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Call for Pastor to Resign Leaves Church Divided : Clergy: Father George Six was asked to leave after five weeks at St. Matthews Episcopal Church. The vestry cited management problems. Supporters say he was just following orders.

July 18, 1991|DUKE HELFAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call it a short honeymoon. On April 15, Father George Six joined the clergy of St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Pacific Palisades. His arrival culminated a yearlong nationwide search for a pastor to lead the venerable parish, one of the oldest and wealthiest on the Westside.

Five weeks later, the church's 15-member board of directors, or vestry, overwhelmingly approved a resolution demanding Six's resignation. Vestry members criticized Six's direct management style, saying he had failed to foster trust among parishioners while trying to make fundamental changes in the church day school and in the oversight of church finances.

But Six, 56, has refused to leave. Although he declined to be interviewed, several of his supporters insist that he has tried to accomplish what was asked of him when he was hired--to help bring the school closer to the goals of the church. They say he was chosen from more than 50 candidates to replace the previous rector, who retired in May, 1990, because of his reputation for developing a strong parish school at his former parish in Coral Gables, Fla.

The resulting conflict has divided both the vestry and the congregation. Some of those who oppose Six initiated a letter-writing campaign in mid-May, questioning the pastor's integrity and whether his religious views, which they called fundamentalist, fit in with the school's philosophy. Some of the 15 vestry members acknowledge they contributed to a fund that was started to pay Six to leave and for the transition to a new rector.

Some of Six's supporters say they have felt shunned and isolated from the church community. There is so much acrimony within the 50-year-old congregation that few parishioners would speak on the record.

"The parish can move forward with Father Six, but it will be under a lot of strain," said a vestry member, who asked not to be identified. "We will have to focus our discussions on issues, not on personalities. A lot of healing will be needed."

After Six refused to resign, the vestry took the matter to Bishop Frederick Borsch of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, who is expected to decide by the end of August whether Six will stay or go.

The trouble appears to center on how much authority is given to the church's lay leaders. Father Fenton, the previous rector, often delegated key decisions regarding the day school and finances to members of the vestry or the school board, parishioners say. Six has tried to involve himself directly in such decisions, creating a backlash in the parish, according to several accounts.

Six, for example, recommended amending the school's admissions policies to favor the children of active parishioners. He also recommended bolstering the religious content of the school's curriculum. In addition, he questioned whether the school's headmaster, Les Frost, is capable of running the school, according to several accounts.

Supporters say Six was acting in response to complaints within the parish that the school had strayed from its original charter as a religious day school and had evolved into a private prep school. Indeed, the school has gained a national reputation in recent years and is known as one of the leading private schools in California. It is widely sought by non-parishioners on the Westside, whose children make up as much as 50% of its 312 students in preschool through grade eight, according to critics of the school.

But several members of the school board and the vestry balked at Six's recommendations, insisting that the admissions policies already favor children of parishioners and that the school administration is committed to religious education. According to their figures, about 70% of the students come from families that belong to the church.

"This is a parish school, just as it always has been," said Colleen McAndrews, the incoming school board president. "The content has always reflected Christian teaching. The school is willing to follow the guidance of Father Six or any future rector."

Six's attempt to exert control over church finances also has caused problems. As the rector, he is the parish's chief executive officer. As such, he has questioned the way contracts and other transactions are handled.

He questioned, for example, a $95,000 contract given to Frost in late May, 1990. The contract had been approved by a group of five lay leaders--including the former school board president and the church treasurer--without the school board or the vestry first approving it. The contract package, which includes a house on the parish grounds, a car allowance and various benefits, is worth as much as $200,000, some parishioners say.

Frost declined to comment, but members of the vestry and the school board insist that there is nothing unusual in the way the contract was handled. In fact, it is the third contract approved for Frost in such a manner since he joined the school in 1984. Contracts for previous headmasters were handled in the same way, according to several church leaders.

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