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Priest Guides Newport Breakaway Parish Through Troubled Waters

Leader of a church that left Episcopal diocese has had a long journey to center of schism.

September 07, 2004|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

Despite being the son, grandson and great-grandson of Anglican priests, young Praveen Bunyan would more likely have opened a bottle of booze than a Bible. He smoked, he drank, he took drugs.

But one day in 1982, the 20-year-old felt the presence of Jesus. "I heard in my heart, 'Praveen, I died for you.' I went to my knees and said, 'I know you died for me, and I want to live for you.' I took all the drugs in my room, and I trashed them. He transformed my life. It was a miracle."

That day when Bunyan pledged his life to Christ, he began an unlikely journey that has taken him from the poverty of his Indian homeland to the affluence of Newport Beach, where he heads St. James Church, a parish at the center of a religious maelstrom.

St. James and two other conservative Southern California parishes recently broke with the Episcopal Church over issues of homosexuality and theology and placed themselves under the jurisdiction of a Ugandan bishop. All three churches have refused to surrender their property to the Diocese of Los Angeles, despite the threat of a lawsuit.

The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion. Homosexuality has split the communion, with many churches in the United States and Western Europe accepting gay clergy and same-sex weddings, while churches in Asia and Africa oppose them.

In becoming rector, or head priest, at St. James last year, Bunyan became the leader of a church closely aligned to the American Anglican Council, a leading group of conservative Episcopalians.

Bunyan's predecessor at St. James, the Rev. David Anderson, is president of the council, and church member Frank Trane is a board member who has been active in the group since its early days. Another St. James member, billionaire Howard Ahmanson Jr., known for his funding of conservative political and religious groups, is a major donor.

Though the Episcopal Church is one of the most liberal mainstream Christian churches, St. James is a decidedly conservative place. Anderson, rector for 16 years, backed a ministry program that is said to help gays become heterosexual.

Bunyan doesn't go that far. But he opposes abortion, believes in Adam and Eve rather than evolution and says the Bible is the word of God. He says the parish's view of marriage is that it is between a man and a woman. The alternative, whether the person is heterosexual or homosexual, is celibacy, what Bunyan calls "godly singleness."

Upstairs in the sanctuary, in the prayer room, are copies of an 11-page article by conservative Christian leader James Dobson opposing gay marriage. He argues that it will destroy the family and lead to polygamy and other nontraditional unions, "public schools in every state will embrace homosexuality," "religious freedom will almost certainly be jeopardized," and "the gospel of Jesus Christ will be severely curtailed."

But Bunyan says homosexuality is not the main issue in the split. He says the issue is what he calls biblical orthodoxy. "The bishops are saying we can no longer say Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior," Bunyan said. "They deny his divinity, that he didn't rise from the dead."

Bishop J. Jon Bruno, who heads the six-county Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese, said that is not an accurate account of his views. Bunyan, he said, "has never said that to my face. I'm saddened if that's the fact. They don't know my theology."

Bunyan played field hockey, soccer and cricket in college, but at 42, jokes that the only exercise he gets is walking to his car. His wife, whom he met on his first day at divinity school in India, also is a priest. On this day he is awaiting her return from a three-week mission in Kenya with their two children, a son, 16, and a daughter, 14.

Bunyan's first ministry was in a village in India where he lived under a tree for 15 months with a backpack, a pair of jeans and a couple of shirts. During that time, he said, he organized 12 churches. He survived on wild cherries and berries and food that villagers gave him.

He came to the United States in 1993, receiving a master's degree in theology from Biola University in La Mirada. At the same time, he was associate pastor at St. Luke's of the Mountains in La Crescenta, whose rector, Ron Jackson, is president of the Los Angeles branch of the American Anglican Council.

Bunyan already had received master's degrees in public administration and divinity from Indian schools and would later enter a doctoral program in New Testament at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. He has completed all but his dissertation.

Bunyan eventually became rector of a church in Aurora, Colo., outside Denver, in 1997, where he developed an informal style of worship, sometimes using trumpets, tambourines and drums.

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