Hearing on a bishop’s efforts to sell Newport church offers a rare look at Episcopal justice system
The Rev. Erik Larsen came to Southern California to decide the fate of a bishop accused of trying to sell one of the churches under his direction without authorization, of bruising the heart of his flock and hurting the priesthood and his diocese. And he came to pray.
Larsen and four other leaders from Episcopalian churches around the country convened as a panel in a Pasadena hotel conference room last month for a disciplinary hearing looking into the actions of J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles. Bruno is facing possible sanctions after attempting to sell the St. James the Great church in Newport Beach to developers, then locking out congregants and keeping them out even after the sale fell through.
Larsen, a priest from Rhode Island, came as a judge but also as a pastor. Every morning of the three-day hearing, he urged those assembled to stand as he appealed for guidance and strength.
“Be with the panel, the complainants, the respondent, the witnesses, the attorneys and all who are engaged in these proceedings, and grant that we may all be led into all truth,” he prayed on the first day. “Grant that we may be faithful in striving to fulfill your mission of restoring all people to unity with God and each other through Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught us to boldly pray, Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done … .”
Experts say Bruno’s disciplinary proceedings are an uncommonly reached advanced stage in church conflict resolution that also bring national attention to the largest Episcopal diocese in the Western U.S., and one of the largest in the country, as it tests reforms to canon law.
The Very Rev. George Conger, who runs the website Anglican Ink, said in his 20 years as a priest, he’s seen only three other bishop hearings, the most recent — involving a sexual abuse cover-up — about nine years ago in Pennsylvania. He said most cleric trouble resolves quietly, with a resignation, retirement or reparations that are settled before being forced by a public hearing.
A recent schism in the church indirectly led to this case, making it possibly precedent-setting, explained Rev. Robert Prichard, a church historian and professor at the Virginia Theological Seminary.
In the mid-2000s, conservative Episcopalians broke away nationwide in disagreement over gay ordination and marriage, forming the Anglican Church in North America and, in many cases, trying to take church property with them. Secular and internal courts handled a flurry of disputes and generally restored the property to the Episcopalians.
One church solution was to vest deeds in corporations run solely by diocesan bishops.
Both of these scenarios played out in Newport Beach. St. James was one of four churches in the Los Angeles diocese shuttered during the division. It reopened in 2013 after a nine-year legal battle with the breakaway group but closed again over the current legal entanglement.
In the Roman Catholic Church, all churches are similarly held in corporation sole. But ultimately, Catholic structure doesn’t grant bishops much autonomy, Prichard said.
“In the Roman Catholic Church it’s very clear that an archbishop — and ultimately the Pope — has authority over a diocesan bishop,” he said. “In the Episcopal Church it’s less clear what authority the presiding bishop or anybody else has over diocesan bishops, so it presents some issues.”
He said bishop misconduct trials come along at “a trickle.”
Ecclesiastical courts can’t send a bishop to jail or extract a fine. But bishops can be suspended, prevented from performing some duties or defrocked; restricting a cleric’s ministry “is the, kind of, maximum thing that lies within the church’s purview,” Prichard said.
Bruno, who is nearing the mandatory age of retirement, had previously announced he would step down from diocesan leadership this summer.
Conger said checks and balances are built into the Episcopalian foundation, granting relative parity between parishioners and their spiritual leaders. But this egalitarian system leads to tension. When both sides tussle, the fights can be “public and bloody,” he said.
Part of this is inherited tradition, said Conger, who is the dean, or senior priest, for a five-county swath of central Florida in addition to being a church historian, journalist and pundit.
What is now the Episcopalian Church of the United States was once essentially the colonial branch of the Church of England. The local landed gentry and political leaders filled parish vestries, or boards of directors, while priests directed spiritual life.
Prichard said that post-Revolution, American churches, especially Protestant ones, absorbed patterns of American judicial and civil life, including transparency, but “we’re not unique in doing that.”
Conger called the St. James congregation a sophisticated group with a dynamic priest in the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees. Members were not going to allow what they saw as an injustice. They pressed for prescribed procedures against Bruno to be enforced.
The congregation filed a complaint as a group, not long after its eviction. Members alleged that Bruno was deceptive and unbecoming of a clergyman when he tried to sell the church site at 3209 Via Lido to a developer, and didn’t have the permission of diocesan government to do so.
He told the congregation in May 2015 that he committed to selling the site for $15 million to Legacy Partners, which wanted to raze the campus and build luxury town homes. That June, he changed the locks. But Legacy’s investment partner in the deal, AIG Global Real Estate, decided not to proceed, and Legacy also dropped out.
At the hearing, the aggrieved claimed that Bruno wanted the money for a real estate purchase the diocese hoped to complete in Anaheim, but told them he would dedicate funds to displaced worshippers and the needy. The diocese instead took out a loan for the Anaheim deal.
The gates remain locked. The flock now worships in a meeting room at Newport Beach City Hall.
He’s not a king. He has to be accountable on some level.
— The Very Rev. George Conger, who runs the website Anglican Ink
“He’s not a king,” Conger said. “He has to be accountable on some level.”
Bruno, who was not available to comment for this story, countered at the hearing that he didn’t need permission and that, at any rate, the property didn’t sell. He said he acted with information he had at the time about St. James’ financial situation and did not intentionally obscure the truth.
Church spokesman Bob Williams withheld opinion, preferring to wait until the outcome of the proceedings.
“The diocesan community will await further notification from the hearing panel per canonical procedures,” he said in an email to TimesOC. “Speculation as to potential outcomes is inappropriate at this time, yet the ongoing mission of the Episcopal Church, as stated in the prayer book catechism, remains ‘to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.’”
Pragmatically speaking, the Bruno case tests property rights post-schism. Then, there’s the prominence of the accused.
“In general, bishops don’t like to get in trouble and don’t like other bishops to get in trouble, so people do pay attention,” Prichard said.
As part of his Anglican Ink brand, Conger co-hosts a YouTube vodcast where he dissects Episcopalian and Anglican news of the day. An outspoken raconteur, he blasts Bruno in his summary of the Pasadena hearing.
But for Bruno supporter Matthew Kurtz, the bishop “has been one of the most gracious, good people I know.”
As the son of a priest in the diocese, Kurtz has known Bruno since the late 1990s.
Kurtz remembers being a teenager consumed with anxiety at a church formal, and Bruno kindly talking him through his nerves. He has seen Bruno go out of his way to ensure that pilgrims visit the Holy Land. The bishop had to make difficult decisions but was acting within his role.
“Not everyone’s going to be happy with those choices, but I think that’s a sign of a good leader to make a tough choice.”
Also tough: taking sides. Kurtz says clergy are split, with passionate opinions in abundance. But everyone he talks to wants to move forward with ministry.
The hearing, held March 28 to 30 at a Marriott in Old Pasadena, was like a trial but, with its daily invocations, also like Mass. Its rows of straight-backed banquet chairs were like pews, but also like, well, banquet chairs in a conference room at a Marriott in Pasadena.
A stenographer clacked away at a shorthand machine, and lawyers interjected with objections. Panelists kept a legal advisor and prayer tomes on hand. If they were ordained, judges wore their white collars, but there was more circumstance than pomp.
After an intense cross-examination session on the second day between Bruno and the church attorney, who represents the St. James congregants, the panel chair, the Rt. Rev. Herman Hollerith, showed a hint of stress.
“I feel like we need prayer at this point,” he said.
His colleague Larsen pulled out the Book of Common Prayer, a missal with gilded onionskin pages, and turned to Prayer 14, titled “For the Unity of the Church.”
“Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord.”
After Bruno locked the building, church members celebrated Mass in a park across the street, then at a Costa Mesa art museum, so dedicated were they to keep the flock united. Now they are at City Hall, a few miles away. For some longtime members, this is the second closure in recent years, broken only briefly between the Anglican Church of North America split and the sale attempt.
But they still return to the church on Lido Isle to lay down scallop shells.
The scallop shell is the symbol of St. James. For pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago — literally, the Way of St. James — through Europe to the martyr’s tomb on the northwest coast of Spain, it’s a token for their journey. For the Newport Beach faithful, it’s a tangible prayer.
During Lent, congregants bring scallop shells to the building. They skip and slide them between the gates’ bars.
Fields of shells — some the size of a quarter, some the size of a hand — scatter under the Stations of the Cross and around the rose garden where urns of a few parishioners are interred.
The neat hedges along the courtyard walls and the mostly leaf-free pavers show that a gardener frequently visits. The piles of shells show that he doesn’t disturb the prayers.
Lisa de Lorimier brings a shell every day. It’s a comforting ritual that connects her to her church family.
“There is something special about putting that shell down and knowing that when you see all the other shells on the ground that people you know have been there before you,” she said.
“Even if you’re there by yourself, it’s a shared experience.”
Lynne Ramsey comes from Irvine to place her shells. She believes they keep the building company.
“Church isn’t all (about) the building, but we don’t want our building to forget us, or us to forget the building,” she said.
De Lorimier said the congregants will not allow themselves to step away from the optimism that their church will be returned to them.
The hearing panel said a decision would not come before Easter, but Ramsey wishes for resurrection soon.
“Easter is rebirth, and we are kind of looking, hopefully, for rebirth.”
At the hearing, Rev. Larsen would dismiss the crowd in the evenings. On the final day, he improvised again.
“We ask that as we deliberate and as we wait for the decisions of our hearing panel that above all we may not lose the charity that you reveal in your son Jesus,” he declared. “That we express our love for one another in all that we undertake and all that we do.”
Hollerith swept his fingers through the air in benediction. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”