[The Episcopal News] Anglicanism’s “via media” (middle way) is the path newly chosen by two northeast Los Angeles congregations, one Episcopal, the other leasing space onsite as part of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).
Highland Park’s All Saints Episcopal Church, founded in 1904 and worshiping in English and Spanish at 5619 Monte Vista Avenue, has voted to welcome Church of the Resurrection, formed in 2016 and cheerfully dubbed “L.A. Rez” by congregants, to locate its ministries on campus and share the A-frame sanctuary’s worship space.
This agreement – forged by both congregations’ leadership groups and endorsed by Bishop John Harvey Taylor and the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles – reflects Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s view that Episcopal congregations may find productive common cause with those of breakaway denominations such as ACNA.
“At a House of Bishops meeting last year, Bishop Curry asked us all to keep in mind that, in his words, the ‘ACNA of 20 years ago is not necessarily the ACNA of today,’” Taylor told The News. “He said that many of its congregants and even leaders were not as invested in the doctrinal disputes of the early years of the century, and he hoped we would not be, either. He stressed that he wasn’t asking us to put aside the gospel priority of equity for all across barriers of identification and orientation. He just wanted us to go into any conversations we had with ACNA with hearts of reconciliation.
“That’s just what our colleagues and I did working with our siblings at L.A. Rez,” Taylor continued. “After all, looking at the many denominations that nest in our missions and parishes, almost all are more conservative than we on key questions. And yet in church after church, these exercises in practical ecumenism are reaping a wonderful harvest for our Lord.”
“History’s important, but the future is even more important,” the Rev. Guy Leemhuis, president of the standing committee, told The News. “The reason why I’m supportive of this new initiative, supported by the leadership of All Saints, is because it’s about walking in the way of love. If this is going to work out it’s because we’re tapping into our Christian love. It’s not about who’s right and wrong.
“It appears that we’re able to communicate and work together with ‘plenty good room’ for ministry,” Leemhuis added, echoing a phrase often used by the presiding bishop.
L.A. Rez’s rector, the Rev. Teesha Hadra, agrees. “What has been so lovely is the relational welcome that we have received in our conversations” with All Saints’ priest-in-charge, the Rev. Otto Vasquez, and longtime warden Dan Valdez – a parishioner since 1991 and a seven-time senior deputy to General Convention – as well as Bishop Taylor and the standing committee. “There is an openness to doing more ministry for the sake of the Kingdom, and that has been really refreshing.”
Hadra, who holds a law degree from the University of Florida and received a master’s of divinity from Pasadena’s Fuller Seminary, regularly joins the Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, diocesan canon to the ordinary and chair of the diocese’s deputation to the churchwide General Convention, in conversations related to ministry and the Highland Park collaboration.
“I’m excited about all the possibilities this new relationship between All Saints Highland Park and LA Rez will offer both communities,” McCarthy said. “Otto is a strong and clear leader. His work, alongside the lay leaders of All Saints has been a blessing and will continue to yield grace upon grace for that community. Otto and leaders of All Saints had the wisdom and courage to see past the historical divisions into a bright future for both congregations. Teesha is an enthusiastic, energetic, and strong leader of L.A. Rez. While these remain two separate churches, I believe both congregations have much to offer each other and their communities. I can’t wait to see what God will unfold in this collaboration.”
As All Saints’ priest-in-charge since 2019, Vasquez guided the parish through the pandemic and is now in the process of welcoming the L.A. Rez congregation, which is set to arrive in the weeks of late June and early July to begin a five-year agreement.
“We began conversations a year ago, and we’re very excited now to begin the journey together. God’s time is perfect,” said Vasquez, also a skilled general contractor who has been completing major repairs to All Saints’ church and parish house exterior and interior spaces, starting work during the pandemic.
“We’re focused on making everyone comfortable,” Vasquez said. “They’ve already offered to help with the homeless, and hopefully we can work together in the future and have some reconciliation after theological quarrels in the past. This is a completely new generation – they didn’t experience those dark days. They’re focused on their ministry, and having waited, can enjoy it now.”
Vasquez, who joined All Saints in 1993 as a layperson and was raised up by the parish for ordination to the priesthood, said he expects the transition to continue smoothly, with L.A. Rez’s Sunday service starting at 9:30 a.m. and All Saints’ bilingual liturgy starting at 11:30 a.m. After weathering the pandemic, “we’re building the ministry. now is the time to harvest, to do what we’re meant to do.”
While All Saints – a parish of more than 120 active members – became well known in the 1990s for notable HIV/AIDS ministries and LGBTQ inclusion, the Ambridge, Pennsylvania-based ACNA denomination was formed in 2009 to encompass more than 900 U.S. and Canadian congregations who stood opposed to LGBTQ ordination, marriage equality and other theological differences.
“Yet we can share in service to the community because we have common interests. So, I said, ‘Why not?’ It’s no different than a family dynamic in which there is some conflict that splits a family apart for awhile, but there is always that yearning to come back together in some way, agreeing to disagree, but realizing we’re all part of the same Christian family. So, I decided for myself, and as senior warden, that we should take this opportunity,” Valdez said.
“Among underlying factors, we at All Saints have property we need to rent to sustain ourselves, so we felt a little pressure on that, but it wasn’t the driving factor,” Valdez said. “We came to the decision of let’s reach out, come together where we can, and serve the Body of Christ, but let’s also be respectful of each other’s identity and beliefs, and proceed cautiously, because we don’t want beliefs to be imposed on us, and we don’t want the ACNA to feel pressure to accept our beliefs.
Valdez said he views the Highland Park collaboration as “a wonderful opportunity to start seeking reconciliation. At the same time, I was a little concerned because of my experience with ACNA going back to 2003, when the late Jenny Ladefoged and I were at General Convention and accepted a luncheon invitation to ‘come get to know us and talk.’ As soon as folks at the table realized we were from Diocese of Los Angeles, six or seven people all stood up and walked away and left me and Jenny sitting there and trying to figure out what happened. When the conversation in Highland Park began, I still had that in the back of my mind,” Valdez said. “I had been rejected by these people who were unwilling to share a meal.
“At first I was a bit concerned, thinking about what the impact might be on our All Saints congregation in terms of its ability to grow. It took a conversation with Bishop Taylor, Deacon Kevin Gunn, now retired, and Fr. Otto in which we agreed that these are not the same people we were fighting with back in 2003. It was a bit of an awakening for me.
“We used to worship together, side by side, up to 20 years, ago, our divergent understanding of theology and sexuality existed then. But as hundreds of years before, we were still able to workshop as a Christian family. We still saw the door open as an opportunity for reconciliation; we share a certain identity within Anglicanism. I decided for myself, after meeting the L.A. Rez members, that the majority have no idea of the schism. When I shared my story, many of them were taken aback.”
Both congregations share common cause in serving the region’s unhoused, with All Saints having opened its sanctuary before the pandemic as an overnight shelter. Hadra, L.A. Rez’s rector, noted that All Saints is this month re-starting its mobile laundry and shower ministries after a hiatus during the pandemic. “We’re excited about ways in which we can partner with All Saints to serve our unhoused neighbors,” she added.
Hadra said that L.A. Rez – with Sunday services attended by about 100 – 120 worshipers mostly from Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Pasadena and South Pasadena, with some driving in from Claremont, Duarte, Hawthorne and the South Bay – actively volunteers with the mutual aid society Accion Comunitara (Community Action), “which feeds some 200-plus of our neighbors here in northeast L.A. We support them with volunteers and financially as we’re able; it’s a local grassroots organization just started by women in the neighborhood and sought to meet that need. It’s a gift to us to come alongside and support their work,” Hadra said.
“We as a church had been looking to move to different worship space in Highland Park,” she said. “L.A. property is so expensive, so we’ve looked to find something in our budget with flexibility, a little more footprint in the neighborhood. We’ll use one of the parish’s houses for office space and children’s ministries. The sanctuary will be shared space with separate Sunday services.
“We’re looking forward to doing more in the neighborhood, supporting what All Saints is already doing in the neighborhood, and maybe even find ways to expand that even more,” she said. “We’re grateful to be a vibrant and strong community, I’m looking forward to the ways in which this shared space will be a blessing.”
A member of L.A. Rez’s parish council, Nick Brown – a Wyoming native and Loyola Marymount University professor who specializes in teaching bio-ethics – shares Hadra’s commitment to the neighborhood. Brown and his wife, Audrey – a regional director for Uplift Pacific Clinics, said to be Southern California’s largest mental health service provider – live with their three sons in nearby Mount Washington. They came to L.A. Rez in 2021 from St. Luke’s ACNA congregation in Montrose with the desire to share in neighborhood ministry, and also appreciating L.A. Rez’s Sunday school and new youth group opportunities.
Brown, raised a Presbyterian, and his wife, who previously attended non-denominational church, felt drawn to Anglicanism by the richness and history of the liturgy, he said, noting that L.A. Rez’s Sunday service includes bilingual components including one lectionary reading and the Lord’s Prayer offered in Spanish.
“One of the first things that we members of the parish council and Mother Teesha set as a guiding factor in our discernment is remaining true to our founding of being rooted in this part of Los Angeles,” Brown said.
“Also, just as important is the opportunity to join a community that is already well known, well established in Highland Park, and the opportunity to forge – given recent history between the Episcopal Church and ACNA – opportunities for real reconciliation,” Brown said. “While we still have some differences, there is also still unity and genuine care for each other. Let’s find opportunities to express that.
“We feel very grateful and fortunate and excited about the opportunity to be welcomed by All Saints and to continue to grow that relationship with that congregation and everybody there,” Brown said. “We feel very blessed by this gift and opportunity.”
Leemhuis said the two congregations’ collaboration “if nothing else, appears to be a former part of ourselves returning in a different way. For some people that’s painful; for others, curious; for some people that creates some anxiety, and for others it creates some hope.
“Leaders have approached this in an open, transparent way,” he said of conversations shared by the standing committee, the bishop, All Saints’ vestry and priest in charge, and New Rez’s rector and parish council.
“After conversation, it appears that L.A. Rez comes to this sharing of space in a very humble and love-filled way, and the people of All Saints, Highland Park, are excited about this possibility,” Leemhuis said, adding that “I don’t use the word reconciliation” in the sense of “someone admits wrong. They’re still who they are, and we’re still who we are.”
He is confident that neither congregation “will be actively speaking out against God’s children. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
“This may not work in all parts of the diocese,” Leemhuis added, “but in this community they seem poised and ready for possibilities that are nothing but good in terms of their trajectory. We’ll be watching and praying that this will be something perhaps that will help us find a way forward with brothers and sisters swimming in the same pond.
“And I think the standing committee, bishop and other church leaders are feeling that as we walk the way of love, our faith will lead us to the place we’re meant to be.”
— Bob Williams is diocesan canon for common life.