April 07, 2012

God and Mammon: row over Wall Street rector engulfs Anglican church’s $1 billion parish

Furious members of the Rev James Cooper’s flock demanded his ousting at New York's Trinity Church in a row over 'lavish spending' and 'Wall Street pay and conditions'.

Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, New York

Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, New York

From the imposing bronze front doors of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, there is an unobstructed view down the canyon of capitalism that is Wall Street.

God and Mammon do not just exist here cheek-by-jowl, they operate in profitable union. America’s oldest Episcopal parish is also the richest in the Anglican community worldwide, with a New York property portfolio worth more than $1 billion built on 200 acres of farmland bequeathed by Queen Anne in 1705.

But the Rev James Cooper, 67, who heads this financial titan with the titles of both rector and chief executive officer, has faced an unprecedented revolt from senior figures in his flock, including high-flyers in business and law.

In this extraordinary showdown of New York’s ecclesiastical elite, 10 of the 22 members of the vestry, the parish administration board, have quit in the last four months. They are infuriated at what they say is the increasingly “dictatorial” and “self-aggrandising” leadership of the man who was appointed to one of the Episcopal church’s top jobs in 2004.

His critics accuse him of pushing grandiose plans for a new luxury tower block and over-spending on the church’s music and publicity budgets while neglecting the church’s traditional philanthropic role — despite taking in rent of $200 million a year from six million square feet of property in 14 buildings.

Mr Cooper’s remuneration has also come under scrutiny. According to the church’s 2010 tax returns, his compensation package totalled about $1.3 million — including a salary of $346,000, an assessment of some $400,000 for the value of the $10 million town house where and his wife live and $507,000 for a rolled-over pension and other “deferred benefits”. "That's a Wall St pay and conditions deal," said one critic.

But as this temporal tumult rocks the venerable institution, the rector’s supporters are as fervent as his foes. They insist that he oversees a thriving parish and that his high salary reflects his dual roles as head of one the most historic Anglican communities and a major real estate organisation. “Disagreements about direction are as old as the faith itself,” the new vestry said in a statement expressing support for the rector.

The conflict is a far cry from the public face of Trinity. The church was the spiritual hub of downtown New York’s recovery after the terror attacks of Sept 11, 2001, on the nearby World Trade Centre and its satellite St Paul’s Chapel was a staging post for emergency workers from the first hours.

The Gothic Revival landmark, New York’s tallest building when it was built in 1846 and the third church on the site, is a popular stop for tourists, a calm escape from the crush of crowds on Broadway outside. George Washington, the first US president, worshipped here in its earlier incarnation.

But behind the air of serenity, a deep discord is revealed by the contents of several hard-hitting resignation letters that have been shown to The Sunday Telegraph.

“When the fox ends up guarding the henhouse, it never ends well for the chickens,” Thomas Flexner, the global head of real estate for Citigroup, wrote in a letter to Mr Cooper ending his 10 years on the vestry.

Allies of Mr Flexner said that he meant that the rector was surrounding himself by hand-picked supporters on parish committees to remove checks and balances on his allegedly grandiose ambitions.

“I adore Trinity and am proud to have been associated with this great institution, at least during the first few years of my tenure on the Vestry,” his letter concluded. “I also know that Trinity will survive long term. After all, it has endured plagues, famines, revolutions, wars and a host of other challenges over its 314 year history. It will certainly survive your administration as well.”

The chief fundraiser at one of New York’s biggest museums was just as blunt in her letter to Mr Cooper, accusing him of self-aggrandisement as she left the church where she has worshipped since 1973.

“You have diminished Trinity Church and you have created a glaring atmosphere of deceit,” she wrote. “Trinity Church will survive your rectorship, even though the congregation, the staff and the Vestry have been deeply wounded by you.”

But in this contretemps, the rector also has robust backers. The church has “full confidence in the leadership of Trinity’s rector,” said Susan Berresford, a vestry member and former president of the Ford Foundation, one of the country’s biggest charitable foundations. “Even during these challenging economic times, Trinity’s ministries are strong, flourishing, and addressing a full range of social and spiritual needs.”

The complaints are extensive. His foes say that he wanted to buy the American Stock Exchange building next to the existing church offices to create a new luxury complex of parish facilities and conference space with up-market apartments and possibly a hotel. “It was just inappropriate, massively expensive, not economically the right move,” said a former vestry member.

Others said he was lavishing funds on church budgets such as the music programme while neglecting good works and failing to prevent the closure of an acclaimed homelessness project. “Trinity has more than $1 billion in income-producing assets, yet the philanthropic grants under this rector are paltry — less than $3 million,” another vestry member who resigned last month told The Sunday Telegraph.

“That’s really very small compared to the asset base and it’s been flat for years, even as other budgets have soared as the church spends money on itself. That’s what I object to. Trinity once had a record as a significant philanthropic force, but we have just fallen off the map on that front.”

There is also criticism of his personal style. “It went to his head, he enjoyed the trappings of power, he believed that he was no longer accountable,” said one critic, who said that minutes of committee meetings were often “censored”.

The litany of complaints is rejected by the rector’s allies. “The idea that he wants to build some extraordinarily luxurious facility for a new HQ is totally misleading,” said a supporter.

“There is an old office building now that needs considerable investment. The question is whether you invest in an ageing structure or develop a new one that will best serve the interests of the church and the community.

“There is also an extensive music programme, operational costs, repairs, broadcasting sermons, publicity material — all associated with running such a well-loved New York institution that is one of Manhattan’s most-visited landmarks. We have to pay our taxes and we also give grants with the funds that remain and we support a network of good causes.”

Mr Cooper saw off the latest challenge from Trinity rebels when a panel of parish leaders voted down calls for a contested election for the vestry board in April. They said they would consider contested elections next year.

It was another setback for his critics. Last year, several urged him to retire early, ahead of the mandatory retirement age of 72. Mr Cooper told the delegation that he would consider the request, but decided to remain in place.

The remarkable rift has stunned observers of the normally staid world of New York parish politics. “Most vestries are polite, non-confrontational assemblies where such conflict is very rare. This one used to be like that too.”

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