Complainants hear bishop defend his bid to sell church

07 April 2017

MARY FRANCES SCHJONBERG/EPISCOPAL NEWS SERVICE

“Forced out”: Canon Cindy Voorhees speaks at the ecclesiastical disciplinary hearing for the Bishop of Los Angeles, the Rt Revd J. Jon Bruno, last week

“Forced out”: Canon Cindy Voorhees speaks at the ecclesiastical disciplinary hearing for the Bishop of Los Angeles, the Rt Revd J. Jon Bru...

TEARFUL testimonies were heard in the ecclesiastical disciplinary hearing concerning the Bishop of Los An­­geles, the Rt Revd J. Jon Bruno, last week.

Members of the congregation of St James the Great, Newport Beach, filed a disciplinary complaint against Bishop Bruno, after his un­­successful attempt, in 2015, to sell the church to a developer, for $15 million (News, 24 July 2015). The church property was recovered by the diocese in 2013, after a ten-year legal battle with a group who voted to terminate their affiliation with the Episcopal Church in the United States and affiliate with the Anglican Church in North America.

The complainants’ brief argues that Bishop Bruno failed to get the consent of the diocesan Standing Committee before entering into a contract to sell the property. It says that he gave the congregation the impression that the church would not be sold, but later reneged on this, because he wanted to sell the church to buy a “purely commercial property” in Anaheim.

It accuses him of “firing” the Priest-in-Charge, Canon Cindy Voorhees, and of changing the locks on the property, forcing the congre­ga­tion to worship in a park near by. Despite the Bishop’s claims that it was not sustainable, the church continued to attract “around 100 people” on a Sunday, and had successfully grown its finances in a short period of time.

Bishop Bruno’s responding brief describes Canon Voorhees’s allega­tions as “a she said (he told me he wouldn’t sell the property), he said (I never said I wouldn’t sell the property) dichotomy”. He argues that his “message of hope for the future” delivered to the congrega­tion could not be regarded as a promise never to sell the church.

He says that he had no duty to tell Canon Voorhees about “every un­­solicited inquiry received” and that she knew that a sale was “an open question”. It was “reasonable” to regard a farewell letter from her as a resignation. Attendance and finan­cial data indicated that referring to the congregation as unsustainable was “not an intentional misrepre­sentation but an actual fact”, and it made “fiscal sense” to sell the prop­erty, given the costs of the ten-year litigation.

During the hearing, he admitted that he used a 2013 report that in­­cluded only three-months of stat­istics, when making a decision about the sale.

Bishop Bruno’s decision to pur­sue recovery of the church property through the courts was against the advice of the Presiding Bishop at the time, the Most Revd Frank Griswold. The hearing was told that Bishop Mary Glasspool, then a suffragan in the dio­cese, had been sympathetic to Canon Voorhees, and in favour of blocking the sale.

The sale of St James’s fell through, and it is currently empty. The con­gregation, led by Canon Voorhees, meets in a community room of Newport Beach City Hall.

The hearing ended after three days, without a resolution. Spec­tators were told not to expect a de­­cision from the hearing panel before Easter. Possible outcomes range from the removal of the Bishop from ordained ministry to the dis­missal of the allegations.

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