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Judge Imposes Rules to End Parish Fight Over Priest

Times Staff Writer

An Episcopal parish in Echo Park, bitterly divided over who should be its priest, must hold a special court-supervised election Dec. 8 to select a new lay governing board, a Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.

A reconstituted board would then be able to choose a parish priest.

The election ordered at St. Athanasius Episcopal Church by Judge John L. Cole is expected to cap months of what the judge called “disgraceful” infighting and intrigue at the oldest Protestant congregation in Los Angeles. The parish is divided between those who want Father Ian Mitchell to stay as church rector and those who support Episcopal Bishop Robert Rusack’s attempts to oust the dissident priest.

In ordering the election, Cole pleased Mitchell’s supporters. But the judge also put into effect a restraining order forbidding Mitchell from performing any priestly functions at the church pending the special election. For the last two months, Mitchell and priests sent by the diocese were under court direction to hold rival, simultaneous Sunday services, swapping use of the main sanctuary and parish hall each week. At least until the election, only the bishop’s representatives may conduct Mass at the church on the eastern shore of Echo Park lake.

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Tongue-Lashing by Judge

While giving both sides part of what they wanted, the judge also gave both sides a tongue-lashing for not resolving their differences with the help of a retired jurist that Cole appointed last month to mediate.

“This tawdry and sad matter continues,” Cole said at the start of Wednesday’s hearing in downtown Los Angeles. “It’s too bad the parties could not work out their problems under the precepts of the religion they profess. It is tearing the congregation apart. . . .

“Each side has accused the other of thievery and of using epithets that should not be used. It is disgraceful on both sides, absolutely disgraceful.”

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The judge and lawyers for both sides anticipated that there will be disputes over who should be allowed to vote for the 10 spots on the vestry board. Cole said his mediator, Huey Shephard, would act as election referee.

Mitchell Chosen in 1983

After the retirement of its previous priest, the parish vestry board chose Mitchell to be rector in 1983. However, the diocese never recognized that vote because, its lawyers say, all such choices need final approval from the bishop. The bishop refused to approve Mitchell because, among other things, Mitchell had divorced and remarried without his permission.

Mitchell claims he is being forced out because he has attracted many Latinos and homosexuals as new members to what had been a dwindling congregation. He said his liberalism annoyed the Anglo majority on the vestry board, which voted to fire him last September.

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The vestry members who voted against Mitchell deny charges of intolerance. They said they now believe that they erred two years ago in selecting Mitchell.

After the board voted to fire Mitchell, the bishop appointed Archdeacon Terence Lynberg as the priest in charge, and the matter quickly escalated into a legal and financial battle. On one Sunday, Mitchell even brought with him to church a bodyguard, who jostled Lynberg and another priest.

The vestry board froze church bank accounts, took back the car it had given Mitchell and cut off his salary. Mitchell and his supporters emptied the contents of the parish safe-deposit box, including $125,000 worth of bonds. The vestry, in a court motion, called the action a theft and demanded the return of the assets and church records. Mitchell’s attorney, James Griffin, agreed Wednesday to hand over the bonds and other items to the court for safekeeping.

Final Choice by Bishop

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Cole said repeatedly Wednesday that the First Amendment to the Constitution forbade him from getting involved in religious doctrine and ecclesiastical disputes. He concluded, nevertheless, that the bylaws of the parish give the bishop final choice of rector.

“If you stood on your head and whistled ‘Dixie,’ there is no way to conclude other than that the bishop has the right to approve the selection,” Cole said.

But the judge said any future selection of a priest should be made by a vestry board that truly represents the entire congregation. “That seems to me to be the equitable thing to do,” he said in ordering the election.

Usually, elections are held each February for one-third of the vestry board seats, the terms of which are staggered. Cole said that February would be too long to wait for an election and that, in light of the disputes, the entire board should be declared open.

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Lynberg and diocesan attorneys said they have not decided whether to appeal the order for the election or rally their forces for the Dec. 8 election.

‘Something We Hoped For’

Reached by telephone after the hearing, Mitchell said he was pleased by the election ruling. “This is something we hoped for all along, because the will of the people has not been served,” he said. “At least this will allow the people a chance to speak.”

Griffin said that, if Mitchell’s supporters win the election, Mitchell would probably ask the new board not to reelect him, realizing that the bishop would probably veto that action. Mitchell’s supporters have no other candidate in mind, although they obviously would want someone with a philosophy similar to Mitchell’s, Griffin said.

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Meanwhile, Griffin said, Mitchell’s supporters will work quickly to gather support. “We will be fighting like hell,” Griffin said.


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