About 125 Southland Episcopalians gathered at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills on March 10, many to lend their support as the St. James the Great worshipping community requested official recognition as a mission station in the Diocese of Los Angeles.
“We come before you this morning in a spirit of deep humility and prayer… with mutual respect for our common values and a desire for mending the bonds of our affection,” the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees told members of the diocesan standing committee, who convened the gathering, and Bishop Diocesan John Harvey Taylor.
Representatives of four congregations neighboring Newport Beach: St. Michael and All Angels, Corona del Mar; St. John the Divine, Costa Mesa; St. Wilfrid of York, Huntington Beach and St. Mary’s, Laguna Beach, were among those invited to comment about St. James’ request to be returned to the Via Lido church site they formerly occupied.
Voorhees told the forum, chaired by the Rev. Abel Lopez, standing committee president, that the St. James worshipping community “has learned a lot about ourselves during the last three years” and experienced tremendous spiritual growth while continuing social outreach and meeting weekly at alternate sites.
Members and others described St. James’ deep roots in the community, as well as their local, ecumenical, interfaith and even international outreach efforts. In response to a question about their demographics, they rebuffed the image of the group as solely wealthy white coastal residents.
Numerous people shared stories about the community’s feeding the homeless, hosting computer coding classes, as well as a baby shower for military wives.
The community has also reached out to local Muslim groups and shared Ash Wednesday services with an African American Baptist Church in Santa Ana, and plans to coordinate Good Friday services with them as well.
Other outreach efforts have included tackling graduation rates for Santa Ana’s Latino high school students, development work in the Diocese of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and supporting a parishioner who has purchased a crumbling orphanage in France to aid Syrian refugees.
“When they no longer had a church building, they continued to worship in the park, art gallery, city hall,” according to St. Wilfrid’s parishioner Connie Hornyak. “They continued to serve God and provide outreach to the community. It’s near and dear to my heart what they’ve done with multicultural ministry. It’s phenomenal,” she said. “Seeing what they can do as nomads, I can only imagine what they can do with a church behind them.”
The Rev. Andrea Paddock, a retired deacon, echoed those sentiments. She said the church “has always been a source of Episcopal solace and a beacon to the community.”
Founded about 72 years ago, the Newport Beach congregation was among four churches that broke away from the diocese and the Episcopal Church. They left because of theological differences after the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003.
Worship resumed in 2013, following a lengthy multi-million dollar legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tensions erupted again when then-Diocesan Bishop Jon Bruno closed the church and attempted to sell the property for $15 million to a local developer. That attempt ultimately failed and the property has remained unsold and unoccupied.
Since 2015, the current members have met in alternate locations but are seeking a return to the building, located at 3209 Via Lido, near residential Lido Isle and just blocks from the Pacific Ocean.
Christian Kassoff, a leader of Thom’s, an alternative worship service, who in 2012 co-founded Laundry Love, Huntington Beach, told the gathering that he deeply cares for the Episcopal Church, in the diocese and in Orange County and in Newport Beach and has worshipped with St. James.
“But I just wanted to remind everybody that we are the church,” he said. “This has been so building-focused that I just want to remind everybody that we are the church. No matter where we are, if this doesn’t work out.
“I have no skin in the game,” he added. “We’ve been moving around, doing beautiful things in different places, city halls, and meeting halls and things like that. So, if it doesn’t work out, St. James is still a loving, worshipping community wherever you are. If you come back home, that’s cool. Let’s do good things in Orange County.”
The Very Rev. Canon Michael Archer, a member of the standing committee and rector of St. Wilfrid’s, Huntington Beach, acknowledged pain and “very strong emotions being expressed on both sides of this struggle” over the past three years.
He said he believes most members of the Huntington Beach congregation agree there is room for another Episcopal Church nearby. But, reading from a prepared statement, he said there is not a united sentiment about the St. James petition to become an official mission station of the diocese.
“While I trust the judgment of Bishop Taylor, and will support his decision as it relates to this next step, I see the ultimate full and healthy reinstatement of St James’ as a mission of the diocese inseparably tied to the successful completion of the reconciliation process that parallels this process … a process I commit to engage in fully with an open heart and mind.”
The Rev. Lester V. Mackenzie, priest-in-charge under special circumstances at St. Mary’s, Laguna Beach, agreed, saying he would have to wait for the reconciliation process to “rebuild trust.” He described seeing bumper stickers in Laguna Beach: “If you can’t be nice, go back to Newport Beach.”
“I look forward to the workshops as one who grew up in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa,” Mackenzie said. “I look forward to practical tools and seeds that can affirm and show me how we trust one another again.”
The Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, canon to the ordinary, told the gathering that the next step in the reconciliation process, designed in conjunction with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, is educational workshops, to be held in April and May and open to diocesan community.
The entire process, which will also involve a time of reconciliation work, will take at least a year, she said. “What is required of you in this process is an open heart, courage to speak up about how you have been hurt or seen others hurt and the courage to listen to ways that others have been hurt, and a heart open to God for grace and forgiveness.
“And a heart open to the Holy Spirit to direct us as one body into the work that God would have us do in these coming years, particularly under Bishop John (Taylor)’s episcopacy. I am grateful to be doing this work and especially grateful to be working with Canon Voorhees, that’s been a great gift to me.”
Taylor said the process has been conducted in accordance with diocesan Canon 1.3, which outlines the process involved for a congregation to become a mission station. It provides that the bishop and standing committee decision will be made in writing.
The next regular meeting of the standing committee is March 21, and they will continue considering St. James’ request. “Once they’ve done their work, they invite the bishop in for a conversation. At some point soon after that meeting, we shall express our views in writing,” Taylor said.
Taylor added: “We always need healing. There are undoubtedly some in this diocese who hear the word reconciliation and conclude, ‘I don’t need that. I didn’t do anything for which I need to be reconciled to God. That’s for someone else. I was erred against, I did not err.’ Those are not impulses idiosyncratic to this particular moment. They are impulses common to all human experience.”
But, he added: “the reconciliation call is to each of us; that’s our responsibility as pilgrims. We can’t go forth and do the work of the Spirit unless we participate in the hard work of self-examination … and repentance and Eucharist as we then go forward.”