St. James flock wants its full-time priest, not guest clergy, when Newport church reopens

St. James the Great Episcopal parishioners who have waited out the closure of their Newport Beach church for more than two years as it has been tangled in a drama over two attempts to sell it say they are pleased that the property will soon be reopened but are disappointed in a guest clergy concept proposed by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

“This is not a step forward for St. James, for Newport Beach or for the diocese,” Save St. James the Great, a group of congregation members that formed after the church’s closure in 2015, said in a statement Wednesday night. “What Bishop [John] Taylor proposes is creating a new chapel with rotating pastors and no lay leadership. This is not a church with services every Sunday morning, with Sunday school for children, with pastoral care during the week, with community activities.”

Diocesan leadership announced this week that the latest planned sale of the Lido Isle-area church had fallen through after Newport Beach developer Burnham Ward Properties pulled out of buying it. Taylor, incoming top bishop of the Los Angeles diocese, said the building at 3209 Via Lido will reopen on a date to be determined.

Burnham Ward partner Scott Burnham said Wednesday that the company had intended “to preserve and protect the church from other out-of-town suitors who may have intended to demolish [it].”

“We now believe that the church ... will be preserved for the foreseeable future” and “that stepping aside ... was the right thing to do and was in the best interest of the community at this time,” Burnham said.

The church was shuttered in June 2015 in anticipation of a separate sale attempt to a townhouse developer. That deal also fell through.

The Save St. James group said the impending reopening is welcome news but that the congregation wants its pastor, the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, restored to her full-time leadership role. She has continued to guide the flock, which currently meets for services at the Newport Beach Civic Center.

Taylor said Wednesday that guest clergy will be invited to lead St. James’ Sunday services but that Voorhees would not be excluded.

Voorhees did not respond to a request for comment.

In its statement, Save St. James the Great said: “The St. James the Great congregation is a growing, vibrant, active, inclusive congregation with innovative ministries. It is unfortunate that there does not seem to be room for such a creative, growing congregation and such an inspirational priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.”

Taylor’s predecessor, Bishop J. Jon Bruno, who will retire later this year, has faced a string of ecclesiastical disciplinary decisions related to his attempts to sell St. James, including a misconduct hearing in March. The hearing panel determined that Bruno had engaged in behavior unbecoming of a clergyman, and it recommended a three-year suspension from ministry for Bruno and reopening St. James with its vicar.

hillary.davis@latimes.com

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