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Apodaca: Split has church looking for new members

How does a new church leader fill the pews again after a contentious legal dispute resulted in the departure of nearly the entire congregation?

That was the challenge faced by the Rev. Cindy Evans Voorhees, who took over as pastor at St. James the Great Episcopal Church on Lido Isle a little over year ago after the parish, formerly St. James Anglican Church, underwent a very public split from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

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The exit from the Lido location was prompted by a Superior Court ruling, after nine years of litigation, confirming that the church property belonged to the diocese. The former St. James congregation had sought to stay at the site after disaffiliating with the Episcopal Church primarily because it disagreed with the ordination of a gay bishop.

After the Anglicans moved out, Voorhees, a married mother of one grown son who was then in Africa overseeing her charitable foundation, got the call asking her to take on the rebuilding of St. James. An ordained priest and liturgical designer, she quickly decided that the key to that task lay in making the church as relevant and thoroughly engaged in modern life as possible.

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Her approach so far has included bringing in a computer-programming school to teach coding to adults and children, enlisting professionals from the Laguna Culinary Center to start a culinary arts program, and accepting the voluntary assistance of a business and government planning consultant, who happens to be Jewish.

"I said, 'Let's break the norms,'" said Voorhees. "How do we leapfrog the past to become the church of the future? The answer is technology."

At the same time, she believes, people hunger for "ethics and morality and a spiritual connection to each other."

Put another way, her strategy can be summed up as this: Come for the coding and cuisine, stay for the spirituality.

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In a sense, the challenge faced by St. James is a microcosm of what's generally happening to mainline religion. Over the past 50 years, as more Americans have either turned away from organized religion entirely or joined newer evangelical movements, many older denominations have bled membership. The trend has also been complicated as conflicts have arisen over evolving views on social issues.

For many, the Episcopal Church evokes a sense of Old World tradition. With roots in the Church of England, which dates to the 16th century English Reformation when King Henry XIII — he of the six wives — formally broke with the Catholic pope, Episcopalians have long practiced a blend of reformed doctrinal positions and Catholic-influenced ritual.

When I think of the Episcopal Church, I'm tempted to envision it as if from a scene in a "Masterpiece" television series, with old country vicars and English fetes on the village green.

But today's Episcopal Church in the United States is far removed from that image, in many respects. Indeed, the church has in recent decades been a leader in progressive movements, embracing the ordination of women and taking an inclusive stance toward homosexuality.

The split with the Anglicans — the word "Anglican" means "of England" — resulted from differences over such issues. When Voorhees reopened St. James, only about 30 people turned out for the first service in a parish originally designed for a congregation of about 1,000.

Membership is now up to about 100, but Voorhees remains confident that over time word will get out about St. James' programs, drawing in potential new parishioners.

Since taking the helm, she has welcomed various groups, from a local Brownie troop in search of meeting space to a youth orchestra in need of a practice facility. She has plans for a farmers market on the drawing board, and would like to do more to help foster children in the area.

"We're getting people in the door that might never set foot in a church," she said. "Now they have a safe space to meet God."

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Among the new faces that Voorhees has drawn in is Arnold Schuchter, a Harvard-educated consultant, educator and author who lives on Lido. Schuchter is Jewish, but his wife is a St. James member, and Voorhees' message and strategy struck a chord with him. He offered his services to help St. James "become a 21st century church."

"You have someone like Cindy saying, 'Let's transform the church, reinforce traditional values, but do it in a creative, visionary center,'" he said. "I had some appreciation for what she was trying to accomplish."

Whether Voorhees' approach succeeds in revitalizing the church's membership ranks remains to be seen, but it's easy to see why people like Schuchter are attracted to her energy, enthusiasm and openness to new ideas.

Yet as she took me on a tour of the St. James property recently, it was equally apparent that she also still embraces many of the comforting, tradition-soaked practices of old.

The handsome church is fitted with stained glass windows, warm-colored wood floors and paneling and a large, impressive organ. A small side chapel provides favorable acoustics for lessons in Gregorian chant, a type of sacred song that dates back more than a millennium.

Voorhees mentioned that she's considering a partnership to develop a mobile app of the Books of Psalms in Gregorian chant. It's just the type of bridge between the old and the new that she envisions as the way to take St. James into the future.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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