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On May 20, about to leave Xi’an in northwest China, I sat at breakfast checking email on my iPhone. The news: J. Jon Bruno, Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles, is selling the former St. James Church in Newport Beach, Calif., completed in 2002. St. James was the largest and most vibrant evangelical congregation in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Eight hundred members at least. Now, a developer will pay $15 million for the property and probably replace the church with townhouses.
Aghast at the sale of the church that was my spiritual home for a dozen years, I reread the Orange County Register report. Memories flooded back, as they flood back for members of the more than 100 Episcopal-to-Anglican congregations that have lost their buildings. I saw our beloved former rector, now Anglican Bishop David Anderson, talking with my father as he was dying. I saw myself in the group for mothers of young children, trying to figure out how to be a decent mom. I saw our son, David, in the Christmas pageant’s kindergarten angel choir, and coming home from the youth group’s winter sledding expeditions full of tales of how he almost hit a tree.
When plans came for a new church, my husband and I commissioned ceramic Stations of the Cross done in medieval Catalan style. On 9/11 we were among the standing-room-only crowd meeting in a remodeled bank building until the new church could be built. A little more than a year later we sat and listened to Bishop Bruno dedicate to the glory of God the newly completed St. James Episcopal Church.
St. James also had history in a previous building. Begun as a mission church in the 1940s, St. James soon opened the day school my husband attended through sixth grade. In the 1970s the Charismatic Renewal swept through part of the Episcopal Church and touched St. James. The congregation engaged the entire community—prison ministry, evening adult education classes, marriage and divorce support groups, food and clothing ministries to the poor, vibrant youth groups, mission trips around the world.
Soon the church had three services—traditional at 7:30 a.m., family service at 9, charismatic service at 11. Something for everyone. It all centered around loving and serving Jesus Christ—the Son of God, our crucified and risen Lord. Study focused on the Bible, God’s authoritative Word.
St. James with its evangelical commitment was a thorn in the less-orthodox bishop’s side.
The Episcopal Church came to reject that belief, so St. James chose to become part of the Anglican Church of Uganda. Bishop Bruno sued the vestry and court battles commenced. They ended in 2013 with the California Supreme Court upholding appellate court rulings that gave the Episcopal hierarchs a legal victory: The St. James property went to the bishop. Between 150 and 200 members of the original congregation now meet in a senior center in Newport Beach. Other members have given up on churches.
The city of Xi’an, an ancient Chinese capital, saw dynasties come and go. It is home to the first Chinese emperor’s famous Terracotta Army. When those terra-cotta sculptures of thousands of soldiers were found in 1974, most were in shreds. Angry at the emperor’s rule, soldiers about 2,220 years ago had attacked his unfinished tomb as soon as he died.
Attempts to obliterate the past have many precedents. In 1009 the Muslim caliph ordered the destruction in Jerusalem of Constantine’s golden Church of the Holy Sepulchre. French revolutionaries in 1793 burned the archives and library of the giant abbey church at Cluny. On Aug. 27, 2013, Muslims destroyed 38 Coptic churches in Egypt, leaving six dead.
Christian churches aren’t the only targets. In March 2001 the Taliban blew up the ancient and revered Buddhist shrine at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. In July 2014, ISIS blew up Muslim shrines at the tombs of the prophets Jonah and Daniel in Mosul, saying they drew the faithful from proper worship. Just this February, in Mosul, ISIS shattered 2,700-year-old stone images of Assyrian gods.
St. James with its evangelical commitment was a thorn in the less-orthodox bishop’s side. Though his method—the courts—is less violent, its result is the same. St. James will go the way of Constantine’s church and the Buddhist shrine at Bamiyan.