By Kirk Petersen
On the second Sunday of Easter 2018 — 145 Sundays after they were locked out of the building where they had set roots as a community — the people of St. James Church hosted a joyous homecoming service in Newport Beach.
The altar party processed toward a rose stained-glass window framed by organ pipes — the same rose window design that on prior Sundays had been projected on the sterile, blank wall of a community room at City Hall.
For nearly three years, the Episcopalians led by the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees had worshiped together in borrowed spaces as they hoped and prayed for a return to the massive church complex at 3209 Via Lido. They were granted permission by the bishop and standing committee last month, with certain conditions. One condition was that the church must drop “the Great” from its former name, which the church has done, although signage and logos still read “St. James the Great.”
The Rt. Rev. John Taylor, Bishop of Los Angeles, was celebrant and preacher for the homecoming. “I’m the John with an H,” he said with a smile at the start of his sermon. It was the only reference he made to his predecessor, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, who was suspended from ordained ministry because of his words and actions after he ordered the building padlocked on June 29, 2015.
Taylor made clear he was on a mission of reconciliation in the wake of sustained, bitter conflict between the congregation and the diocese. “We are reclaiming our pastorship this morning,” he said of himself and his diocesan colleagues, and stepping out of the role of “mere negotiator.”
He introduced some senior members of his diocesan staff, including the Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, whom Taylor appointed canon to the ordinary and chief of staff after his installation in December.
McCarthy is responsible for a formal, year-long reconciliation process that will begin April 18 with the first of a series of two-day workshops, with titles like “Healthy Congregations” and “Conflict in the Church.” The workshops are led by the Illinois-based Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and are open to anyone in the diocese.
The scope of the reconciliation effort recognizes that the entire diocese suffered as their bishop’s career concluded in years of conflict, and that some believe St. James used the disciplinary process improperly in the attempt to reclaim the building.
The sermon served as a reminder of a message Taylor has delivered in the past to the people of St. James: Although much of their ordeal had been beyond their control, they also played a role in the conflict and now must help heal the wounds.
Preaching without notes, Taylor held to the custom of anchoring his sermon to the appointed Scripture readings for the day, which provided plenty of material for the occasion.
The gospel lesson was the Doubting Thomas story from the 20th chapter of John. It begins with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples in the Upper Room, even though the door had been locked.
“When I say to you, ‘locked doors,’ does that resonate with you?” he asked the congregation.
The text says that the doors were locked “for fear of the Jews,” and Taylor explained that when the Gospel of John was written late in the first century, “there was beginning to be conflict in the Jewish community, profound conflict, about whether Jesus is the Messiah.”
“We are stigmatizing Jews,” he said, and yet everyone in that Upper Room was a Jew. “So the door was locked for fear of people just like them.”
Another reading was from 1 John, “where the church is beginning to bicker, they’re in conflict with other Christians, they’ve lost their sense of unity and common purpose,” Taylor said. “So here comes First John saying, if you say you have fellowship because you know Jesus wants you to have fellowship… [but] you’re bickering, you’re fighting … then you lie, says First John.”
And then commenting on Acts 4: “If you were giving a sermon today at St. James Episcopal Church, after all it had been through, and you came to this passage in Acts: ‘No one claimed private ownership of any possessions’ — does that preach?” he asked.
“You reconcile so you can find unity, but you also reconcile so you can better understand what’s happening,” he said. “We are inviting everyone in our diocese to come home to a new sense of belonging, of being at home with one another in the diocesan family.”
Despite the reality that some difficult conversations lie ahead, the service was unambiguously a celebration. When Voorhees opened the announcements with the words “welcome to St. James,” more than 150 church members leapt to their feet to applaud, whistle, and shout.
The doors had been unlocked five days earlier, and Voorhees said that on each of those days, 25 to 40 volunteers had been scouring the building, wiping away three years of dust on the pews and grime on the windows.
The service was carried live on the congregation’s YouTube channel, and as of Sunday the Save Saint James the Great website in exile was pointing visitors to the congregation’s new website at stjamesnewport.org.