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A bishop’s divided house

Times Staff Writer

On a recent Sunday morning, the Rt. Rev. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese of the Episcopal Church, stood before a congregation in Ventura County with his hands clasped, the fingers tightly interlaced, as two boys summoned from the pews tried to pull them apart.

It was not an easy task. Bruno stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 285 pounds, and his hands are in proportion to the rest of him. They are hands, moreover, that have clasped dying young AIDS patients in compassionate embrace and held off charging defensive linemen on behalf of a championship college football team, hands that gripped the shotgun as a fatal blast was delivered in the service of law enforcement.

“Pull, come on,” Bruno exhorted the boys, who tugged and yanked to no avail as the congregation laughed.

“They could pull all day and all night, and they still won’t pull them apart,” Bruno declared. “We need to be in that kind of community. Even though we have disagreements, even though we’re in pain and sorrow, we need to be together.”

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Disputes over the ordination of women and gays, and other recent modifications of church practice, have sent fissures spidering out through the denomination. Bruno, although an advocate of change, has tried to play reconciler in the drama, but not all traditionalists accept him as peacemaker.

Bruno has sued four of his parishes that have defected from the church. He has also helped initiate a church inquiry into whether the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield, a conservative bishop in the Central Valley, should be removed from office for, Bruno and other critics of Schofield allege, preparing the defection of his entire diocese.

If disaffection within the church weren’t enough, the Internal Revenue Service is scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of his biggest parish, All Saints of Pasadena, because of a sermon criticizing President Bush preached there on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.

The IRS action “appalled” him, Bruno said, “especially when I see conservative denominations everywhere having preachers who are actual candidates for office.”

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The struggle between the Episcopal factions has reverberated throughout the loosely knit worldwide Anglican Communion, conservative elements of which have reached out to dissenting American parishes. Between 100 and 150 American congregations have seceded from the Episcopal Church. The breakaway four in Bruno’s diocese have aligned themselves with the traditionalist Anglican province of Uganda in central Africa.

Seven American dioceses, including Schofield’s, are resisting the authority of the U.S. church’s liberal presiding bishop-elect, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, bishop of Nevada, who is to be consecrated Saturday as the first female primate in the history of Anglicanism.

Bruno’s admirers praise his dedication to social justice and to working with clergy of other faiths as well as his efforts to keep theological partisans of all stripes in the Episcopal family. They call him a “people person par excellence” and “a huge man with a heart of gold as big as he is.”

On the matter of the lawsuits and the Central Valley bishop, however, some of his opponents see the fingerprints less of the loving reconciler than of the former football player and police officer.

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‘This celibacy thing’

Bruno, a 59-year-old father of three, has a backward sweep of milk-white hair, expressive black eyebrows and the hulking, easy mien of the large man with little to fear physically from anyone. But his gait is careful, respectful of the prosthesis he wears in place of his left foot, which was amputated above the ankle in 2005 after being ravaged by an infection he’d contracted in England during a visit on church business.

Garrulous, informal and outspokenly self-effacing, he indulges a slightly delinquent sense of humor. While being wheeled into surgery, he sang aloud -- much to the consternation of his wife, Mary -- “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye.” When, at a recent celebration after the baptism of Bruno’s fourth grandchild, a small boy asked to see the bishop’s artificial foot, Bruno took it off and handed it to him.

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His sense of humor belies a profound belief in the power of prayer: He devotes as much as an hour, three times a day, to prayerful meditation and self-examination.

Bruno was born into a Roman Catholic tailor’s family in Echo Park, the location of the Episcopal diocese headquarters, the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, which he helped build. From his office there, he presides over 147 churches and 85,000 Episcopalians in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Bruno and his family moved to East L.A. when he was 6. As early as age 12 he felt the pull of the Catholic priesthood. “But when I started really delving into it later,” he said, “I thought, ‘Whoa, what is this celibacy thing?’ ” At 16 he became acquainted with the Episcopal Church through a girlfriend who eventually became his first wife. “I used to go to church with her because she was cute. I don’t know if I’d be an Episcopalian if it weren’t for her.”

After playing center for Garfield High School’s football team, he was a walk-on (and later a scholarship player) at Cal State Los Angeles. The team finished the 1965 season ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division II, and Bruno’s play earned him a contract with the Denver Broncos, although previous injuries prevented him from passing the team’s physical examination.

While in college, Bruno made his psychic break with Catholicism and embraced the Episcopal Church. Through the latter, he became involved in the civil rights and American Indian movements. “The Roman church, rather than telling me to use my intellect and let my conscience be my guide, said, ‘Just be obedient and don’t ask so many questions,’ ” he said. “The Episcopal Church not only put their faith out there but put it into action to relieve people’s suffering and anxiety.”

A religious vocation was still pulling at him, but, following the example of an admired uncle -- a police official in upstate New York -- Bruno joined the Burbank Police Department in 1968.

He’d been on the force 14 months when, on the night of Nov. 28, 1969, he received a call to help stake out a house on South Sunset Canyon Road. About 10:30, a man named Wallace Noe, a 28-year-old marijuana dealer and suspected kidnapper, drove up, parked and walked toward the rear of the property. Another officer shined a flashlight on Noe, and Bruno shouted, “Freeze! Police!” Noe fired a pistol at the officers, and Bruno opened up with a 12-gauge shotgun, striking Noe in the neck and chest, killing him.

Although the shooting was ruled justifiable -- the Magnolia Park Optimist club even honored Bruno for meritorious service -- he was profoundly troubled by it. For a year, he relived the shooting in recurring dreams. Finally an Episcopal priest led him through a penance exercise and gave him absolution, and the dreams stopped. “It taught me I really believed all the things of the orthodox Christian faith I’d practiced all my life,” he said.

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He left the Police Department four years later, earned a master of divinity degree at Virginia Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1978. Eight years later, after assistant rector assignments in Ventura County and Oregon, he was made rector of the oldest Episcopal parish in Southern California, St. Athanasius, which once occupied the site of the current Cathedral Center.

What he found at St. Athanasius was a dwindled congregation with sharp divisions between older conservatives and young gay parishioners. Bruno reconciled the factions by involving them in outreach to the surrounding Latino neighborhood. He opened an AIDS health clinic and plunged himself and his congregation into the gang-diversion efforts of El Centro del Pueblo, which leased space on church property.

“People in the congregation had been there for years and years and weren’t too familiar with what we were doing and why,” said Sandra Figueroa, executive director of the agency. “Jon made an active effort to get some of the ladies in the church to get to know the kids and us. Eventually he got the kids to work side by side with the ladies doing a food distribution program.”

Bruno joined El Centro’s board and helped raise money that allowed the agency to grow from a $25,000-a-year operation to one that now has a $5-million annual budget, 70 staff members and its own renovated facility.

His early years at St. Athanasius coincided with the unimpeded raging of the AIDS epidemic through Los Angeles’ gay population. When one of his young parishioners was in the throes of the disease, Bruno expressed frustration at being unable to help. The man told him he would be satisfied if Bruno just hugged him, since no one wanted to come into physical contact with an AIDS patient. So, once a week, the man would go to Bruno’s office and the priest would hold him and rock him in a rocking chair.

Jack Plimpton, a retired Los Angeles Unified School District principal who is the diocese’s director of AIDS ministries, said he saw Bruno rocking another young man in his arms as the man died. Adds Plimpton: “He’s one of the most compassionate people I know.”

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‘He told the truth’

Bruno was elected a bishop in 1999 and formally became head of the diocese three years later. As bishop, he blessed the same-sex union of one of his priests and was an advocate in the wider church of the full inclusion of gays.

He supported the election in 2003 of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly cohabiting gay priest, as bishop of the New Hampshire Diocese. “Some of the greatest priests and bishops I’ve known in my life have been gay,” Bruno said. “There are other gay bishops in the Episcopal and Anglican church. The only difference with Gene Robinson is that he told the truth.”

Robinson’s consecration, however, shook church conservatives, who’d long smoldered over such reforms as the decision in 1976 to ordain women.

When the first three of the four breakaway parishes in the Los Angeles Diocese announced in 2004 that they were seceding, Bruno’s response was swift. He ordered their rectors to surrender all church property and when they refused, sued them and the members of their vestries.

A judge has ruled against the diocese in the cases of those three -- St. James in Newport Beach, All Saints in Long Beach and St. David’s in North Hollywood -- finding that the individual parishes are the true owners of their property. The diocese has appealed. The suit against the fourth church, St. Luke’s of the Mountains in La Crescenta, was filed earlier this year and is still in original litigation.

Bruno defends the lawsuits and his involvement in the Schofield matter as expressions of his “pastoral and fiduciary responsibility” to protect the assets of the Episcopal Church.

The Rev. David Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, said the suits have undercut Bruno’s reputation as a man of tolerance and reconciliation.

“Having been one who nominated him for bishop and helped gather the conservatives to elect him, there has been real disappointment,” said Anderson, who was rector of St. James in Laguna Beach for 16 years. “Bruno sued not only the parish vestry, but the [vestry] members individually, trying to put as much hurt and fear in them as possible. This is not a reconciler.”

The Rev. William Thompson, the breakaway rector of All Saints in Long Beach, views Bruno and his actions in a different light. “Jon Bruno is a very passionate guy,” he said. “He needed, in his own sense of personal integrity, to do what he could to prevent something he thought was wrong.”

Bruno insists the lawsuits are not indicative of ill feeling toward those who disagree with him. He points with pride to his having initiated meetings of bishops with widely divergent views to discuss their differences.

The Rt. Rev. Edward Little, the conservative bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana, has attended the sessions and found them reassuring.

“Jon’s desire clearly is to create a big tent in which liberals and conservatives can be together,” Little said. “But pulling people together is very difficult in a polarized time.”

The Rev. David Baumann of Blessed Sacrament Church in Placentia was among conservative rectors chagrined by the election of Jefferts Schori as primate, a choice Bruno enthusiastically supported.

Baumann and his vestry asked to meet with Bruno, and the bishop hosted a dinner for them. The bishop, Baumann said, has “not asked for the slightest compromise on the smallest position that our people think is important” and even offered to forgo the diocese’s share of the parish’s collections if the congregation wished.

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‘Scriptures are a guide’

Bruno’s differences with conservatives are rooted in interpretation of Scripture. Conservatives, he said, regard biblical precedents as rigid and unchanging.

“The Scriptures are a guide, not a set of handcuffs or a straitjacket,” he said. “There’s a guy by the name of Jesus Christ who violated Scripture left, right and center. Personally, what I think God wants us to do is be good to one another.”

As his lawsuits percolate through the legal system, Bruno faces the possibility the breakaway parishes will, in effect, be legally recognized as part of the Anglican Church’s Ugandan Diocese. If that happens, he said, he will make peace with those who abandoned his stewardship.

“Heck, I’d invite them all to dinner right now,” he said. “I’m reconciled with Jewish brothers, Islamic brothers, Presbyterian brothers, and I’ll reconcile with Anglicans from Uganda too.”

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james.ricci@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Joseph Jon Bruno

Occupation: Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles

Age: 59; born in Los Angeles

Residence: Pasadena

Personal: Married; one daughter and two sons; four grandchildren

Last book read: “Hard Ball on Holy Ground: The Religious Right v. the Mainline for the Church’s Soul,” Stephen Swecker, editor

Last movie seen: “Man of the Year”

Favorite TV sport: Baseball

Most admired churchmen: St. Thomas Aquinas, Desmond Tutu

Favorite Bible verse: Matthew 25:45: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

Source: Los Angeles Times


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