Los Angeles Bishop Coadjutor-elect John Taylor loves people, pastoring, playing the guitar, laughter, family, Jesus Christ, the church, the diocese and his hometown, Motown — although not necessarily in that order.
For Taylor, a former chief of staff to President Richard Nixon (after his resignation) and executive director of the Nixon Library, assuming leadership of one of the most socially, culturally, ethnically, racially, geographically, and economically diverse, progressive dioceses in the Episcopal Church at a “divisive and secularizing time” is huge with possibility.
His narrow victory Dec. 3 on the eighth ballot and current conflicts within the diocese are “like a burning bush” kind of message, he recently told the Episcopal News.
“We have to live into the reality of that division and take from it the invitation to find ways to move forward together despite differences,” he said.
For that, he intends to draw on the wisdom of current Bishops Jon Bruno and Diane Bruce, the councils of the church, diocesan Episcopalians in general, Anglican-Episcopal theology in particular and his own life experiences.
“The strength of Anglican-Episcopal theology is, we find the ability to mediate our differences and to move forward together in joy despite them, because sometimes they will persist,” he said.
Diversity, an early teacher
A native of Detroit, he attended the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and “fell in love with Motown (music) in Motown,” he recalls, smiling.
“The first 45 [record] I ever got, when I was 10 years old, was “You Can’t Hurry Love,” a Supremes song, and I made my mother buy it off the rack at the A&P on Lafayette Boulevard near downtown,” he said. “We lived on Van Dyke, near the Roostertail, and somewhere I still have a recording of ‘The Four Tops and the Temptations Live at the Roostertail.’”
In the way that legendary music electrified a city, became beloved by the nation and, eventually was known around the world, he sees parallel present-day possibilities for the church.
“It was the sound of Young America … the thing that everybody agreed on, just as all the racial and political tensions began to take over America in the mid-’60s,” he recalled. “It just struck me that this is who we are. What I think it means is we need to stop making diversity a position or a policy and we need to make it a passion.”
For Taylor, early on there were life lessons about diversity.
“I went to Miller Junior High School for one year in the seventh grade as part of an integration experiment. My mother was a staunch integrationist” who accepted an invitation to enroll him in the all-black school, he said.
“I was the only white boy in the 7th grade.” That experience “helped me understand that it’s easy and natural to be in relationship with people from different backgrounds and that everyone’s gifts and foibles and hopes and dreams are the same,” said Taylor, 62.
“The sin of prejudice and privilege is that they enable some to realize their dreams while risking choking others’ dreams off.”
Fast forward to the 121st annual meeting of the Diocese of Los Angeles at the Ontario Convention Center, his narrow margin of victory and prospective vision for the 65,000 Episcopalians in 136 neighborhood congregations and mission centers, 40 schools and 15 other specialized service institutions that make up the diocese.
Everyone’s voice is important, says Taylor, himself the author of two novels, an avid blogger and former journalist, a vocation shared with his mother, the late Jean Sharley Taylor Lescoe, a pioneering L.A. Times section editor and longtime parishioner of All Saints, Pasadena.
“I believe the beauty of people in the Resurrection is that it never needs to be either/or but always both/and, as long as we tear down anything in our hearts or institutions which is designed to or even inadvertently is building a barrier,” he said. “That means in our diocese if we’re going to stay this big and this broad and this diverse we have got to find ways to be in contact with people who are not like us.”
Post-election realities: ‘The sky’s the limit’
Since the election, he admits to a few moments of vacillating between “exhilaration and terror” before settling into “a feeling of cheerful, curious, energetic resolve, to do whatever the Holy Spirit and my colleagues in ministry need me to do, time permitting, as this process unfolds.”
The process, at least for the next six months, is to await receipt of consents to his election from a majority of bishops and standing committees from 109 dioceses across the Episcopal Church. Once the consents have been received, the next step is consecration, planned for July 8, 2017 at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Meanwhile, Taylor has been busily responding to text, email, Facebook and phone messages and hopes for “a slow and predictable transition” from St. John’s Chrysostom Church.
He served a ministry study year at the Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana when Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce was associate rector there. Since his 2004 ordination to the priesthood, he has served as vicar at the Rancho Santa Margarita mission church and at the K – 8 school “where I have responsibility as New Testament teacher in the seventh grade.”
He is a parent of two children and two stepchildren, all grown; for him, church and family are intimately connected.
“I love it when everybody’s over for dinner, when the kids are over for dinner and everybody’s laughing and having a great time,” Taylor said. “Moments like that, I could just die of joy.”
“And, if everybody at church is at an event and having a good time and talking about stuff that needs to be talked about but doing it joyfully, it’s the best feeling in the world.
“The biggest yearning of my heart is for community and connection and people not being alone and people not being lonely; people not feeling excluded and left out; people not feeling misunderstood.
“I want churches to be places where everybody can come in and have a family and find love and feel arms that embrace them. That they will find people who will dry their tears and listen to them. No one else in this society will do this. When churches rediscover the gift of doing this or live deeply into doing this, the sky’s the limit.”
The church’s most pressing call: feed hungry hearts
Liturgically, socially, progressively, the Episcopal church “is ideally prepared to feed people’s hungry hearts,” he says. “People are hungry, first of all, for a sense of meaning and purpose … and a sense of community, of belonging, of mutual care, of connection.”
Too often, we are “surrounded by people trying to convince us they’re fine,” he said. “We can look at the culture and we know people aren’t fine. They are worried, anxious, in pain, desperate. In communities of mutual care and connection and pastorship, they find a sense of belonging and the only thing that does that is church.”
People are also looking for justice, and the Episcopal Church’s record on women’s equality and marriage equality speaks for itself, he said.
And, given the current uncertainty of the political climate, “the place where politics and the life of the church intersect is the baptismal covenant. The church has to hold accountable by its witness and, if necessary, by its resistance any agency that seeks to re-alienate recently bestowed rights, because that’s what baptismal covenant people do.
“And I speak especially about women, LGBTQ people and immigrant workers and their families.”
Additionally, he says, people are just plain hungry. About three years ago, St. John’s responded to that hunger, assuming a major role in establishing a local food pantry.
“Every first Tuesday and third Thursday, St. John’s and volunteers from perhaps a half-dozen or more other churches are there from noon to 5 p.m., and, without fail, 150 families, sometimes representing 300 more people, are standing in line for produce and boxes of macaroni and cheese.”
“[With] human need all around us, in our community and the world, the Episcopal Church has demonstrated that it hears God’s call to serve those who are on the margins, who are suffering, who are hungry, who are lonely, who are desperate, who are mentally ill, who are addicted,” he said.
“If we get our unity worked on and if we then are intentional about feeding those four hungers, what can stop this church from growing in this diocese? What would dare try to stop it? There’s no end to the work we can do. In unity, feeding the hungry.”
A clear way forward: ‘the future can’t be brighter for us’
He prefers to focus on that unity, like the “sea of green cards” delegates raised when approving a convention resolution advocating for continued examination of Corporation Sole.
But he declined comment about the ongoing conflict with St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach, which initially sparked the conversation about Corp Sole.
Yet, he is certain a solution exists. Although, he said, there are not going to be easy answers.
“And the answer that does emerge is going to be one that’s going to be brought by all of the stakeholders keeping their own council with the other stakeholders and conducting a loving and civil and gracious conversation behind closed doors with as little additional public rancorousness as possible.”
Ultimately, he said, “[if] we’ve done our work well, we’ll understand that we have a clear way forward and that the future for this denomination in this diocese in this time — a secularizing time and a time of great division in the Body of Christ — the future could not be brighter for us.”
Both he and Kathy O’Connor, married since 2004 (see related story here), share “the experience of being divorced and remarried. We understand the agony of family divided by divorce and we also know that there is in that, as in all human experience, the opportunity for redemption and resurrection,” he said.
“The way we conduct ourselves as a couple, we seek to redeem ourselves from ungraciousness that we may have been part of in the past.”
Taylor’s daughter and son-in-law, Valerie and Mark Passarella, both 31, were present at his election. His youngest, Lindsay Taylor, is 28 and lives in Yorba Linda. Dan O’Connor is 31 and lives in New York City. O’Connor’s youngest, Meaghan, 28, is married to P.J. Bovee. He and Kathy are “eager to be grandparents.”
During premarital counseling, he tells young couples that it is possible to be married and never to fight. “But somebody’s going to have to compromise,” he says. “Someone’s going to have to not get his or her way even when he or she is right.
“And, if a spouse or partner gets up every morning and resolves to do all they can to lift up the other and the other spouse or other partner does that, everything’s going to be glorious. If only one spouse or partner gives, and the other one takes, then it’s abusive.”
Leadership, according to Taylor, often means “setting ego aside, setting insecurity aside, setting any sense of entitlement aside and … working hard not to care who gets the credit,” he said. “Working hard to make sure people with better ideas get the opportunity to step forward and be listened to and to enable the institution to thrive and grow by virtue of seeing their vision implemented.”
Most of all, he invites Episcopalians across the diocese to offer their “advice, suggestions, criticisms, ideas, visions, pet peeves, dreams that have been kept in a top drawer and haven’t been dusted off for a while.
“I’m open for business. My email right now is email@example.com. People can call. People can write. For the next six months, as much as possible, I’m going to be learning and discerning.”