LA diocese, congregation still at odds over disputed St. James property

October 11, 2017

[Episcopal News Service] The dispute over the St. James the Great property on Lido Island in Newport Beach, California, that is at the heart of disciplinary proceedings against Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno has taken several recent turns.

Late on Oct. 10, Los Angeles Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor and the Rev. Anne Nyback told the diocese that an anticipated sale of the property had fallen through.

“This event, we believe, gives our diocesan community a renewed opportunity for careful discernment about our mission and ministry in south Orange County,” the two wrote.

They pledged to “do all we can pastorally, logistically, and financially to assist the St. James congregation should it wish to regain mission status in the diocese.” However, that effort will not include an immediate return of the congregation’s pastor, the Rev. Cindy Evans Voorhees, to lead worship in the church she designed.

“After a suitable period of discernment and planning, we will reopen the church as a bishop’s chapel, with supply, or guest, clergy invited to conduct Sunday services,” Taylor and Nyback wrote. “It will be open to all in the community who wish to attend and glorify and serve our God in Christ.”

In a statement released the next day, members of St. James said they were “disappointed but not surprised” by the announcement. They said that “this is not what reconciliation looks like.”

“The congregation, still meeting in exile in the Civic Center community room, would like to return to its church,” they wrote, adding that the congregation had recently offered to match the potential buyer’s offer and to pay any reasonable costs associated with breaking the deal.

“Bishop Taylor claimed that he could not even discuss that offer because of the pending developer agreement,” they wrote. “Now there is no such agreement; but instead of talking with the congregation the bishop has put out a press release.”

Bruno was involved in an earlier and ultimately unsuccessful 2015 attempt to sell the church property to a condominium developer for $15 million in cash. That effort prompted the members of St. James to bring misconduct allegations against Bruno, alleging he violated church law.

An Episcopal Church disciplinary hearing panel conducted three days of testimony on those allegations in March. Bruno again attempted to sell the property as the panel considered how to rule on the case.

That attempt earned Bruno two ministerial restrictions from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the latter of which removed St. James from Bruno’s authority and put the congregation under Taylor’s control. The previous restriction was designed to prevent Bruno trying to sell the property. It was this second sale attempt by Bruno that Taylor on Oct. 10 said had fallen through.

The hearing panel found Bruno guilty of the St. James complainants’ allegations that Bruno violated church canons because he:

  • failed to get the consent of the diocesan standing committee before entering into a contract to sell the property;
  • misrepresented his intention for the property to the members, the clergy and the local community at large;
  • misrepresented that St. James the Great was not a sustainable congregation;
  • misrepresented that Voorhees, then St. James’ vicar, had resigned;
  • misrepresented to some St. James members that he would lease the property back to them for a number of months and that the diocese would financially aid the church; and
  • engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy by “misleading and deceiving” the clergy and people of St. James, as well as the local community, about his plans for the property and for taking possession of the property and locking out the congregation.

In an Aug. 2 final order the panel said Bruno should be suspended from ordained ministry for three years because of misconduct. The hearing panel also strongly recommended that the diocese “as a matter of justice” immediately suspend its efforts to sell the property, that it restore the congregation and vicar to the church building, and that it reassign St. James the Great appropriate mission status.

The five-person panel said that it is convinced the diocese, particularly its Standing Committee and Taylor, must consciously choose to take part in a process of self-examination and truth-telling around these unfortunate and tragic events.

Taylor issued a statement after the hearing panel’s order saying that “Bishop Bruno’s 40 years of ordained ministry and 15 years as sixth bishop of Los Angeles are not summed up by this order or the events that precipitated it.”

The bishop coadjutor called him “a courageous, visionary leader” and said he looked forward to “continuing to learn from him and consult with him about the life of the diocesan community he has served and loves so well.”

Taylor said he and the Standing Committee “will do everything we can to promote a just solution that takes into account the interests of all in our community (including the faithful members of the Newport Beach church) and gives us the opportunity to move forward together. In a dispute such as this one, truth-telling, open communication, and reconciliation can be difficult for everyone involved.”

Taylor later told the diocese that the contract to sell the property that Bruno struck is legally binding on the diocese, and thus the diocese could not back out of the deal.

Meanwhile, Bruno has appealed the hearing panel’s ruling. His appeal will be heard by the church’s Court of Review for Bishops.

The Disciplinary Board for Bishops recently issued a one-page order saying that as of Jan. 1, 2018, and while his appeal is ongoing, Bruno must “refrain from the exercise of the gifts of ministry conferred by ordination and shall not exercise any authority over the real or personal property or temporal affairs of the Church.”

Those restrictions do not supersede the ones Curry had previously placed on Bruno. The three-year suspension recommended by the hearing panel would take Bruno beyond his mandatory retirement date in November 2018, when he turns 72.

However, the diocese recently announced that Bruno plans to retire on Nov. 30. The diocese has begun a series of gala farewell parties (http://www.brunofarewell.org/) for him.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.

Share This: