California Episcopal Bishop Jon Bruno intends to sell off the property of a congregation he once championed. Parishioners and clergy are crying foul.
(By Sophia Lee, World Magazine.) 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.