Sale of Newport's St. James church called off; long-locked doors will reopen

The latest planned sale of the shuttered St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach has been canceled, and the building will be reopened to worshippers, according to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

The move would end a more than two-year drama in which the diocese’s top bishop, J. Jon Bruno, tried twice to sell the church property to developers, locked out the congregation and kept the church closed even after the first sale attempt fell through. The actions resulted in Bruno being sanctioned by the Episcopal Church.

The Right Rev. John Taylor, bishop coadjutor for the diocese and the successor to Bruno, who is retiring soon, said in an interview Wednesday that the church’s reopening date is to be determined but that it will be as soon as pastorally and practically possible.

“These matters are sensitive and involve the feelings and prerogatives of a lot of folks,” he said.

Taylor said the diocese will encourage people to go to the church to worship and enjoy “the refreshment of being in that beautiful place.”

Taylor said the second planned buyer for the property, Newport Beach developer Burnham Ward Properties, pulled out of the sale.

In an email Wednesday, Burnham Ward principal Scott Burnham said: “Our pending purchase of the property was imminent before we made the decision to step aside this week. … Ultimately, we felt that stepping aside — despite our significant investment of time and expense in the acquisition process to date — was the right thing to do and was in the best interest of the community at this time.

“We became involved … with the goal to preserve and protect the church from other out-of-town suitors who may have intended to demolish the church for what they considered ‘higher and better uses’ of the property,” Burnham added. “It was always our plan to maintain the church improvements and to preserve a continued place of worship for the local community.

“We now believe that the church and its improvements will be preserved for the foreseeable future.”

Representatives of Save St. James the Great, a group that formed after the church’s closure, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

In a statement Tuesday co-signed by the Rev. Rachael Anne Nyback, president of the diocesan Standing Committee governing body, Taylor said: “This event, we believe, gives our diocesan community a renewed opportunity for careful discernment about our mission and ministry in south Orange County. We again pledge to do all we can pastorally, logistically and financially to assist the St. James congregation should it wish to regain mission status in the diocese.”

Bruno told the congregation in May 2015 that he had committed to selling the site at 3209 Via Lido for $15 million to would-be luxury townhouse developer Legacy Partners. He locked the church doors and kept them closed even after the transaction fell through when Legacy’s investment partner dropped out.

Worshippers have since held services at multiple sites in the area and currently meet in a community room at the Newport Beach Civic Center.

Bruno has faced a string of ecclesiastical disciplinary orders this year related to his attempts to sell the St. James property.

In March, a church panel conducted a three-day hearing similar to a trial in which Bruno answered allegations of misconduct related to his 2015 sale attempt.

In June, before the hearing panel reached its decision, it warned Bruno not to close on a second sale — this time to Burnham Ward — before it reached its verdict. The developer had agreed to buy the property for an undisclosed amount.

In August, the hearing panel recommended a three-year suspension from ministry for Bruno, plus halting his renewed efforts to sell the St. James site. It also recommended unlocking the building so the congregation could resume worship there.

However, the diocese later said it planned to proceed with selling the property to Burnham Ward, citing a legal obligation created by Bruno.

Also in August, the highest-ranking bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, removed Bruno from any jurisdiction over St. James and transferred pastoral and property oversight to Taylor.

Last month, the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board of Bishops ordered that Bruno refrain from ministry and exercising any authority over property or church affairs while he appeals the hearing panel’s finding that he had engaged in misconduct when he first tried to sell the site.

Taylor said Wednesday that guest clergy will be invited to lead St. James’ Sunday services. But that doesn’t mean the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, who has continued to lead the church’s flock since the building’s closure, would be blocked out, Taylor said.

“I can’t think of a priest in our diocese who we would exclude from the privilege of leading worship under the proper time and under the proper circumstances,” he said.

Voorhees did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

hillary.davis@latimes.com

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