L.A. Diocese Proceeds with St. James Sale, ‘Shocks’ Congregation

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St. James the Great Episcopal Church on the Balboa Peninsula
— NB Indy file photo by Christopher Trela ©

The saga of St James the Great Episcopal Church continues, as does the sale of the local church, which has been embroiled in a two-year battle with a Los Angeles bishop.

Rev. John Taylor, bishop coadjutor of the L.A. Episcopal Diocese, announced Monday that they will proceed with the sale of St James, located at Via Lido and 32nd Street on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, to Burnham Ward Properties, LLC.

Taylor was put in charge to oversee all matters relating to the property after Bishop J. Jon Bruno was suspended from his duties earlier this month after a two year struggle, both legally and internally with the church.

Bruno attempted to sell the property to another developer in 2015 (which eventually fell through) and locked the congregation out of the property. He was charged in an ecclesiastical trial in March regarding how he dealt and represented the church during the attempted sale. He then defied a sanction imposed on him and entered into a secret contract of sale with Burnham Ward, which was discovered and thwarted just before the deal closed. Bruno was ultimately found guilty of misconduct earlier this month and suspended by the Episcopal Church hearing panel.

The panel’s decision also suggested immediately suspending any efforts to sell St. James, restore congregation and vicar to the church building, and reassign St. James appropriate mission status.

In a letter to the diocese this week, Taylor admitted that although the hearing panel called on the return of the congregation to the building, the panel members and advising attorneys did not consider the existence of a binding contract “nor all the ways the dispute begs for wider reconciliation.

 “Bishop Bruno has entered into a binding contract to sell the property. The buyer has the legal right to expect the seller to honor the contract,” Taylor wrote. “The sales contract itself offers one way forward.”

Taylor explained in the letter, written Monday on behalf of himself and Rev. Dr. Rachel Anne Nyback, president of the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, that there are limitations imposed on the church by the “reality of present circumstances.”

Taylor and other leaders in the diocese do not believe that it would be in the church’s best interest or consistent with their fiduciary responsibilities to take any steps that might lead to breaching, or even threatening to breach, the contract, which could result in further expense and litigation.”

Parishioners have expressed comments of shock, confusion and anger at the announcement.

Save St. James the Great Newport Beach – Episcopal, a community group of parishioners, called the announcement “catastrophic” and had a lot of questions.

“What in heaven’s name is happening to our diocese?”

“What was the point of the trial and hearing panel recommendation if Bishop Taylor can just disregard their judgment and guidance to instead follow Bishop Bruno’s edict to sell St. James the Great to a commercial developer?”

“So this is what pastoral healing and reconciliation looks like?”

Save St. James organizers wrote that they are upset by the outlook of the new administration.

“What a sad day for faithful Episcopalians and our diocese,” the community leaders concluded. “Following more than two years of working through Canon Law to move past the misconduct of the previous leadership, this is the start of the new leadership.”

Following Taylor’s announcement on Monday, Walter Stahr, an attorney and member of the congregation, sent out a letter to his fellow parishioners briefly explaining the situation.

Taylor and other church officials told him “there is a binding, legal agreement with a future closing date, which they did not disclose, for the sale of the property.” He was assured that they will support St. James as an Episcopal congregation, “just not in our building,” Stahr confirmed.

It’s devastating news, Stahr wrote, “but the story is not over.”

In Taylor’s letter, he revealed that Burnham-Ward Properties 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.”

He was encouraged by some recent preliminary conversations about St. James possible using the space.

Taylor also revealed that there have been numerous anonymous e-mails and letters sent to members of the hearing committee and people who agreed or worked with Bruno, and members of their families.

They “contain threats; ridicule; accusations of corruption, perjury, cowardice, and submission to patronage; and demands that volunteers and diocesan staff members resign.”

The new overseeing bishop also mentioned some upcoming changes in the church as a result of the events of the past two years.

“Once the St. James matter is settled, our diocese needs a season of open, face-to-face dialogue, accountability, and reconciliation,” Taylor stated. “The dispute has affected every aspect of our community’s life.”

A committee has been working on a reform plan for Corporation Sole and a progress report will soon be released, he explained.

“The St. James matter demonstrates that our diocese must be more transparent and deliberative about finances,” Taylor admitted in the letter.

Taylor also emphasized reconciliation, unity, and moving forward in his letter. The congregation has demonstrated their love and determination to remain united during the last two years, he pointed out.

“When by the grace of God I succeed Bishop Bruno on his retirement, I pledge to do all I can pastorally, logistically, and financially to support the St. James congregation should it wish to remain together and reapply for mission status,” Taylor confirmed.

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