By Kirk Petersen
After nearly three years of a struggle that cost untold sums of money and toppled a bishop, the congregation formerly known as St. James the Great has received approval to move back into a massive church building in Newport Beach, California.
The first service in the building will be April 8, the Second Sunday of Easter. The Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees had hoped to be back inside by Easter, but said after the announcement: “I think Easter Two is the perfect timing. We’d love to be in for Easter, but we’d also like the bishop to be there for the opening,” and the bishop already had plans for Easter Sunday.
The Rt. Rev. John Taylor, Bishop of Los Angeles, said in a statement: “I will have the privilege of presiding and preaching” at the service on April 8. In a letter on March 29, Taylor and the Rev. Abel Lopez, the president of the diocesan standing Committee, told Voorhees and her flock the diocese has “approved your application for mission station status on a trial basis.”
“We authorize this name and this name only for the mission station: ‘St. James Episcopal Church,’” the letter said. This means the congregation must drop “the Great,” a suffix added in 2013 to differentiate from St. James Anglican Church.
What is now St. James Anglican Church, Newport Mesa, voted to leave the the Episcopal Church in 2004, and continued to worship in the building until nearly a decade of litigation determined that it belonged to the Episcopal diocese.
The letter also invited the congregation to prayerfully consider whether “it may be in the interests of the congregation and diocesan community for the bishop to designate a different name” in light of the many years of conflict.
“I’m pretty open” to a name change, Voorhees said, but she wants to confer with the local community as well, because St. James has been a major presence in Newport Beach for 70 years.
(“The Great” refers to one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, who also is known as “St. James the Greater” to distinguish him from other saints named James.)
In addition to imposing the name change, the letter included other blunt indicators that the congregation is on probation. “It is essential that your congregation meaningfully join the whole diocesan community” in a reconciliation process that will be led by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, the letter said. The year-long process begins with workshops in mid-April.
The diocese “will weigh this factor carefully in the event that the congregation chooses to apply for mission status,” the letter said. The terms mission and mission station often are used interchangeably, but the Diocese of Los Angeles considers them separate steps toward designation as a full-fledged parish.
The letter also contains a cryptic reference to sharing the facility with “the Redeemer Center for Diocesan Ministries,” which it turns out does not yet exist.
Taylor told TLC the center will occupy “a substantial space” in the 40,000-square-foot facility, supporting “ministries designed to serve the people in the neighborhood and in the region. Much is yet to be revealed about exactly what that work will look like.”
“I think he wants a Diocesan Center South presence,” Voorhees said. “So it’s actually a benefit, it’s really quite an honor for St. James,” and may help build bonds between the congregation and the diocese.
Taylor said Voorhees will receive a salary for leading the congregation, but declined to say how much. The church will “have a budget, it’ll have a responsibility for working out compensation for the clergy, it’ll do all the things that a mission station on a trial basis does,” he said.
When Voorhees began working to build a new congregation in the facility at 3209 Via Lido in 2013 under the former Bishop of Los Angeles, she was given permission to do so only on an unpaid or “non-stipendiary” basis. The congregation later began paying her a modest salary, which became an issue in the disciplinary proceeding against the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno.
During a three-day ecclesiastical trial in March 2017, Bruno said the salary was unauthorized, and cited it as an example of Voorhees being disobedient to her bishop. Voorhees testified that she told Bruno about the salary, but no written record of that could be found.
Bruno eventually was suspended from ordained ministry for three years for misrepresentation and “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy,” after secretly agreeing to sell the property for $15 million to a developer who planned to bulldoze it and construct luxury condominiums. As tensions between the bishop and the congregation rose, Bruno ordered the locks changed in June 2015, and the building has sat empty ever since. Voorhees has been worshiping with her congregation of about 100 in a rented space in Newport Beach City Hall.
After the sale fell through in the face of the congregation’s legal and disciplinary challenges, Bruno infuriated the disciplinary panel by making another secret agreement to sell the property while the panel was considering his case. That sale also fell through.
Bruno is appealing the suspension, although he retired as Bishop of Los Angeles in November 2017, weeks after his 71st birthday. The mandatory retirement age is 72.
After the mission-station announcement March 29, a joyful Voorhees described the atmosphere as “surreal,” and said “my phone’s been blowing up, as you might imagine.”
“It’s good to be home,” she said. After discussions with the diocese, “we all agreed this morning that we’ve turned the corner.”