Lead Us Not Astray, Reverend James Cooper

In August 2011, Trinity Church's rector was asked to leave. He stayed with a vengeance.

Lead Us Not Astray, Reverend James Cooper

It is Sunday morning at Trinity Wall Street, the historic Episcopal church in Lower Manhattan. The season of Advent is beginning, and underneath the soaring Gothic vaults, the pews are mostly full. The organ strikes up, song fills the air, and the service begins, a long procession slowly snaking through the nave in a figure eight: two by two, black cassocks, white cassocks, gray habits, candle bearers, bell ringers, censers filling the air with sweet white plumes of incense.

At the end of the procession comes Trinity's rector, Reverend James Cooper, a small man with gray hair, in white vestments with a blue-and-gold stole around his shoulders. The procession ascends to the dais, and after more hymns, prayers, and announcements, Cooper steps up to deliver his sermon.

Working from the Gospel of Luke, Cooper moves quickly to talking about the recent hurricane.

The first Trinity church was erected in 1698 (this Gothic facade dates to 1846). Until recently, it seemed unshakable.
Voice Media Group
The first Trinity church was erected in 1698 (this Gothic facade dates to 1846). Until recently, it seemed unshakable.
Trinity hired Reverend James Cooper to serve as the church’s rector in 2004. “We had our doubts about him,” said one former vestry member.
Leo Sorel; Source: trinitychurch.org
Trinity hired Reverend James Cooper to serve as the church’s rector in 2004. “We had our doubts about him,” said one former vestry member.

"A roaring sea," he says. "A surge! Of desolation and distress. Frightening. Jesus says when you see those signs, be alert. Pay attention! They're warnings."

But scripture also offers comfort, Cooper continues.

"We still live with a reasonable hope and expectation that we'll survive. And we have. These signs and portents—I don't know that they come to test us; they just come, but they do test us—they cause us to reflect and set priorities and really come to grips with what is important."

Many of Trinity's parishioners have only recently returned to their Lower Manhattan homes; the neighborhood is full of flooded-out businesses whose owners still don't know if they will reopen. Cooper's sermon is certainly topical.

It's also an apt metaphor for Trinity Wall Street itself, which weathered a different sort of storm a year ago as Cooper and his supporters engaged in ruthless backroom battles with church officials over control of the church, its future, and its massive real estate portfolio. At several points in the fall and winter of 2011, it appeared that the storm would swallow Cooper up, forcing him from office. But he, along with his power and perquisites, survived. His critics were washed away.

As American institutions go, Trinity church is about as venerable as they come.

In 1697, 30 years after the English seized the Dutch colony of New Netherland and renamed its capital after the Duke of York, King William III chartered the church as the Anglican seat in the newly English city. The first service was held a year later, in a church set at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway. The church spire loomed over New York, then a mere village on the tip of an island in a vast and unexplored land. By the time Alexander Hamilton was buried in its cemetery, Trinity was already more than a century old.

But the event that would shape Trinity's history for centuries to come, ensuring the church's survival while complicating its mission, came a few years later, in 1705, when Queen Anne granted to the church a vast expanse of land just outside the borders of the still-tiny city. The Queen's Farm, as it came to be known, extended all the way from present-day Fulton Street to what is now Christopher Street, in the West Village.

Over the following centuries, as New York grew, Trinity slowly shed the bulk of this sprawling estate. Parts of it were sold, and about two-thirds of it was given away to the city and to other religious institutions. Today, the remainder represents about 6 percent of the original royal gift, but even that constitutes staggering wealth. Estimates place Trinity's current real estate holdings in excess of $1 billion.

It's an incredible chunk of change for a church, and the question of how to manage it—both literally and philosophically—has always been a complicated one for Trinity. The church's history can be read as a delicate, complicated dance between its dual roles: the church and the real estate giant, the spiritual and the worldly, God and mammon. It's never an easy dance, but over the centuries, the church had evolved structures of governance to keep its footing and make sure neither mission compromised the other. Until recently, those structures held up well.

The question of what went wrong at Trinity—or whether anything had gone wrong at all—burst into the public awareness last winter, after a flurry of public resignations alerted the media to the turmoil inside the church's leadership. Press accounts at the time dwelled on the discontent among the vestry but didn't shed much light on the political maneuvering that provoked the crisis. A review of internal Trinity communications from that time, as well as interviews with five former vestry members—who spoke to the Voice on condition of anonymity—tells the story of how polite disagreements over the church's direction ultimately escalated to a political knife fight, one that drew in everyone from rank-and-file parishioners to the Episcopal bishop himself.

In 2004, Trinity's rector, Dan Matthews, was preparing to step down, and the vestry—the church's steering council, composed of parishioners and distinguished executives—set about hunting for a replacement. The search committee wasn't especially impressed with the crop of candidates available, but ended up offering the position to Cooper, the rector of Christ's Church in Ponte Vedra, just outside Jacksonville, Florida.

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