By Kirk Petersen
It was a bit like a local zoning board meeting, in which neighboring homeowners have a chance to object to a proposed change of use for a piece of property. This meeting, however, started and ended with prayer, and it will be followed by a formal, year-long focus on reconciliation.
The current bishop and standing committee of the Diocese of Los Angeles held a public forum on March 10 to discuss plans to reopen St. James the Great, an enormous church property in tiny Newport Beach. The facility has been padlocked for nearly three years by order of the now-retired former bishop, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno — a move that engulfed the final years of his episcopacy and resulted in his suspension from ordained ministry, on charges of “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.”
The diocese invited members of the four nearest Episcopal churches to the forum “to support or oppose the proposal or just seek more information” about granting mission-station status to St. James the Great.
No significant opposition arose. The meeting “probably couldn’t have gone better,” said the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, who has been leading worship services for a flock of about 100 at Newport Beach City Hall.
In December, the Rt. Rev. John Taylor succeeded Bruno as Bishop of Los Angeles. When asked after the forum about a timetable for a decision on the reopening, Taylor replied by text message: “The Standing Committee meets on March 21; I would expect a decision would be announced pretty soon after that.” Taylor no doubt will carefully consider the opinions of the committee, but the final decision is his alone.
Voorhees said she is praying that the congregation will be allowed back in the building by Easter, which this year is April 1. “We are resurrection people,” she said.
Regardless of timing, the likely reopening of the facility at 3209 Via Lido will not resolve the trauma suffered by the Episcopal Church’s fourth-largest diocese.
The Rev. Michael Archer is rector of St. Wilfrid of York, a church in nearby Huntington Beach that got its start half a century ago as a mission of St. James. In remarks prepared for the forum, he wrote that he and his parishioners generally agree that “there is room for another Episcopal Church in our part of Orange County.”
But that does not mean they all favor the specific proposal to reopen St. James the Great. “On this, there is not a united sentiment at St. Wilfrid’s,” he wrote. “The past almost three years have been painful and contentious at times, with very strong emotions being expressed on both sides of this struggle.”
While nobody will discuss it on the record, there is an undercurrent of resentment in the diocese based on the belief that the people of St. James misused the Title IV disciplinary process by bringing charges against Bruno as part of a relentless effort to torpedo the sale of the church and regain access to the building. (This argument is blunted somewhat by the charges being found meritorious.)
In December, the diocese’s annual convention passed a resolution asking the broader church “to collect information on the operation and effects of confidentiality provisions of Title IV; and the effects of the lack of pastoral care directed to the diocese, parish, or mission in the Title IV proceeding when not a respondent or complainant.”
In disciplinary proceedings under Title IV of church canons, all parties are asked to maintain confidentiality about the specifics of the dispute. But unlike a secular court, the church has no way to enforce such a provision against anyone who is not ordained. This meant that while Voorhees and Bruno maintained personal confidentiality, members of the congregation felt free to express their outrage through social media. The matter will be considered in July at General Convention.
At the January meeting of the churchwide Executive Council, council member Steven Nishibayashi, who is from the Los Angeles diocese, said in a committee hearing that no pastoral support was provided to the diocese, and clergy members had no guidance on how to respond to the concerns of their congregations.
The Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, Taylor’s new canon to the ordinary, has announced a structured approach to reconciliation. In a newsletter for clergy in the diocese, she wrote, “I have been in regular conversations with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center (LMPC), who will function as our facilitators, mediators, and teachers, over the next year as we engage this process on a diocesan-wide scale.”
The process will begin in mid-April with a series of workshops led by LMPC. Since 1983, the Illinois-based LMPC has offered “training to help churches discover how conflict can be an arena for God’s revelation,” according to the organization’s website.
If St. James the Great is approved as a mission station, it will move into what is likely the most valuable piece of property ever occupied by a fledgling mission church.
The 40,000-square-foot facility sits at the entrance of the bridge to Lido Isle, a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes on an island that juts like a yacht-encrusted finger into Newport Bay.
The controversy began in May 2015, when Bruno announced plans to sell the property for $15 million to a local developer. Although the building was in excellent condition and had been extensively renovated in the early 2000s, the developer intended to bulldoze the property and construct luxury condominiums.
There is already a 10-story luxury condominium building across the street. Unit 4F in the 66-unit building is currently for sale — a two-bedroom apartment listed at $2.3 million.
The planned sale of St. James fell through after members of the congregation launched both a civil lawsuit and a Title IV charge against Bruno. The lawsuit was quickly dismissed, but the disciplinary process dragged on for month after month, leading to three days of public testimony in March 2017, in front of a hearing panel that was essentially an ecclesiastical court.
In June, the still-deliberating panel was outraged to learn that Bruno had for the second time secretly negotiated a contract to sell the property. That sale also fell through. The panel eventually voted to suspend Bruno from ordained ministry for three years. Bruno is appealing the suspension.
St. James, founded in 1941, has something of a star-crossed history. The parish was one of four churches in the diocese that voted to leave the diocese. The parish claimed ownership of the building, leading Bruno to launch what became nine years of litigation to establish that the diocese was the rightful owner. That congregation was evicted, and in 2013 Voorhees began working full time, initially without pay, to rebuild a congregation there.