Presiding Bishop removes disputed Newport Beach congregation from Bruno’s authority

Order gives jurisdiction to Los Angeles bishop’s successor, hearing panel action awaited

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Aug 1, 2017

Church Attorney Raymond “Jerry” Coughlan, left, shows Diocese of Los Angeles J. Jon Bruno documents during the bishop’s testimony March 29. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on Aug. 1 removed Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno’s authority over St. James the Great in Newport Beach, California.

The presiding bishop’s action, which includes placing St. James in the jurisdiction of Los Angeles Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor, came as the Episcopal Church awaits the final order from the hearing panel considering disciplinary action against Bruno.

The Further Partial Restriction is intended to chart a way forward that clarifies and respects the appropriate role and authority of Taylor and the Standing Committee as well as the Title IV disciplinary process and the hearing panel, according to an Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs press release.

“It is my hope that this action will help to facilitate positive steps toward resolution and reconciliation,” Curry said in the release.

Curry’s order adds to one he issued in late June, partially restricting Bruno’s ministry, specifically his ability to sell the St. James property.

The five-member hearing panel drafted an order in mid-July, calling for Bruno’s suspension from ordained ministry for three years because of misconduct.

They concluded in a 4-1 decision that “the scope and severity of Bishop Bruno’s misconduct … have unjustly and unnecessarily disturbed the ministry of a mission of the Church.”

Curry cited that draft order in his Aug. 1 action.

“My review of the order and the factual findings that undergird it, as well as my independent understanding of the deeply impaired relationships among the respective parties, have led me to have additional concerns about Bishop Bruno’s exercising any aspect of his episcopal authority over the St. James congregation, its ‘Vicar,’ or St. James’ real and personal property, during the pendency of this matter in the Title IV process,” the presiding bishop wrote.

“In my opinion, any exercise of more general authority by Bishop Bruno over the St. James congregation while the Title IV matter is pending, including through a likely prolonged appeal process when any suspension or other disciplinary order would not be in effect, may threaten the good order and welfare of the Church.”

He said he wanted to “create space” for Taylor and the Standing Committee to exercise their ministries of healing and reconciliation within the diocese, and try to resolve the issues surrounding the St. James congregation and its building.

“With this restriction in place, I urge the diocesan leadership to press forward vigorously toward reconciliation for the sake of the ministry of the Gospel,” Curry wrote.

Taylor later issued a statement “pledg[ing] to do all we can to use this opportunity to achieve a just outcome for the sake of our entire diocesan community.”

“The presiding bishop’s action enables the Rev. Dr. Rachel Anne Nyback, president of the Standing Committee, her fellow committee members, and me to move ahead prayerfully to promote truth, open dialogue, and reconciliation in matters that have distracted our diocese for many months and to do so without awaiting a final resolution of the charges against our Bishop, J. Jon Bruno,” Taylor said.

The St. James congregation responded to the presiding bishop’s decision praising him for his “prayerful deliberation and profound wisdom.”

The members said in a statement they hoped the decision will soon lead them back into their building. They also noted the objectives of both Curry and the Title IV process to “promote healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life and reconciliation …”

“We recognize the need for healing through honest reflection, humility and dialogue by all parties, guided by the Holy Spirit,” the statement said. “We stand ready to discuss a path forward with Bishop John Taylor, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Los Angeles, and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the diocese, aimed at restoring us to our house of worship and the diocese to a peaceful, loving and united community in God’s service.”

Bruno locked out the congregation nearly two years ago after the members objected to his unsuccessful 2015 attempt to sell the St. James property to a condominium developer for $15 million in cash. The congregation has been worshipping in a meeting room at the Newport Beach City Hall. Its canonical status with the diocese is in limbo.

The attempted sale occurred less than 18 months after Bruno reopened St. James in late 2013, after recovering the property via a lawsuit prompted by a split in the congregation. Three other congregations in the diocese also split in disputes about the Episcopal Church’s full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church.

The subsequent effort to sell St. James to a developer prompted congregation members to bring misconduct allegations against Bruno, claiming he violated Episcopal Church law. A hearing on those allegations was held in March.

Bruno continued to try to sell the property even after that hearing. Those efforts, which the bishop tried to conceal, earned him a rebuke from the hearing panel in June. The panel said Bruno had to stop trying to sell the property during the disciplinary process. If he did try, or succeeded, before the panel decided the original case against him, that behavior would be “disruptive, dilatory and otherwise contrary to the integrity of this proceeding,” the panel said at the time. The same is true of his failure to give the panel the information it asked for about the accusations, the notice said. Such behavior violates the portion of canon law that governs the behavior of clerics who face disciplinary actions (Canon IV.13.9(a) page 151 here).

A few days later, Curry place his initial restriction on Bruno’s ministry.

Bruno’s appeal of the panel’s sanctions failed.

The 91-page draft order specifically rejects calls for Bruno to be deposed, or removed, from ordained ministry. It says that during the three-year suspension Bruno could not exercise any authority over “the real or personal property or temporal affairs of the Church.” A three-year suspension would take Bruno beyond his mandatory retirement date in November 2018, when he turns 72.

The draft order, which is not final, also urges the diocese to let the members of St. James the Great return to their building.

The draft order meticulously recounts the testimony and evidence the panel reviewed. It essentially upholds 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 the Rev. Cindy Evans Voorhees, 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.

Diocese of Southern Virginia Bishop Herman Hollerith IV is president of the hearing panel considering the case against Bruno. The panel, appointed by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops from among its members, includes Rhode Island Bishop Nicholas Knisely, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, the Rev. Erik Larsen of Rhode Island and Deborah Stokes of Southern Ohio.

The hearing panel did not publically release its draft order. It apparently gave the draft to the complainants and the presiding bishop for comment. Title IV.14.7 (page 153 here) calls for those parties “to be heard on the proposed terms of the order.” Comments to the hearing panel were due by July 26.

Bruno was not allowed to comment on the draft to the hearing panel. The St. James complainants suggested that the hearing panel have its recommendation take effect immediately and not be stayed or affected by an appeal of its order.

“There is a human cost to the continued exile of the congregation,” they wrote. “We have toddlers in the St. James congregation who have not been baptized because they were born while the congregation was in exile. Indeed, these toddlers have never seen the inside of the church.”

The complainants said they have no room for a Sunday school and their Sunday school teacher quit because “she was tired of holding school in the open air, tired of being hurt by having herself and her children locked out by her bishop.” Diocesan staff recently refused to allow a funeral to be held in the building for a matriarch of the congregation, the complainants said.

“We have received, but not included, many anguished emails from individual complainants, who cannot understand how the Episcopal Church allows the lockout to continue,” they wrote.

The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Aug. 2 at 10:20 a.m. EDT to add the statement from Save St. James the Greate Episcopal Church.