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Bishop's pending sale of O.C. church leaves congregation locked out

Though St. James the Great Episcopal Church parishioners won't be meeting in their longtime house of worship Sunday, it doesn't mean they won't be having a service.

The group, led by the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, plans to have its usual Sunday service on the sidewalk outside the 70-year-old Newport Beach church.

On Thursday morning, about 50 parishioners stood in front of the locked white gates barring them from entering the building. They were there to show support for their congregation and voice opposition to Bishop J. Jon Bruno's plan to sell the property to a developer.

"By abruptly attempting to sell the St. James the Great building and grounds, the bishop, in a time of sharply declining church attendance, is apparently blithely scattering more than 200 Episcopal souls to the wind," Voorhees said.

Bruno, of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, announced in May that the church building and two nearby parking lots were being sold for about $15 million to Legacy Partners Residential, which plans to build 22 high-end townhomes on the site.

The sale, which was expected to be finalized last week, did not close, according to St. James staff. However, "due diligence" on the sale is proceeding, diocese spokesman Robert Williams said. He declined to comment further on the matter.

The bishop has filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against the Griffith Co., the former property owner, asking a judge to affirm his right to sell the property for residential use.

Ownership rights were transferred from the Griffith Co. to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in 1945 with the restriction that the site remain a church. But lawyers for the diocese argue in court documents that the church in 1985 negotiated removal of the use restriction from the deed, granting the diocese the right to sell the property for other purposes. Griffith Co. lawyers wrote in court documents that the use restriction was never removed.

This isn't the first time St. James church has been wrapped up in a legal controversy.

Its members split from the Episcopal Church in 2004 after disagreements about ordaining a gay bishop and other issues that led the congregation to affiliate with the Anglican Church.

The move launched a years-long court battle over the Newport Beach property. The church was an Anglican parish from 2004 to 2013, when an Orange County judge granted property ownership rights to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

The bishop's announcement of the sale surprised parishioners, since it was "just 20 months after he assigned me here with instructions to rebuild a thriving and sustainable Newport Beach Episcopal community — which, with God's blessings, we were able to do," Voorhees said.

The church's locks were changed Monday afternoon, barring parishioners and St. James staff members from entering.

The parish's bank account apparently was frozen Thursday, making the congregation's transition to a new location more difficult, Voorhees said.

Instead of immediately transferring to a different venue, the church plans to have services outside, she said.

Still, several parishioners hold onto hope that they might again worship in the St. James building.

Tony Crowell has been attending the church since it transitioned back to an Episcopal parish in 2013. In his youth, he often grudgingly sat through church services with his parents, he said.

On Thursday, Crowell lifted the sleeve on his red T-shirt, worn in support of the church congregation, and gave bystanders a glimpse of his tattoo — a red cross like the one on the wall outside the church building.

The tattoo, he said, symbolizes his devotion to St. James and the people who attend services with him each Sunday.

"I was never inspired to attend until I came here," he said. "It's the first time I've ever woken up on a Sunday morning and wanted to go to church."

hannah.fry@latimes.com

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