The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles plans to proceed with the sale of the St. James the Great church property in Newport Beach, citing a legal obligation created by the diocese's bishop.
In a letter Monday to the diocese, Bishop Coadjutor John Harvey Taylor said Bishop J. Jon Bruno had entered a binding contract to sell the property at 3209 Via Lido to Newport Beach-based developer Burnham Ward Properties and that diocese leadership would move forward with that plan.
"The buyer has the legal right to expect the seller to honor the contract," Taylor wrote. "Much as we might wish it were otherwise, we do not believe that it would be in the interests of the diocese or consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities to endorse any steps leading to breaching or threatening to breach an enforceable contract that could lead to further expense and litigation."
Taylor has been named to succeed Bruno upon Bruno's planned retirement at the end of the year and already has been assigned pastoral and property oversight for St. James by the highest-ranking bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. That move was made Aug. 1 in light of a hearing panel's recent determination that Bruno had engaged in misconduct when he attempted a separate sale of the church site in 2015.
Bruno changed the locks two years ago while trying to sell the property to would-be townhouse developer Legacy Partners for $15 million. That sale fell through.
The congregation has since been worshipping at other locations around Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. It currently meets at Newport Beach City Hall.
The hearing panel's ruling, issued July 21 and finalized Aug. 2, recommended a three-year suspension from ministry for Bruno, plus halting efforts to sell the St. James building and unlocking the property so the congregation could resume worship in its longtime home.
Taylor, however, wrote that the panelists and their advising attorneys "evidently did not take fully into account the existence of a binding contract, nor all the ways the dispute begs for wider reconciliation."
Parishioner Walter Stahr, who has been active in the congregation's allegations of misconduct against Bruno and the effort to reclaim the building, said diocese leaders did not say when escrow would close on the property when they met Monday with him and St. James pastor Cindy Evans Voorhees. The sale price also has not been disclosed.
"They assured us that if St. James the Great wishes to continue as an Episcopal congregation, they will support us — just not in our building," Stahr told his fellow parishioners in a statement Monday. "I know how devastating this will be for many of you, but the story is not over."
Voorhees had no comment Monday.
Taylor said Burnham Ward plans to "preserve the worship space so it may continue to be used by churches and other community organizations, including St. James if it wishes."
Bryon Ward, Burnham Ward's president, did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
Stahr said he attended a meeting about a month ago with the company principals, Ward and Scott Burnham, who mentioned a possible shared use of the church campus, with different faith groups renting time in the facilities. It wouldn't belong to any one congregation.
There also could be commercial uses for the kitchen, and the Sunday school classrooms could be converted to offices, Stahr said.
He said the potential buyers assured him they had no plans to demolish the building.
"In the midst of some very bad news, it's welcome news," Stahr said.
Taylor's statement said he wished "it were possible to achieve a settlement in which all could receive everything they sought."
"Unfortunately," he added, "in the short term, this cannot be the case. And yet we continue to believe that healing and reconciliation are possible for our whole community."
4 p.m. Aug. 15: This article was updated with Walter Stahr's comments about meeting with Burnham Ward.