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EPISCOPAL CHURCH SCHISM

Push to Be Inclusive Creates a Divide

By reaching out to homosexuals, L.A. Bishop J. Jon Bruno alienated three parishes. He's no stranger to crisis.

September 05, 2004|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

In the predawn stillness, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno lay awake in his bed. It's in God's hands, he told himself, forcing himself back to a fitful sleep.

A former police officer, the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles is a man acquainted with crises. There was the time 30 years ago on the Burbank police force when he shot and killed an armed man suspected of drug-dealing and kidnapping. He lost sleep then, too, over what was considered a justified shooting.

Then there was the time his 3-year-old son, Philip, fell from a third-story balcony. The boy was temporarily paralyzed, his life on the brink, before he fully recovered.

This time is like that, Bruno said. "Painful and sad."

In the last two weeks, three conservative parishes in his six-county Los Angeles diocese had left the Episcopal Church, alienated by what they said was their church's drift toward heresy and wrongful affirmation of homosexuality.

They renounced Bruno as their bishop and aligned themselves with the Anglican Church in Uganda, whose conservative archbishop was more to their liking, a man they held up as "a wonderful, godly archbishop."

Now, at 57, Bruno faces a formidable challenge, perhaps the most serious in his 2 1/2 years as the chief shepherd of 85,000 Episcopalians and 147 parishes in six Southern California counties from Ventura to Riverside.

"Anybody who says there's not grief over this in my heart and spirit would be absolutely wrong," he said. The defection of the three parishes is a "major crisis."

To conservatives, it is a crisis partly of Bruno's own making, for he symbolizes many of the reasons for their discontent.

Bruno supported the elevation of a gay priest last year to bishop of New Hampshire.

He has blessed the same-sex union of one of his priests, the Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd, and that priest's longtime companion, Mark Thompson.

And in June, when a conservative Episcopalian group asked Bruno to sign a statement affirming that the only way to an afterlife is through belief in Jesus Christ, he declined. Bruno, like Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, said that while Jesus was "the way, the truth and the life" for him, he could not presume to speak for God when it came to Jews, Muslims and others.

For conservatives, those issues have become a test of fidelity to biblical tradition. To Bruno, they test something equally important: Christ's message of inclusion.

The church must be inclusive because Jesus was inclusive, he said during a recent sermon at St. John's Episcopal Church near downtown Los Angeles. Seated in the first pew were his wife, Mary, his daughter and grandchildren, and Boyd and Thompson.

"Jesus loved us unconditionally," Bruno said, his words resounding through the vaulted Romanesque nave. "He had an unconditional love of all humanity, allowing for no outcast in this community as he built the true religion, a religion of inclusion and wisdom."

Despite Bruno's reputation as a man of prayer who speaks of encounters with "the holy," those who know him say that he acts with resolve.

"He does not run away from crises, does not run away from competition, and he does not run away from conflict," said the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr., rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, one of the most liberal parishes in the U.S. church.

In meeting the secession dilemma, Bruno is using both ecclesiastical and civil measures. He has warned the breakaway priests that they may be defrocked, and in a letter made public Friday he appointed new clergymen to take over the three disputed parishes.

He also has appealed to national and worldwide church leaders for help and has charged Ugandan Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi and the Ugandan bishop who has taken immediate charge over the California parishes, the Rt. Rev. Evans Kisekka, with breaking centuries of church law.

Meanwhile, Bruno and his lawyers are preparing for a court battle over parish property at the three breakaway parishes, All Saints in Long Beach, St. James in Newport Beach and St. David's in North Hollywood.

The controversy has put Bruno in the unusual position of having to defend his beliefs.

"I am one of the most Christo-centric men in this world," he said. "Ask anyone on my staff. When I'm overjoyed about something, I raise my hands in the air and say, 'Thank you, Jesus,' because I think that God is ever interacting in our lives."

It has long been his practice to begin his day with prayer for 30 minutes to an hour. Now his prayers, he said, include his hopes for reconciliation.

Born in Los Angeles, Bruno has a bachelor's degree in physical education from Cal State Los Angeles and a license in criminology from Cal State Long Beach. He served six years in the Burbank Police Department and was briefly under contract with the Denver Broncos, but he never got to play because of an injury.

In the mid-1970s, he went to Virginia Theological Seminary, where he earned a master's of divinity degree and was ordained a priest in 1978.

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