[Episcopal News Service] Diocese of Los Angeles Bishop Coadjutor John Taylor has written to the diocese about the disputed St. James the Great Episcopal Church property on Lido Island in Newport Beach, California, that is at the heart of disciplinary proceedings against diocesan Bishop J. Jon Bruno.
Taylor’s bottom line is that the contract to sell the property that Bruno struck is legally binding on the diocese.
“In prayerful discernment, we opened our hearts to a variety of possibilities for reconciliation in Christ and healing for St. James and our whole community. But Bishop Bruno has entered into a binding contract to sell the property. The buyer has the legal right to expect the seller to honor the contract,” Taylor wrote in a letter emailed to the diocese Aug. 14 and posted on the diocese’s Facebook page. “Much as we might wish it were otherwise, we do not believe that it would be in the interests of the diocese or consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities to endorse any steps leading to breaching or threatening to breach an enforceable contract that could lead to further expense and litigation.”
However, Taylor said, the contract with Burnham-Ward Properties/Burnham USA, a major commercial property owner in Newport Beach, “offers one way forward.”
“Burnham has longstanding ties to the community. It plans to preserve the worship space so it may continue to be used by churches and other community organizations, including St. James if it wishes,” Taylor wrote. “We were encouraged to learn of preliminary conversations some weeks ago between Burnham and a congregation representative about the possible use of the space by St. James.”
Waltert Stahr, an attorney and St. James member, wrote in an Aug. 14 email to the congregation that he and the Rev. Cindy Voorhees, the St. James vicar, met earlier in the day with Taylor; the Rev. Rachel Nyback, head of the Standing Committee; and Bob Williams, canon for community relations.
“They informed us that they have decided to proceed with the sale of the St. James property to Burnham Ward. They stated that there is a binding, legal agreement with a future closing date, which they did not disclose, for the sale of the property. They assured us that if St. James the Great wishes to continue as an Episcopal congregation, they will support us—just not in our building. We will provide more detail as events unfold,” Stahr wrote. “I know how devastating this will be for many of you, but the story is not over.”
The hearing panel that considered disciplinary action against Bruno issued a final order Aug. 2 reaffirming its draft recommendation that he be suspended from ordained ministry for three years because of misconduct. It is awaiting word on whether Bruno plans to appeal that sentence.
The full text of Taylor’s letter follows.
A Letter to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles
The Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor, Bishop Coadjutor
August 14, 2017
On behalf of the Rev. Dr. Rachel Anne Nyback, president of the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and me, I write today to summarize conclusions we have reached about matters that have roiled our diocese for over two years, since the public learned of the initial plan by the “Bishop as Corporation Sole” to sell the property on Via Lido in Newport Beach. I write in the spirit of Resurrection and love and the hope of reconciliation. I also write to acquaint our community with the limitations imposed on us all by the reality of present circumstances.
On July 31, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, wrote to Dr. Nyback and me that he had concluded that Bishop J. Jon Bruno “is not in a position to exercise pastoral oversight of St. James.” He said he wished to give us episcopal jurisdiction over St. James-related matters. He continued:
The purpose of this is to create space for the Bishop Coadjutor and the Standing Committee to, a) exercise their respective ministries of healing and reconciliation within the diocese, and, b) seek to resolve the conflict over and determine the disposition of all matters related to the property, congregation and Vicar, which is the proper domain of their respective authority and responsibility as leaders of the Diocese.
Bishop Curry drew a distinct line between his charge to the Standing Committee and me on the one hand and the work of the Hearing Panel on the other. “The Hearing Panel’s canonical and pastoral focus,” he wrote, “is on the actions and behavior of [Bishop Bruno] in these matters.”
In the two weeks since Bishop Curry’s invitation, which he formalized in an order dated August 1, Dr. Nyback and I have gathered information as widely as we can, including but not limited to consultation with the Standing Committee, Bishop Bruno and his colleagues, representatives of St. James the Great, legal experts, and the contracted buyer of the Via Lido property.
The Property on Via Lido
In prayerful discernment, we opened our hearts to a variety of possibilities for reconciliation in Christ and healing for St. James and our whole community. But Bishop Bruno has entered into a binding contract to sell the property. The buyer has the legal right to expect the seller to honor the contract. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, we do not believe that it would be in the interests of the diocese or consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities to endorse any steps leading to breaching or threatening to breach an enforceable contract that could lead to further expense and litigation.
The St. James Congregation
We understand that the Hearing Panel’s ruling, which awaits the possibility of Bishop Bruno’s appeal, calls on us to return the congregation to the building. The four concurring Hearing Panel members and the attorneys who advised them evidently did not take fully into account the existence of a binding contract nor all the ways the dispute begs for wider reconciliation. (One panel member dissented and supported Bishop Bruno.)
Their advocacy bespeaks a commendable pastoral connection with the people of St. James. As recently as the filing of the church attorney’s brief after the hearings in Pasadena in March, those conducting the proceeding against Bishop Bruno made it clear that he could avoid being sanctioned if he would relent on his intention to sell the property. This is not to understate the significance of the panel’s findings against Bishop Bruno. But we trust that from the painful experience of the Diocese of Los Angeles, The Episcopal Church will learn lessons about how, in disciplinary settings, to differentiate between actions by a respondent which deserve sanction and a complainant’s wish to reverse an operational decision.
We share the panel’s profound concern for the people of St. James. Bishop Bruno asked them to start a new congregation, and under the leadership of the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, they accepted the challenge. They praised, worshipped, and served, as they continue to do. We are not here to relitigate Bishop Bruno’s actions or the Hearing Panel’s verdict. In all likelihood, after 40 years of ordination, including many moments of courage and vision, he will lose the right to say Holy Eucharist and to baptize, confirm, and bless for three years. It is also outside the realm of Bishop Curry’s charge to assess how long it would have taken St. James to achieve sustainability. Suffice it to say that it was making good progress and that losing its church building was a disappointment and shock.
Amid their shock, some have gone to unfortunate extremes. We have gathered, examined, and shared with the Presiding Bishop copies of numerous anonymous e-mails and letters sent to persons who supported, agreed with, and worked for Bishop Bruno and to members of their families. We trust that the leaders of St. James have no knowledge of them. They contain threats; ridicule; accusations of corruption, perjury, cowardice, and submission to patronage; and demands that volunteers and diocesan staff members resign. Standing Committee members were particularly singled out for this treatment. We were heartened by Bishop Curry’s decision to meet with the Standing Committee on July 7 and listen to members’ perspectives. He exhibited a pastor’s heart and leader’s wisdom by expressing respect for the committee’s ministry in his July 31 email.
Canon Voorhees is entitled to confidentiality when it comes to any conversations that may occur about her ministry in our diocese. We look forward to open dialogue and prayerful discernment in the weeks and months ahead.
The Way Forward
The Standing Committee and I wish it were possible to achieve a settlement in which all could receive everything they sought. Unfortunately, in the short term, this cannot be the case. And yet we continue to believe that healing and reconciliation are possible for our whole community.
First, for the people of St. James. Our greatest regret concerns the opportunities that were missed all along the line that would have enabled the congregation of St. James the Great to fulfill its gospel mission without being dependent on being within the walls of the facility on Via Lido. The responsibility for these missed opportunities is shared by both sides. Whatever happens with the contracted sale, we prayerfully and earnestly urge the congregation to discern about what might be possible instead of what is not. I look forward to being part of that discernment to the extent the community may wish. I quickly accepted Canon Voorhees’ invitation to visit the congregation when she extended it recently. I offered a number of dates. I look forward to the blessings of worshiping with the congregation and sharing fellowship at their convenience.
The sales contract itself offers one way forward. Although it contains a nondisclosure agreement, we have received permission to describe some of the details. Bishop Bruno entered into an agreement with Burnham-Ward Properties/Burnham USA, a major commercial property owner in Newport Beach. Burnham has longstanding ties to the community. It plans to preserve the worship space so it may continue to be used by churches and other community organizations, including St. James if it wishes. We were encouraged to learn of preliminary conversations some weeks ago between Burnham and a congregation representative about the possible use of the space by St. James.
When by the grace of God I succeed Bishop Bruno on his retirement, I pledge to do all I can pastorally, logistically, and financially to support the St. James congregation should it wish to remain together and reapply for mission status. Their purpose and drive these last two years demonstrated that they love their church building and also that they don’t need it to be the church, to remain in unity, and to praise God and serve God’s people.
Second, for all the people of our diocese. Once the St. James matter is settled, our diocese needs a season of open, face-to-face dialogue, accountability, and reconciliation. In a conflict such as this one, reconciliation is in the eye of the beholder. The dispute has affected every aspect of our community’s life. Bishop Bruno is accountable for his actions. So too are some of the leaders of St. James. As we move forward together, the Rt. Rev. Diane Jardine Bruce, Canon to the Ordinary-designate Melissa McCarthy, the Standing Committee, and I, working with Stillpoint and others in our diocese, are in conversation about ways we can use this wearying season as a focal point for new energy and ministry in this time when our neighborhoods, nation, and world need The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Los Angeles to be at their most unified and effective.
Third, for the financial life of our Diocese. The St. James matter demonstrates that our diocese must be more transparent and deliberative about finances. For months, a committee has been working hard on a reform plan for Corporation Sole. As its incoming trustee, I have been working with them closely. A progress report is imminent.
A former Wells Fargo Bank executive, Bishop Diane Jardine Bruce is preparing to take responsibility for the diocesan budget. Our goal is a Mission Share Fund budget that feeds hungry hearts by revealing the true heart of the diocese — what we really care about, what we can afford, and what we can’t yet afford but seek to make possible through additional stewardship and fundraising. We will create a grant application procedure to ensure equitable access to designated Corp Sole funds. We pledge to do all we can to ensure that capital sums received by the diocese, including proceeds from the Via Lido sale, are conserved for the sake of generations to come.
As for our generation, our unity amid diversity and difference, our grasping one another’s hands across chasms of conflict and misunderstanding, are vital if we are to be the church our God in Christ needs us to be in this time and place. The 21 st century is inviting The Episcopal Church to create communities of enduring familial connection where we accept one another as we are, participate in divine mysteries that invite transformation, and go forth cheerfully to love God and our neighbor.
Accepting one another as we are can be the hardest part. But it is the holiest work of all. As Paul writes (Romans 8:28), “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Each moment affords each person of faith the opportunity to preach the good news in word, deed, and love. Each moment of certitude invites us to ask if we may be wrong. The hurts we suffer, even when we have every right to expect accountability, activate our hearts of forgiveness.
I look forward eagerly to walking with all our people in the way of the Cross in the months and years ahead. May our God in Christ, through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, richly bless you, this day and forever.