After two years of conflict that cost millions of dollars and tarnished the end of a bishop’s career, the people of St. James the Great will soon be returned to the building they love in Newport Beach, California.
Healing the emotional wounds will take longer, but the key participants seem determined to make the effort.
In a joint statement Nov. 9, the parties stated unambiguously that the congregation will be allowed to return to the 40,000-square-foot facility on Via Lido, which has sat empty since June 2015. The statement was signed by the Rt. Rev. John Taylor, who will become Bishop of Los Angeles on Dec. 1; by the Rev. Rachel Nyback, the head of the diocese’s standing committee; and by the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, who has continued to lead her congregation in worship every Sunday in a community room of the Newport Beach City Hall.
The statement read in part: “Once St. James has been granted mission status, it will be invited to resume use of the church. Once Bishop Taylor, by the grace of God, is diocesan bishop, he intends to name Canon Voorhees as vicar.”
The statement was the result of three weeks of tense discussions that began with a meeting of the three parties on Oct. 18. It included an acknowledgement of mutual responsibility for the conflict, and a pledge of mutual effort toward healing:
The church’s sudden closing hurt the people of St. James. Their leaders countenanced hurtful statements and tactics. This cycle of hurt strained relationships in the diocese. We will end the cycle by sharing our narratives openly and honestly, using reconciliation in relationship to rediscover our unity and purpose as a diocesan family in Christ.
“A new season, we pray, begins this morning,” said Taylor in a separate, individual statement.
In separate telephone interviews with TLC, Taylor and Voorhees both took pains to choose their words carefully. Nyback could not be reached for comment.
When asked if the negotiations had been contentious, Taylor paused before addressing the question tangentially: “When people get together and open their hearts and minds to the movement of the Spirit, and are willing to be vulnerable, and willing to speak truth graciously, all things are possible. That’s the kind of work that we’ve been doing.”
“I’m just glad that there’s been a resolution, that we’re moving forward in reconciliation, and that the 70 years of good work that St. James has done can continue,” Voorhees said.
The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, the retiring Bishop of Los Angeles who faces a suspension from ordained ministry as the result of a disciplinary process resulting from the conflict, struck a different tone.
In email to the diocese sent 16 hours before the announcement that St. James will be reopened, Bruno said:
The legal challenges brought against Corporation Sole by an entity called SAVE St. James the Great have been concluded in favor of the Bishop, Corporation Sole. The SAVE entity has offered to dismiss its appeal efforts, leaving the previous determination by the Superior Court in favor of Corporation Sole to stand. As a part of the SAVE dismissal they have requested that I agree to not pursue legal actions against them and their legal counsel for filing a malicious prosecution lawsuit against Corporation Sole in 2015. Although there is sound basis on which to pursue further legal action, so as to fully resolve the conflict, I have agreed to those terms.
Bruno did not return a call seeking comment. Corporation Sole is a legal entity established in 1907 in the Diocese of Los Angeles “as a unique form of nonprofit corporation, operating with no directors of members other than the Bishop Diocesan and his or her successors,” according to an auditor’s report. Corporation Sole owns the St. James property, as well as a somewhat random collection of other real estate and trust funds.
Asked how long it would be before St. James is reinstated with mission status and allowed to return to the building, Taylor said: “My first email at 10 o’clock [when the announcement was issued] was to Canon Voorhees saying that she and her congregants would continue to be in my prayers, and inviting her to reach out” and begin the formal process of applying for mission status. “I know those conversations are underway, and they’ll take the time that they take,” he said.
According to the joint statement, while the mission status process proceeds, “the diocese may reopen the church for weekly celebrations of Holy Eucharist by supply clergy. Bishop Taylor and Canon Voorhees will be among those on the rota.”
As part of the agreement, St. James agreed to “stop using communications strategists and social media to advocate in connection with its relationship to the diocese. The diocese and St. James hereby repudiate all past and future anonymous correspondence sent on their behalves. If those responsible for Save St. James The Great wish it to persist as a non-profit organization, they will change its name and devote it to a religious or charitable purpose.”
The Save St. James the Great page on Facebook — which included a great deal of advocacy and informal commentary, some of it harsh — has been taken down. The group’s website at savesaintjamesthegreat.org is still online, but has been purged of any mention of the conflict. Roger Bloom, a public relations consultant who has been speaking for the congregation, did not return a call seeking comment.
In his individual statement, Taylor said the two-plus years of conflict had taken a toll on the entire diocese. “Among the casualties: The reputations of a beloved and courageous bishop and his talented vicar, deep disappointment experienced by a congregation, deep mistrust between diocese and congregation, strained relationships among bishops, deacons, laypeople, and priests, and a black eye for our diocese in the local media and national church.”
He called for “a season of truth-telling, mutual discernment, and reconciliation. Undistracted by participants’ preferred outcomes when it comes to occupancy of the building on Via Lido, we stand a better chance of constructing an accurate narrative about our recent troubles.”