Lead Us Not Astray, Reverend James Cooper

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

When the congregation learned of plans to shutter the Heuss House, there was an uproar. Cooper publicly asked the city to reconsider, to no avail. But his growing number of critics were unimpressed by his attempt.

"Cooper gave some lip service, saying he tried to talk to them," a former vestry member says. "But he didn't make any real efforts until the issue had already been decided." A congregation member who lives in the neighborhood agrees. "Trinity had a chance to turn that around," he says. "Talking to members of the Community Board, it was clear that if we wanted to make a fight of it, we could have. Bloomberg was up for re-election in 2009. There was room for leverage."

After the Heuss House closed, Cooper's administration started a new program for the homeless: On Sunday afternoons after services, members of the congregation now assemble bag lunches to be handed out in front of the church on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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.

As one former vestry member put it: "We went from a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year drop-in center for the mentally ill with social services, social workers, transportation for people, a food program, a clothing program to, on Sundays afternoon, members of the congregation pack lunches in brown bags? To equate those to me is so indicative of Cooper's lack of vision."

The Heuss House wasn't the only program to fall by the wayside during Cooper's term as rector. The church no longer runs Frederic Fleming House, a home for the elderly on 22nd Street.

"It's a pattern," says a former vestry member. "Every service organization that he did not initiate of has gone away."

The closure of these programs didn't look good for Trinity, particularly coupled with the church's increasingly meager philanthropy budget. With about $1 billion in assets and almost $200 million in annual revenue, mostly from rental income, Trinity's charitable giving over recent years has nevertheless hovered around $2.7 million—scarcely 1 percent. In recent years, spending on the church's music programming has exceeded its charitable giving. The church spends nearly twice its philanthropy budget on publicity alone.

"It's embarrassing, frankly," says a former vestry member. "This is a church that is in a position to really be making a difference in the world, and it simply isn't living up to that responsibility."

At the same time, Cooper has restructured his staff in a way that some worry could produce a conflict of interest. The same person who oversees spending on the congregation is now also in charge of philanthropic programs. For many, this arrangement disturbs the church's balance between inward- and outward-facing responsibilities.

Cooper's critics also point to what they see as his preoccupation with grand building schemes of dubious utility. In June of 2011, he and his staff unveiled plans to hire architects and consultants for a massive overhaul of the property at 68-74 Trinity Place, where the church has its offices. The plans were ambitious—they entailed tearing down the existing buildings and rebuilding a tower with luxury condominiums above and more spacious church offices below.

But some vestry members failed to see just why Trinity needed this enormous project, which would mean substantial borrowing.

"We never got an answer to that," says one former vestry member.

The vestry's building committee directed the staff to come up with a mission program for the buildings before they started the design work. It never happened. As the architects' plans developed, it emerged that the day care center the church has long run in the current building would have to go; the consultants had concluded that housing it in the new luxury tower would be too expensive.

"Every leader wants to build a monument of some sort," one former vestry member says. "I think that was a big part of what was going on there."

Despite more and more vestry members growing concerned about Cooper's suitability as rector, they kept their worries to themselves.

"It was a sort of politeness, I suppose," says one. "Part of it was how Cooper ran things. So many of the conversations were in private. There wasn't really a forum for us to learn how others on the vestry were thinking about him."

Eventually, though, the dam began to break. At a May 2011 retreat where Cooper was expected to lay out his ideas for the church's mission, the rector fell flat in the eyes of many on the vestry.

"There was no vision," says another former member. "It was just 'Keep doing a little bit of this and of that,' what we were already doing."

After the retreat, vestry members began for the first time to discuss the issue, and were surprised to learn that about half of the 22-member council had serious problems with Cooper. They approached the vestry's senior officers, wardens Peter Gevalt and Charles Royce.

According to documents the Voice obtained, the wardens decided not to take the matter to a full meeting of the vestry, and instead sought the advice of the bishop for the Episcopal diocese of New York, Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk. Through the wardens, the bishop urged the dissidents to give Cooper a chance to leave quietly, on his own terms.

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