Lead Us Not Astray, Reverend James Cooper

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

On August 3, 2011, the wardens met with Cooper and told him that a large faction of the vestry felt his time at Trinity should come to an end. Cooper initially agreed to resign. Over the following weekend, Cooper spoke on the phone with the wardens, wanting to discuss what sort of financial package might accompany his departure. He also told the bishop he had decided to retire.

But after meeting with supporters, Cooper decided not to retire after all. He told the wardens he was "spiritually uncomfortable" with retiring and asked for more details about the complaints against him, as well as more time to achieve "clarity."

Cooper and the wardens spent weeks wrangling over next steps. The wardens urged Cooper to meet with his critics. He never did.

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.

It wasn't until the end of September that anyone realized the wardens had been outmaneuvered. While Cooper stalled for time, his surrogates were canvassing the vestry, finding out where his support lay. They were also framing the debate to come.

"They vilified the wardens for following episcopal procedure by consulting the bishop to create a diversion from the real issue, which was the rector's leadership," said one former vestry member. "Politically, it was very shrewd."

Cooper, meanwhile, was hardly without support. At most parish churches, members of the congregation are elected to the vestry by their peers. But at Trinity, again in an effort to insulate the church from the more local priorities of the congregants, vestry members are nominated—by a committee of the rector and his appointees. It's a small detail of institutional governance, and one that hadn't presented any problems across Trinity's long history, but now it meant that in the judgment about to take place, members of the jury owed their positions to the accused.

As the significance of this glitch sank in, some vestry members realized it could have deep implications. "All nonprofits are subject to the danger of being run to the benefit of those who administer them, rather than for their public mission," one said. "We realized: 'We're in danger of becoming an institution that is captured by the staff.'"

Cooper's opponents were at a further disadvantage: Two critical vestry members had already resigned in frustration, thinning their ranks. It became clear to the dissidents that their effort to handle the situation quietly, out of respect for Cooper and the church, had backfired. Cooper was gearing up for a full battle. There would be no private resolution.

The parties agreed that there should be a review of Cooper's performance to help the full vestry make its decision. Many on the vestry wanted an outside consultant to perform the review. Not surprisingly, Cooper didn't like that idea. In the end, the review consisted of Dennis Sullivan, a vestry member loyal to Cooper, interviewing every other member privately about their thoughts on the rector's performance.

When Sullivan finally made his presentation, many on the vestry were stunned: There was no written report. Sullivan's oral presentation contained none of the complaints about Cooper's leadership, and it sparked no conversation in the vestry meeting. Instead, he simply presented a tally: Eight vestry members opposed Cooper's continued tenure. A majority supported him. The conversation was over.

Then, the knives came out. After the meeting, Cooper turned the tables, sending supporters to the four vestry members he suspected of being his strongest opponents to tell them they would not be reappointed. It was an unprecedented move—vestry members serve one-year terms, but have historically always been reappointed for as long as they care to continue. But Cooper, having survived the vote, was clearing house.

The purge sparked a wave of resignations, and not just among those Cooper had promised to ax. By the middle of February 2012, 10 vestry members had resigned.

Back in church on a recent Sunday, Cooper continues his hurricane homily.

He tells the congregation that following their tradition, his wife had planned a surprise birthday for him for October 30, the day after Sandy hit.

"It's a surprise every year that I make it to my birthday," he cracks. "The only surprise every year is who's coming. But she called it off because of the storm. And so that night on the 30th—after making the rounds to our buildings and staff and security and maintenance, those in our neighborhood, Hudson Square—we settled down for a quiet 'having survived with the water only a block and a half away' candlelight dinner. Just the two of us. And it probably will be my most memorable birthday."

But a year after the crisis, Cooper's birthday party isn't the only gathering missing friendly faces.

"The vestry members who left were all good people," a member of the congregation says. "Some of them had served Trinity for decades. Of course they're missed."

After more prayer, song, and announcements (the church's annual performance of Handel's Messiah is fast selling out, both for performances in the church and those at Lincoln Center), the service is over.

Cooper lingers in the aisle, chatting with parishioners, resting his hand on a young girl's head. I introduce myself and explain that I'm writing a story about the tumult in the church over the past year and a half. Cooper's reaction gives nothing away, and he politely suggests I contact the church's press office. I tell him that I have (doesn't he know this already?) and have been told the church won't comment or make Cooper available to me. I hand him my card, telling him I wanted to give him a chance to weigh in. He nods and says he'll consider it, then turns back to another parishioner seeking his attention. I won't hear from him again.

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