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A bishop's divided house

In troubled times, L.A.'s Episcopal leader seeks to be a unifying force.

October 31, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

On a recent Sunday morning, the Rt. Rev. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese of the Episcopal Church, stood before a congregation in Ventura County with his hands clasped, the fingers tightly interlaced, as two boys summoned from the pews tried to pull them apart.

It was not an easy task. Bruno stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 285 pounds, and his hands are in proportion to the rest of him. They are hands, moreover, that have clasped dying young AIDS patients in compassionate embrace and held off charging defensive linemen on behalf of a championship college football team, hands that gripped the shotgun as a fatal blast was delivered in the service of law enforcement.

"Pull, come on," Bruno exhorted the boys, who tugged and yanked to no avail as the congregation laughed.

"They could pull all day and all night, and they still won't pull them apart," Bruno declared. "We need to be in that kind of community. Even though we have disagreements, even though we're in pain and sorrow, we need to be together."

Disputes over the ordination of women and gays, and other recent modifications of church practice, have sent fissures spidering out through the denomination. Bruno, although an advocate of change, has tried to play reconciler in the drama, but not all traditionalists accept him as peacemaker.

Bruno has sued four of his parishes that have defected from the church. He has also helped initiate a church inquiry into whether the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield, a conservative bishop in the Central Valley, should be removed from office for, Bruno and other critics of Schofield allege, preparing the defection of his entire diocese.

If disaffection within the church weren't enough, the Internal Revenue Service is scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of his biggest parish, All Saints of Pasadena, because of a sermon criticizing President Bush preached there on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.

The IRS action "appalled" him, Bruno said, "especially when I see conservative denominations everywhere having preachers who are actual candidates for office."

The struggle between the Episcopal factions has reverberated throughout the loosely knit worldwide Anglican Communion, conservative elements of which have reached out to dissenting American parishes. Between 100 and 150 American congregations have seceded from the Episcopal Church. The breakaway four in Bruno's diocese have aligned themselves with the traditionalist Anglican province of Uganda in central Africa.

Seven American dioceses, including Schofield's, are resisting the authority of the U.S. church's liberal presiding bishop-elect, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, bishop of Nevada, who is to be consecrated Saturday as the first female primate in the history of Anglicanism.

Bruno's admirers praise his dedication to social justice and to working with clergy of other faiths as well as his efforts to keep theological partisans of all stripes in the Episcopal family. They call him a "people person par excellence" and "a huge man with a heart of gold as big as he is."

On the matter of the lawsuits and the Central Valley bishop, however, some of his opponents see the fingerprints less of the loving reconciler than of the former football player and police officer.

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'This celibacy thing'

Bruno, a 59-year-old father of three, has a backward sweep of milk-white hair, expressive black eyebrows and the hulking, easy mien of the large man with little to fear physically from anyone. But his gait is careful, respectful of the prosthesis he wears in place of his left foot, which was amputated above the ankle in 2005 after being ravaged by an infection he'd contracted in England during a visit on church business.

Garrulous, informal and outspokenly self-effacing, he indulges a slightly delinquent sense of humor. While being wheeled into surgery, he sang aloud -- much to the consternation of his wife, Mary -- "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye." When, at a recent celebration after the baptism of Bruno's fourth grandchild, a small boy asked to see the bishop's artificial foot, Bruno took it off and handed it to him.

His sense of humor belies a profound belief in the power of prayer: He devotes as much as an hour, three times a day, to prayerful meditation and self-examination.

Bruno was born into a Roman Catholic tailor's family in Echo Park, the location of the Episcopal diocese headquarters, the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, which he helped build. From his office there, he presides over 147 churches and 85,000 Episcopalians in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

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