Skip to main content

Features

Bishop gone bad?

California Episcopal Bishop Jon Bruno intends to sell off the property of a congregation he once championed. Parishioners and clergy are crying foul

Bishop gone bad?

Jon Bruno (Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Jeff Antenore/Orange County Register

The first service at the “new” St. James the Great following Bruno’s court victory.

Jeff Antenore/Orange County Register

A member protests the sale of the property.

Most people have never heard of J. Jon Bruno, but his saga shows what is tearing apart what once was America’s most influential denomination—The Episcopal Church (TEC)—and creating such bitterness among former and some current members. It’s also a classic man-bites-dog story: Why would a bishop destroy a church and sell its building to a developer who plans to tear it down and build two dozen luxury town homes on the spot?

Bruno is the sixth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Some call him a compassionate champion of social justice. Others see him as a cunning bully. Many Episcopal hierarchs around the United States have similarly bifurcated reputations now that about 400 churches have broken from the theologically liberal denomination and affiliated with the theologically conservative American Anglican Council. But former Bruno supporters wonder how they could have been so blinded by the gleam of the bishop’s golden chasuble on that day in 2013 when he blessed a newborn flock that he would soon abandon.

BRUNO, WHO TURNS 70 on Nov. 17, is a 6-foot-5, 300-pound former professional football player with a bear-grip handshake. People describe him as charismatic, fearless, passionate—and shrewd. He grew up in a Roman Catholic tailor’s family in Los Angeles and first felt a pull into priesthood as a 12-year-old. But when he discovered Catholic priests had to make a vow of celibacy, sports seemed a better fit.

Bruno went to Cal State Los Angeles on a football scholarship and later joined the Denver Broncos, but an elbow injury forced him to retire early. In 1968 he joined the Burbank Police Department and within 14 months shot and killed a 28-year-old drug dealer and suspected kidnapper who fired a pistol first at police officers. The shooting was ruled justifiable, but mental replays of the scene tormented Bruno until an Episcopal priest assigned him penance and pronounced absolution. The terrible dreams stopped.

Bruno first visited a TEC church by following a cute girl whom he later married. The marriage didn’t last, but his denominational affiliation did. In a 2006 interview, Bruno said he switched from Catholic to Episcopalian because TEC “not only puts their faith out there but puts it into action to relieve people’s suffering and anxiety.”

After four years in the police force, during which he witnessed the devastating effects of street life on youth and families, Bruno felt a call to priesthood again. He gained his Master of Divinity degree at Virginia Theological Seminary in 1977 and ordination in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in 1978. In 1985 he became rector of St. Athanasius Episcopal Church in Echo Park, then a gang-ridden, crime-blighted neighborhood. Bruno took a congregation divided between older conservatives and young gays and reshaped it into a multiethnic parish with food distribution programs, laundry for the homeless, gang diversion efforts, and an AIDS health clinic.

James Newman, rector of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church, has known Bruno for about 40 years and calls him “a fighter for people who are often excluded from the church.” When Bruno was recovering from treatment for leukemia in 2012, his family room was piled with 25,000 handwritten letters, including a six-page letter from a Johns Hopkins professor thanking him for saving her from drowning when she was an infant. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, when few others dared touch an AIDS patient, Bruno hugged and rocked a young, wasting parishioner on his lap every week.

David Anderson, then rector of the St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, Calif., saw that side of Bruno. He liked the “hardworking, gregarious priest working in the inner city” and encouraged fellow conservatives to elect Bruno to the Diocese of LA bishop’s chair. He thought Bruno more reasonable than other far-left candidates and believed Bruno’s promises to include the conservatives in discussions once elected bishop. Instead, Bruno “dropped us like a hot potato,” said Anderson, who’s now chairman of the American Anglican Council, a conservative alternative to TEC: “That was our first indication that something had changed ... and we didn’t know what that meant.”

Anderson found out what that meant when St. James, along with several other congregations in the Diocese of Los Angeles, left TEC in 2004 over doctrinal disagreements, with St. James becoming part of the American Anglican Council. Bruno spent nine years and $9 million in court to keep those TEC properties. Episcopalian property disputes are now common, but the St. James congregation was a particular thorn in Bruno’s side: It had been the largest congregation in his diocese and among the first to secede from TEC. St. James’ wealthy members had the zeal and resources to fight a lengthy, expensive legal battle to keep the 40,000-square-foot oceanfront campus, built to last for centuries, that the congregation had spent $8.5 million to create.

IN 2013 BRUNO WON THE CASE: Anglicans had to leave, and a freshly recruited band of Episcopalians moved into the church building. The reopening service of St. James the Great Episcopal Church in October that year came with fanfare and excitement: The same iconic stained glass window, shaped like a rose with symbols of the nine fruits of the Spirit engraved on each petal, glowed at the front of the sanctuary. Flames once again crowned white candles, Communion wine sloshed in golden chalices, and worshippers sang familiar classic hymns from wooden pews.

Presiding triumphantly and prominently over the service was Bishop Bruno—a rightful position, since St. James the Great wouldn’t have existed without him. He had also recruited as vicar over the new parish Cindy Voorhees, who shut down her liturgical design consulting business and moved out of her home of 20 years to serve full time in Newport Beach. Bruno said he was “overjoyed” that St. James was once again an Episcopal church for “years to come.” New members thanked him, saying this was the first time they’d joined a church in many years.

All 280 worshippers who attended that service (including many key clergymen from around the diocese) heard Bruno declare from the pulpit, “When I consecrated this church, I didn’t consecrate it as a church for individuals. I consecrated it as a place for the people of God, a place where signposts will stand up here proclaiming with big letters, ‘We are here to serve our Lord Jesus and we want to share that more with you.’”

Eighteen months later, in May 2015, Bruno announced his decision to sell the St. James property—without any advance warning or discussion among members. Since he had preached about reconciliation, love, and hope, congregation members did not think he would soon kick them out. “There was such disbelief, sort of like a deer-in-headlights moment,” Voorhees recalled. “We were in complete shock.”

St. James the Great had no disagreements or disciplinary issues with the bishop or TEC. Its attendance was not dwindling. Within 18 months, the church had expanded from a handful of people into a self-sustaining community of 150. It had about $100,000 in its bank accounts and a projected net cost to the diocese of a mere $7,800 per year. For how long Bruno harbored plans to sell the property is unclear. (The bishop ignored my multiple phone and email requests for an in-person interview.) Documents dated as early as May 2014 show that he had quietly transferred the property title into his corporation sole—a legal entity that grants the sitting bishop (Bruno) singular authority to buy and sell properties.

While the sale was still pending in 2015, Bruno shuttered the church gates with new locks, essentially flushing the congregation out into the street. He seized the St. James bank account and cut off Voorhees’ salary and benefits. He broke multiple verbal and written promises, according to Voorhees and others, and at one point claimed Voorhees had resigned, although she has not. For weeks, Voorhees received emails and phone calls from bewildered, enraged members: “Could Bishop Bruno really do this? Why? How?” Members saw Bruno’s act as a betrayal.

Bruno’s initial explanation—that operating expenses of St. James the Great “were no longer sustainable at about as much as $300,000 annually”—doesn’t make sense. Even longtime ally Newman, the St. Bede’s rector who had lauded the bishop’s efforts to fight the breakaway congregations in court, cried foul: “I love Bruno, but I fight him, because he’s just doing the wrong thing.” Newman had helped raise money for Bruno’s vestments when he was ordained into the episcopate and had visited Bruno and his second wife Mary for lunches and dinners, but says he no longer trusts the bishop: “My pain is that the Jon Bruno I know cares for others and works for social justice. This is so out of character with him that it’s painful.”

Others such as Anderson, however, say Bruno’s character has always been more complicated than that.

SHAKESPEARE COULD NOT HAVE CRAFTED a better conundrum of ironies than what Bruno has created.

After Bruno found a buyer offering $15 million for the St. James property, the original property owner, The Griffith Company, objected to the sale, saying it had transferred the land over to the diocese in 1945 on the condition that the site remain a church. Bruno called his lawyers and sued the land donor for title slander, which led to more legal skirmishes. Stuck in this quagmire, the prospective buyer got cold feet and pulled out—leaving Bruno with no deal.

Instead, Bruno now faces two pending lawsuits: one with The Griffith Company, the other with St. James the Great. St. James members also filed a formal TEC disciplinary complaint against the bishop. The statement accused Bruno of more than 200 canon violations and bore about 110 signatures, including Newman’s. The stakes are high: TEC could defrock and sanction him, which means he could leave office in disgrace. Just going through the public hearing before peers and colleagues would be a humiliating process.

Bruno tried to dismiss the disciplinary case against him, but TEC attorney Raymond J. Coughlan Jr., who will prosecute the case, opposed the bishop’s dismissal request with a strongly worded motion: “Bishop Bruno, of all people, should not be heard to complain about using the civil courts to litigate questions about church canons.” Some have called this turn of events “poetic justice.”

As Bruno considers his legacy after he retires in 2018, he no doubt wants to be remembered for his accomplishments and good deeds. But Newman said Bruno “has done something in a way that people will remember this fight, not the good things he’s done.”

Many Episcopalians now worry this incident will drive more people away from TEC, which has long been steadily shrinking. Bill Kroener, a self-described “cradle Episcopalian” who attends St. James the Great, told me, “What my young grandchildren know today is that bishops are terrible beings who kick congregations out.” Voorhees fears this debacle may have “irrevocably wounded” TEC: “That’s the saddest part. People shake their heads and say, ‘This is why I left the church.’”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.