Sunday, December 13, 2015

Episcopal Abuses Turn Inward [UPDATED]

In a development that few Episcopalians of four or five years ago could have imagined, the Episcopal bishops of the most powerful and financially secure dioceses have begun to turn on their own once-strong, but now severely weakened, parishes. Having driven out all the dissenters at enormous expense to their coffers, these dioceses are increasingly trying to make up their losses by sacrificing valuable real estate -- even if it means turning out previously loyal congregations from their hard-won property. And -- who could have foreseen it? -- the parishes most harmed by the continuous litigation were precisely those with the most valuable properties.

A prime example is the Diocese of Los Angeles, led by the litigious J. Jon Bruno -- he of the forkèd tongue. For nine years he waged war in the California courts against four dissident congregations to prevent them from keeping title to their own parish properties. Using the notorious Dennis Canon, he was singularly successful in having California courts impose an irrevocable trust on the local parishes' real estate, so that when they voted to withdraw from the diocese, they necessarily forfeited all rights to their property.

But his victories came at a tremendous cost: the Diocese had spent more than eight million dollars as of last year, and was still incurring more costs to subsidize two of the remnant congregations in their newly recaptured sanctuaries. Bishop Bruno negotiated sales of two of the properties: the parish of All Saints Long Beach was allowed to purchase their property on a long-term contract, and he sold the church of St. David's in North Hollywood to a private school.

Initially he announced that the other two parishes -- St. Luke's in the Mountains, and St. James the Great in Newport Beach -- would continue as usual to serve their remnant congregations, which had been seriously diminished during the years and years of costly litigation. But Bishop Bruno cannot help but speak with a forkèd tongue, remember? While St. Luke's was struggling along as a vicarage, Bishop Bruno's plans for St. James evidently changed just eight months after he re-dedicated it for service. On May 20, 2014 he obtained approval of the diocesan corporation to transfer into his corporation sole the title of St. James's multi-million dollar, ocean-front property in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of wealthy Orange County. Effectively this gave him alone the sole power to deal with and dispose of the property. (Note: he did not inform the St. James congregation of this transfer.)

Sometime in early 2015, Bishop Bruno completed private negotiations to sell the entire St. James property (consisting of four separate parcels) to a developer who planned to replace the church buildings with luxury condos. He waited until May 2015 to announce the sale to the congregation, who predictably reacted with shock and hostility, mingled with their honest attempt to try to view the matter from his perspective. However, given Bishop Bruno's proclivity for prevarication, and his unwillingness to meet the congregation even halfway, things went downhill in a hurry.

The congregation first published an open plea to the Diocese, which went nowhere. Next, in a twist worthy to be dubbed "poetic justice", the original donor of the St. James property informed Bishop Bruno that the property had been given to the Diocese on the condition that it be used always and only for "church purposes." Bishop Bruno claimed in turn that the donor had released the property restriction in 1984, and filed an aggressive lawsuit against the donor for "slander of title" -- whose intricacies I explained in this previous post.

Shortly after Bishop Bruno filed his lawsuit against the Griffith Company (the donor of the St. James property), the parishioners struck back by lodging Title IV disciplinary charges against Bishop Bruno. As difficult as it might be to imagine, the gist of the charges amounted to the fact that Bishop Bruno had repeatedly lied to them. After seeing to it that St. James congregation was locked out of its buildings -- which had no other use for anybody, pending all the various legal proceedings -- Bishop Bruno left the country on a four-week vacation to Italy.

The Reference Panel of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, headed by the Presiding Bishop of the Church, initially referred the matter to official conciliation, and appointed a conciliator. After a valiant effort, the latter had to admit defeat in that Bishop Bruno was not interested in any solution that did not allow the Diocese to recover the nine million it had spent on its legal follies, and also did not believe he had done the slightest thing wrong. The case returned to the Reference Panel, who assigned it to a Conference Panel to conduct an informal hearing on the charges and supplemental charges that had been lodged.

(Sarcasm on/) Meanwhile, members of the congregation who appealed to Church headquarters to try to mediate their interim use of the St. James property were met with open arms and welcoming queries as to how they might be most helpful, along with suggestions of how the parishioners might best manage their Sunday School until the disciplinary process took its slow and painful course. (/Sarcasm off.)

With no help appearing from any other quarter, the St. James congregation and its vicar, the redoubtable Canon Cindy Voorhees, filed suit against Bishop Bruno's corporation sole and the prospective developer to stop the sale. Bishop Bruno's latest demurrer to that action has not yet been heard, pending the case's assignment to a new judge (see next paragraph). You can read the congregation's response to the Bishop's demurrer here.

The litigation between Bishop Bruno and the original donor intensified, before likewise hitting a snag. The Griffith Company met the Bishop's complaint with an anti-SLAPP motion (whose legal niceties I explained in this post about an earlier phase of the litigation), which the Bishop vigorously opposed, and to which opposition the donor replied in kind.  But the judge to whom the motion was assigned (the Hon. Walter Schwarm) recused himself, on the remarkable ground that he was an Episcopalian. (When has any Episcopalian ever done that before in these matters?) A new judge was assigned, to whom the developer-purchaser promptly objected. But Orange County has an endless supply of civil judges, so the Hon. David Chaffee now has the responsibility for both Bishop Bruno's and the parish's lawsuits.

Some interesting further facts emerged from the pleadings filed between Bishop Bruno and the Griffith Company. As I discussed in this earlier post, that Company's 1984 reconveyance of the St. James parcels to the Diocese without the exclusive-use restriction applied on its face only to three of the four parcels occupied by the Church. Bishop Bruno contends that the omission of the fourth parcel was a typographical/secretarial error, since he says (but supplies no proof of the fact) that a prominent member of St. James in 1984 paid the Griffith Company $800,000 for the reconveyance.

The Griffith Company denies that it received any money for the transaction -- and once again has the documentary evidence on its side, since the deed of reconveyance shows a transfer tax paid of zero (meaning that no money officially changed hands for the transaction), and declares itself to be a "Gift Deed." And if it was just clerical error to omit the fourth parcel, then why didn't anyone from the Church move back in 1984 or 1985 to have the deed corrected? Indeed, to this date neither Bishop Bruno nor the diocese has filed any suit for reformation to correct the description in the deed. (Instead, he has filed for the indirect remedy of quieting title to the fourth parcel, even though the only deed referring to that parcel is the original one in 1945 -- which imposes the use restriction.)

It would thus appear that the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has been given the gift of eternal litigation. (It might want to consider the application of Jesus' words in Mt 26:52 to its situation.) The parish has put up a Website which contains a useful timeline, with links to all of the documents referenced above, and more, which you may use to stay abreast of developments.

In another part of ECUSA's domains, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago appears bent on following in the footsteps of the Diocese of Los Angeles -- though not yet (thank God) to the point of civil or disciplinary litigation leading to the sale of property. Nevertheless, the tendency to follow Neuhaus' Law -- by which the traditional and orthodox is first made optional, before eventually being proscribed altogether -- seems alive and well.

One of the Diocese of Chicago's older parishes is the Church of the Ascension, just north of the Magnificent Mile, which began as a mission in 1857 and by 1869 had become one of the Church's leading Anglo-Catholic parishes. It maintained that tradition faithfully, becoming renowned for the extent and beauty of its liturgy and music, until the advent of the Rev. David Cobb in 2014. No friend of the Church as it had established itself, the Rev. Cobb promptly sacked Ascension's leading musicians, slashed the budget for the choir, and began reducing the number of paid services.

The moves threw the congregation into turmoil. Bishop Jeffrey Lee was forced to intervene. The Rev. Cobb eventually departed, after having been voted a generous six-figure "severance package", and an interim priest was assigned, but the damage to the Church's musical and liturgical infrastructure was by then a fait accompli. The Church found a replacement organist and choir director, but one whose permanent residence is in London. (There is no explanation of how the vestry viewed that as a move that saved money over the previous arrangements.)

The vestry split in the past over support for the Rev. Cobb, and it has been rumored that Bishop Lee will bring in retired Bishop James Jelinek of Minnesota, 73, to transition the Church from Anglo-Catholicism into "affirming Catholicism". (Bishop Jelinek, by all reports, managed this same feat during his recent tenure at St. Paul's Church on K Street, in Washington, D.C. "Affirming Catholicism" is to Anglo-Catholicism as anti-matter is to matter: in contrast to the traditions from which Anglo-Catholicism springs, it endorses the liberal agenda of ordinations to the priesthood of all and sundry, regardless of gender, identity or sexual orientation -- and sees itself as a counter-movement to "biblical fundamentalism".)

There was supposedly a parish meeting with Bishop Lee on December 5, but no reports have emerged on the Web of what happened there. I invite those interested parishioners who have access to this blog to add any further news or information in the comments.

[UPDATE 12/13/2015: Though there is as yet no announcement on the official parish Website, word has come to me that the Church of the Ascension's interim pastor, Fr. Shane Patrick Gormley, circulated the following email to the members of his parish earlier this afternoon:

The Church of the Ascension 
Today, at a meeting of the Vestry, I tendered my resignation as Priest in Charge of Church of the Ascension, effective immediately. In the following comments, I have attempted to balance speaking the truth in love and telling it "like it is," along with respecting multiple sides of a disagreement and my own sympathies.

It was revealed to me this week that our Special Parish Meeting was orchestrated by members of the "Save Ascension" group, a faction that has existed within the parish since earlier this year. Their goals have changed over the course of this year, but have generally centered around the rehiring of former staff members, defaming previous and prospective clerics, and the restoration of what they call "catholic" liturgical practices. Although the Special Parish meeting did bear some fruit, and gave many a chance to be heard, the facts are that the meeting was approached by a majority present with an agenda to usurp my role as Priest in Charge of the parish, and therefore chair of the meeting. 

Members of "Save Ascension" include many who have already dissociated themselves from this parish, vestry members, and still some whom I believe to be genuinely concerned about the state of the parish. For any good intentions that may have led some to join "Save Ascension," they have been muffled and silenced by the procedure which "Save Ascension" has followed--a procedure marked by rumor, speculation, gossip, name-calling, and bullying. I am very quick to acknowledge that these same hallmarks of un-Christian behavior have not been limited to "Save Ascension," but may be found in many members of the parish. Not all members of "Save Ascension" are guilty of this, nor are all those who oppose the actions and mindset of "Save Ascension," but nevertheless, the parish has become a battleground, which is far from how a Christian Church should or can function. Again, not everyone is guilty of poor conduct, but there are some voices that have drowned out those who would speak softly.

Emails presented to me have revealed the desire of some, including vestry members, to usurp the authority entrusted to me as a priest to lead the parish in understanding the will of God for this community. This parish has become a toxic environment, in which the bullies are allowed to speak freely and without consequence, and the apathetic have hoped for resolution without action. I have discerned that there is no way for me to exercise my calling as a priest in such a situation.

I value my time at this parish. I have learned much. Many curacies last no longer than two years, and I by no means regret the nearly two and a half years I have spent here, first as an assistant, then as Curate, and finally as Priest in Charge. That said, I am strongly convicted that the parish is unable to move forward in its current state. Some have explicitly stated that "growth" does not matter to them. Many have lauded the attempts to bring younger families into the parish, yet have done nothing to contribute to creating a liturgical or social space wherein this is possible. While many have been concerned about what will (re)make this a "catholic" parish, the answers to what makes one a "catholic" have differed from person to person. More importantly, many have forgotten that before we may be "catholic," we must be Christian.

Catholic Christianity is not measured by the length of a solemn procession. It is not encapsulated by a biretta atop a priest's head. It does not major in minor propers being sung a certain way. It cannot be proclaimed by a lone voice in a pulpit, no matter his or her quality as a speaker. C. S. Lewis puts it this way, on what true catholic faith consists of:
You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: 'Do I like that kind of service?' but 'Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?'
I pray that Church of the Ascension will flourish--I truly do. But my conviction (which guides my prayers, my preaching, and my passion) is that it will not flourish as long as individuals within the congregation demand their own way, and insist on the superiority of a time past. From my first sermon on October 13, 2013 to my last sermon on December 6, 2015, I have never stopped asking us to consider, "What is God doing?" I hope you will pray this as I take my leave of this cure, whether for the first time or the hundredth. I hope, and pray, that this parish will seek how it may witness to Christ as his disciples in the world, a world that so desperately needs the love offered on Christ's cross, and the life offered in His resurrection.

In Christ,

Shane Patrick Gormley +

The oblique references in this email to how "the parish has become a battleground, ... a toxic environment, in which the bullies are allowed to speak freely and without consequence" are indeed disturbing. At the same time, the allusions to the necessity of change appear to imply an insistence upon acquiescence in the changes begun by the Rev. Cobb, which are viewed as irreversible. Such a viewpoint cannot be reassuring to those who disagreed with what he set in motion -- those in the Church who, apparently, "demand their own way, and insist on the superiority of a time past" [emphasis added].

The Anglo-Catholic tradition in ECUSA is under heavy assault, as indeed it is in the Church of England. Those who are leading the assault have no heed for its consequences for their Churches' relationship with the Roman Catholic or Orthodox denominations. Those two denominations will never, in the foreseeable future, introduce the departures from orthodox ordination standards which ECUSA and its companions in liberalism have embraced in an effort to "stay relevant" with the changing mores and times. Accordingly, those who part ways with them are parting ways with the church universal -- the church catholic.

Father Gormley quotes, appropriately, C.S. Lewis' Preface to his Mere Christianity. But it behooves both sides of the main point at issue in the Church of the Ascension imbroglio to examine carefully the answers they give to Lewis' questions: "Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?" Such questions cannot be answered in a vacuum; nor may Anglo-Catholics answer them without reference to the faith once delivered to the saints.

This is indeed a turning point in the history of the Church of the Ascension. Episcopalians have been facing similar turning points for years, now -- and many, like myself, have been forced to pull out of the denomination in order to avoid compromising "the faith once delivered", as we learned it at our forebears' knees, and grew up with it, so that we could pass it on in turn. I pray that God's Holy Spirit will provide the guidance and generosity of Christ's true faith to all who truly turn to Him in these days of doubt, strife and temptation.]

4 comments:

  1. The connection is tenuous to nonexistent, but I wonder if this sort of thing, generally, is connected to the strange doings at 815? ++Curry seems to have awakened from his surgery and been inspired to suspend the COO and two other senior officers. Given the tone set from the top, one at least wonders. There as been surprisingly little information leaked.

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  2. Self destruction continues despite the departure of conservatives.

    "The wise woman builds her house,
    but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down." - Proverbs 14:1

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  3. Thank you for adding Fr. Gormley's letter in your update. I have been doing some supply work at Ascension of late, and, as much as I have been able to stay out of it, it is clear to me that the internal conflict is the biggest issue they are facing. It is also worth keeping in mind that church fights are rarely about what they are actually about. Please hold that parish in prayer.

    Fr. Matthew Kemp+

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  4. I am a member of the Ascension parish in Chicago. It has been difficult over the past year to even enter the church building due to the interpersonal conflict there, and I must admit that I am seldom there. I am not one to jump into a conflict, but more a person who observes and tries to make sense, listens before speaking. Sadly, I feel that the longer the "Save Ascension" email campaign continues, the further the group wanders away from the actual issues that started this. What fuels the Save Ascension campaign, in my understanding, is the campaign's members' unwillingness to see the situation from different perspectives. I will give a few examples. Point 1) Members of Save Ascension see the church building and the activities that go on inside it (i.e. mass, evensong and benediction) as their own property, and therefore believe they have authority to police it. It is my perspective that they have forgotten that after an official search (headed by their own search committee) they hired a priest (Father David Cobb) and that as Rector he was "in charge". Shortly after the rector's decision (perhaps he simply forgot?) to wear a biretta, what followed shortly after was a series of email blasts taking phrases or quotes of various alleged statements by the new rector, taking them out of context, and making wildly stretched claims that such statements meant he was "heretical" (Save Ascension's word choice). In my perspective, the need to go to such hyperbole was excessive and undignified. Separately: Point 2) Some parishioners have forgotten that parish staff work for the rector, not for individuals in the parish. When the rector made the decision to terminate employment of several long-time staffers, an admittedly difficult decision, several persons became indignant over the fact that the rector did not ask for a parish vote, or did not at minimum consult with them personally. Here again, people who in every day life are professionals, perhaps lawyers, perhaps members of the academic community, have forgotten that employer/employee relationships are not their business in this situation, but are exclusively the business of the supervisor, the staff member, and the HR authority. Sadly, our Save Ascension group needs a refresher course on modern business practices, and that they do relate to how church business is conducted. I wrote privately to several members of the "Save Ascension" group asking them to remain calm, think carefully about all possible sides to the situation, and to think about patience and forgiveness. I reminded them in my private email that they, as I, cannot possibly know every facet of the situation because we are not parties to it. I also pointed out that under the previous rector (Father Gary Fertig), at a time when I was a member of Vestry, that there were a few situations where we were asked by the rector for perspective and opinion about how to handle HR issues, as there were a few minor issues that that came up. We gave our advice and then let the rector make the decision on how to proceed. That was how it was handled. Sadly, it seems, over time, some of us have decided that no matter how we approach a situation, only their opinion matters. This is not very productive. In the current situation, there simply can be no way forward unless some parishioners consider anew the concepts of forgiveness, compassion, and patience.
    James Baran

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