At the Ontario Convention Center, Diocesan Bishop Jon Bruno called the 120th annual convention of the Diocese of Los Angeles to order Dec. 4 on a somber note, urging an end to violence in all forms and citing a chilling statistic, that the United States had experienced a mass shooting — of four or more — nearly every day of 2015.

Earlier in the day Bruno and guest speaker Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (see story here) had offered prayers and a pastoral presence 24 miles east of the gathering, at the San Bernardino site where 14 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in a Dec. 2 terror attack.

“Help change the world by transforming hatred into love,” Bruno told the gathering. “This was not a religious act; it was an act of hatred and violence. It was despicable. God calls us to be a light … in the darkness.”

About 720 lay and clergy delegates attending the “Horizons and Heritage” themed gathering also heard from author and theologian Renita Weems, the Margaret Parker Lecturer (see story here), welcomed Bishop Guy Erwin of the Southwest Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and honored Bishop Suffragan Mary Glasspool, who on April 1 will begin a new ministry as bishop assistant in the Diocese of New York.

Convention considered proposed changes to the constitution and canons of the diocese and debated several resolutions related to property issues involving the sale of St. James the Great Church in Newport Beach.

Convention debates property issues
involving St. James the Great, Newport Beach

Bruno explained his decision to sell St. James Church as a financial one, intended to offset years of fiscal challenges spurred by a faltering economy, aging church and other buildings and the $9 million legal battle to return to the diocese St. James’ and other properties held by groups who broke away from the Episcopal Church over theological differences.

Other contributing factors included reduced mission share fund contributions and increased physical plant grant requests that have resulted in reduced support to diocesan institutions, and staff layoffs. Retention of the St. James property would require compliance with city codes for parking spaces “and a permanent solution is a multi-million dollar problem,” Bruno said.

After receiving an unsolicited $15 million purchase offer, “I consulted with experts and determined that it was in the best interests of the diocese to sell the property and use the proceeds on behalf of the entire diocese, rather than use limited cash assets of the diocese to keep the property and make it useful for the diocese,” he said.

The Very Rev. Melissa McCarthy, chair of the Standing Committee, told convention the Standing Committee agreed with Bruno’s decision.

Bruno said the sale would give the diocese “the ability to fund the work of mission congregations, to help the poor and needy, to replenish the funds used in litigation, to bolster the budget of the Corporation of the Diocese and fund the programs and institutions that are the life blood of this mission,” he said.

“St. James the Great can continue at a new site or join one of its neighbors which could strengthen that church by its momentum.”

But the sale has been delayed because of “two lawsuits pending, one by the bishop to clear the cloud on the title, a necessary procedure when there is a clerical error; and a second by the group opposing the sale,” Bruno said. “This group has the support of some members of the diocese and others who are not members and will cost the diocese more than $500,000 before it concludes.”

He said: “I call on the members of this diocese who are promoting this litigation to use their influence to stop the opposition lawsuit as it harms the diocese by wrongfully attempting to prove something it knows is not true and thereby prevent the sale of the property, permanently destroying its marketable title.”

Seeking to reoccupy the church, St. James’ members also filed charges against Bruno under Title IV Disciplinary Canons as part of their campaign to stop the sale, he said. “While those charges are unsupportable and hurtful, like most of their campaign, I am thankful for the tremendous support many of you have given me in this process and look forward to the conclusion early in the new year. That conclusion will enable me to resume the campaign I announced last year to raise the money we need to see that this diocese has a permanent and sound fiscal foundation and the means to celebrate through decades of changes.”

Constitutional changes deferred;
resolutions spark extended debate

A majority of delegates voted to refer proposed changes to diocesan canons to the Committee on Constitution and Canons for further study.

The first proposed change was an effort to alter Canon 2.11 to prevent transfer of “the title to real property purchased, given or otherwise acquired for mission purposes” to the Bishop as a Corporation Sole, requiring instead that it be vested in the Corporation of the Diocese. Corporation Sole holds money and property deeded to the current bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles, who is its sole trustee. Convention referred the motion 288-264 to the committee, with 15 abstentions.

Also referred to committee by a margin of 342-236 with 14 abstentions was a second proposed change, to Canon 3, that would have required the transfer and conveyance of property during a change to mission status to be vested in the Corporation of the Diocese, not Corporation Sole or the bishop.

Similarly, resolutions involving St. James also sparked extended debate. The first, titled “Reconciliation and healing for St. James,” called upon Bruno to cancel the proposed sale and to restore the congregation to the church. The church held its last service inside the church on June 28 as decided by the vicar. Members rejected the bishop’s offer to continue meeting in the church until the sale was finalized.

Numerous supporters of the resolution, like the Rev. Steve Huber, rector of All Saints’, Beverly Hills, told delegates St. James should not be sold because “we see a exciting, vibrant, renewed congregation developing and this is something we as a diocese should celebrate rather than trying to shut down or just hope will go away.”

Others objected, saying the resolution seemed punitive and designed to publicly embarrass Bruno, and that more time and information were needed to make an informed decision. Still others said a decision should be postponed until ongoing litigation and the Title IV Disciplinary Canon proceedings are concluded, presumably early next year.

The Rev. Canon John Conrad, rector of All Saints’, Riverside, introduced a motion to postpone the resolution, saying it “really is about St. James wanting to restrict the bishop’s option in living into his pastoral ministry. This says reconciliation, healing and resolution. It resolves nothing. It will divide us. It will cause us to choose up loyalties.”

Bruno nullified an initial 241-239 vote on a motion to table the resolution and instructed delegates to cast ballots for the original resolution. Supporters requested an electronic vote. That resolution failed, 261-205 with eight abstentions.

A second, related resolution was titled “Transfer of all active congregations and other properties from Corporation Sole to the Corporation of the Diocese.”

The Rev. Canon Betsy Anderson, assisting at All Saints’, Beverly Hills, and at St. James, Los Angeles, urged a yes vote, saying the resolution “is really about good governance and not intended to be punitive” and could impact potential donors “who may wonder how secure their gifts to your community might really be” for congregations held by Corporation Sole.

Rather, she said the current situation, with some properties held by Corporation Sole and others by the Corporation of the Diocese, creates an unhealthy two-class system … “one of them overseen by one person and the other by a group of elected diocesan directors.
“How would you feel if, as many of these communities now have, you didn’t know that your active congregation or institution was in Corp Sole until just now. And how would you feel upon finding out that you do not have the same responsibilities or rights as those other congregations?”

But Patricia LoCicero, a parishioner at St. Mary’s, Lompoc, held up information circulated throughout convention by red-T-shirt-clad St. James supporters and said: “This paper says that these parishes, 15 of them, are owned by Corp Sole and my church happens to be on here. I feel like we need to keep our sense of balance here. St. Mary’s is not owned by Corp Sole; this is an incorrect fact.

“I’m a layperson and … I feel very disillusioned that there is this disharmony going on,” she continued. “I’m sorry they lost their church but if you think about all the events that took place before that maybe the whole thing could have been handled differently. I think we just need to move forward in love.”

A motion to create a committee appointed by former Standing Committee presidents to study the issues presented by the resolutions and to report back to diocesan convention 2016 passed. The Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, St. James’ vicar, is a former Standing Committee president; so is Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce. Proposed by Canon Richard Zevnik, the adopted resolution states that Convention acted to “postpone consideration of the instant resolution” and “have the past presidents of the Standing Committee appoint a committee to study the issues” and “present a report at 2016 Diocesan Convention on the merits.”

A third resolution, requiring the auditing of Corporation Sole, was withdrawn after Bruno said that the corporation has been audited annually since 1904 and announced that he would make the results available.

Refugees, racial reconciliation, justice

Convention delegates overwhelmingly approved a resolution establishing a companion relationship with the Anglican Church in Cuernavaca, Mexico; and a second resolution extending a longstanding relationship with the Diocese of Jerusalem.

Delegates also approved a resolution affirming vigorous opposition “to any further expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” It called for economic divestment in Israel, a return to the negotiating table and for national advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian people.

Additionally, Bruno referenced keynote speakers Michael Curry and Renita Weems, saying there is “vital work we have yet to do in terms of racial reconciliation and economic justice.”

Citing disturbing economic gaps, he noted that “The black-white wealth gap has reached a 24-year high,” the Huffington Post reports. “The median wealth of black households dropped an astonishing 34 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to Pew’s analysis of Federal Reserve data. That of white households grew slightly over the same period. In dollars, that meant the median white household was worth $141,900, while the median black household was worth just $11,000. Wealth was defined here as the difference between the value of the household’s assets — such as a house and stocks — and its liabilities.”

He also called upon congregations to support the work of the Program Group on Global Partnership and of the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service, a diocesan ministry known as IRIS, who accompany and advocate for refugee children.

Recently, All Saints Church in Pasadena partnered with IRIS to assist a family of Syrian refugees resettling in Southern California.
A resolution directing the diocesan Gun Violence Prevention Task Force to widen its membership to include other denominations and to accelerate advocacy efforts for the implementation of universal background checks for all persons seeking to purchase a gun, also passed overwhelmingly.

In other convention business, delegates approved a $6 million budget; accepted Stillpoint: the Center for Christian Spirituality as an institution of the diocese; and elected officers for various diocesan boards and commissions (see list below).

Christian Kassoff, diocesan co-chair for Episcopal Relief & Development, told delegates that this year the diocese raised $768,782.28 for the churchwide agency.

Overall, about 1,000 delegates, visitors, guests, and exhibitors attended the convention. The next meeting is set for Dec. 2 – 3, 2016; tentatively scheduled for the Ontario Convention Center. Several delegates objected to the location after seeing announcements of a January gun show to be hosted at the site. The bishop referred investigation of this matter to a task force.