agreement, Taylor held out some hope in a lengthy letter to the diocese that the St. James congregation might worship in the church under new ownership. The developer, Burnham-Ward Properties, “plans to preserve the worship space so it may continue to be used by churches and other community organizations, including St. James if it wishes,” Taylor wrote. “We were encouraged to learn of preliminary conversations some weeks ago between Burnham and a congregation representative about the possible use of the space by St. James.”
Stahr said he is the “congregation representative” mentioned in Taylor’s letter. “They would hope to turn what is presently Parish Hall into a café,” he said of the developers. “They would hope perhaps to turn what are presently the Sunday school classrooms into perhaps a conference center that they rent to commercial businesses, perhaps into office space that they just rent as office space.”
He said the developer had discussed building “perhaps a five- or six-story parking garage” to accommodate more intensive use of the campus, which he said has open space that could be developed. A woman who answered the phone at Burnham-Ward during business hours said nobody was available to discuss the matter.
As for the possibility of the congregation worshiping in the space after the sale, Stahr said, “The notion of renting — for two hours at some point on Sunday — the sanctuary alone, not the kitchen, not the classrooms, just the sanctuary … that’s rather hard, when you’re paying the developer to rent what used to be your church.”
In his letter to the diocese, Taylor expressed support for the congregation, but said there were missed opportunities for resolving the standoff throughout the two-year conflict. “The responsibility for these missed opportunities is shared by both sides,” he wrote.
When asked in a subsequent interview to describe the congregation’s responsibility, he told TLC by phone, “There are going to be opportunities, we pray, in the weeks and months ahead to have the kind of open-ended, mutually vulnerable exchange of views about this two-year-long saga for our diocese.” Taylor has accepted an invitation from Voorhees to worship and meet with the congregation, on a date to be determined.
In July, a five-member hearing panel voted 4-1 to suspend Bruno from his Episcopal ministry for three years because of misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming to a member of the clergy during the dispute with St. James.
“In all likelihood, after 40 years of ordination, including many moments of courage and vision, he will lose the right to say Holy Eucharist and to baptize, confirm, and bless for three years,” Taylor wrote to the diocese. The suspension has not taken effect, and is in the early stages of a complicated and potentially lengthy review and appeal process. Bruno, 70, reportedly plans to retire sometime this year.
Taylor expressed admiration for members of St. James the Great, who have continued to worship together every Sunday since Bruno changed the locks in June 2015. They currently worship in the Newport Beach City Hall. “Their purpose and drive these last two years demonstrated that they love their church building and also that they don’t need it to be the church, to remain in unity, and to praise God and serve God’s people,” he wrote.
“When by the grace of God I succeed Bishop Bruno on his retirement,” Taylor said in his letter, “I pledge to do all I can pastorally, logistically, and financially to support the St. James congregation should it wish to remain together and reapply for mission status.”
He expressed similar commitments repeatedly in the later interview. When told of Stahr’s critical comments, Taylor pledged to focus on “the art of the possible” in discussions with the congregation.
“There may be a better season for [those discussions] than this first day, as the good people of St. James deal with this news and these developments,” he said. “We’re going to be together in the Church and in the body of Christ for a good long time. I believe there are possibilities for new life in all things.”