Citing binding legal contracts and a need to avoid litigation, Bishop Coadjutor John H. Taylor announced Aug. 14 that diocesan leadership will allow the sale of church property in Newport Beach used by the previous congregation of St. James the Great to proceed.
In a letter to the diocesan community, Taylor wrote that the diocese is obliged to honor the contract between Bishop J. Jon Bruno and Burnham-Ward Properties/Burnham USA, a major commercial property owner in Newport Beach.
“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,” Taylor wrote. “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.”
Rooted in his desire to strengthen funding for the diocese’s overall mission, Bruno’s efforts to sell the Newport Beach property, beginning in 2015, led St. James’ members to file a presentment, or charges, against him with the Episcopal Church. After formal proceedings, a hearing panel concurred with the members’ allegation that Bruno had not been honest with the congregation, had sold consecrated church property without prior authorization from the Standing Committee, and had behaved in a manner unbecoming a clergy member. The hearing panel issued an order calling for Bruno to be suspended from ministry for three years. The order is final unless and until Bruno files an appeal with the Court of Review for Bishops.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on July 31 directed Taylor, with the diocese’s Standing Committee and its president, the Rev. Rachel Nyback, to assume oversight for the Newport Beach property and congregation. Curry wrote, “The purpose of this [action] 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.”
Taylor wrote that, upon receiving the presiding bishop’s directive, he and Nyback “gathered information as widely as we [could], 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” before deciding how to proceed.
In 2006, the congregation of St. James Episcopal Church, Newport Beach, voted to separate from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Los Angeles, and attempted to retain control of the church property. Bishop Bruno and “the faithful congregants and true leadership of St. James Episcopal Parish,” maintaining that church property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church, filed suit. After a protracted legal process, the diocese regained control of the property, ownership of which was transferred to the Bishop as a Corporation Sole (Corp Sole), a California corporation of which the incumbent bishop of Los Angeles is sole trustee.
A new congregation, dubbed St. James the Great, formed in 2013 under the leadership of the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, with support from Bruno and the diocese. After about 18 months, however, Bruno received an offer to buy the property for $15 million. Bruno determined that the money gained in the sale could be used for much wider ministry than that carried out by the small, but growing, congregation of St. James the Great, and entered into a contract to sell the property.
Bruno personally informed the people of St. James the Great of the sale on May 17, 2015 after a Sunday service, citing the need for money for other ministries and to replenish Corp Sole for litigation costs for the Newport Beach and three other diocesan properties whose congregations had also withdrawn from the diocese.
The bishop’s decision angered the congregation, and members took steps to block the sale, including soliciting comments from the Lido Isle community. On June 28, 2015 the congregation held its last service in the church; officials of the diocese changed the locks. The church has since that time sat unused. The congregation of St. James the Great, though not officially a mission of the diocese, has continued to meet ever since in several locations, including a local park and a community center. Some members formed a non-profit corporation known as Save St. James the Great and filed litigation seeking, unsuccessfully, to stop the sale. In another more recent decision, the Superior Court ruled that Corporation Sole has the right to sell the property.
After several months, the sale contract was not finalized amid community opposition to the developer’s plan to raze the church building and build luxury condominiums on the site. Although disciplinary procedures had already begun against him, Bruno entered into a second sales agreement with Burnham-Ward Properties, which plans to retain the church buildings. Taylor wrote in his letter, “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.”
Taylor urged conciliation, writing, “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.” He said he has accepted Voorhees’ invitation to worship with the congregation.
“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,” Taylor wrote. “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.
“Once the St. James matter is settled, our diocese needs a season of open, face-to-face dialogue, accountability, and reconciliation,” Taylor continued. “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.” (The full text of Taylor’s letter is here.)
Taylor noted that as incoming trustee, he is working closely with a committee on a reform plan for Corp Sole. Taylor and the committee on Aug. 21 issued a progress report on their work (see related story here.)