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.

“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.

“We had our doubts about him,” says one former vestry member. “But we figured, we have a strong vestry, we’ll help him along.”

Cooper had built a thriving church in Florida, helping to grow the congregation from 50 to 6,000 over the course of 32 years. For the Trinity parish, still devastated by the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, his community-building skills were important.

But the vestry made it clear to Cooper that rebuilding the church community was only one of the position’s responsibilities. As rector, he would steer Trinity’s traditions of philanthropic giving and moral leadership, but also preside over the church’s property holdings, making sure that the source of Trinity’s security was preserved. Cooper had experience with building projects, having overseen the construction of a retirement community for Christ’s Church; it wasn’t exactly Manhattan real estate, but it was something. Further, in a recognition that the church shouldn’t rely too heavily for its annual operations on a topsy-turvy real estate market, the vestry asked Cooper to spearhead the creation of a “second farm,” a diversified endowment that would keep Trinity’s coffers full even in a downturn.

People associated with Trinity tend to view it as exceptional, as an institution far greater, more complicated, and more august than an ordinary church, and they tried to impress this perspective on Cooper. Like your average parish church, Trinity has a rector and a vestry, but its structures of government have historically been different, with the relationship between rector and vestry closer to the corporate model of a CEO and a board of directors. The vestry is relatively strong and provides guidance to the rector. And its composition includes not only congregants, but also the kind of high-profile lawyers and executives you might find on a corporate board. That’s partly because Trinity’s operations, with its real estate management and philanthropic work, are so complex that it pays to have vestry members who can lend their expertise in these areas.

But there’s also an even more fundamental reason.

“It’s a separation-of-powers issue,” another former vestry member explains. “For a church like Trinity, where you have substantial assets, it isn’t necessarily a good idea to have members of the congregation making all the decisions.”

Left to their own devices, in other words, a vestry of parishioners might choose to focus the church’s resources on musical programming and mission trips—to spend the church’s millions, that is, on themselves. The purpose of Trinity’s independent vestry is to make sure the church looks beyond itself and maintains its commitment to philanthropy and engagement with the wider world.

“Jim never got that,” says a third former vestry member of Cooper. “Jim never got that the vestry was his boss. There was that challenge from the very beginning.”

And from the beginning, Cooper’s term at Trinity raised eyebrows in the vestry. He negotiated an unprecedented compensation package, which by 2010 stacked up at $1.3 million. While his predecessors had made their homes in comfortable midtown apartments at church expense, Cooper had other ideas. He persuaded Trinity to buy a four-floor townhouse in Soho to the tune of $5.5 million. The 4,000-square-foot home, built in 1899, sits on Charlton Street, in the middle of a block full of classic Federal and Greek revival buildings. In its designation of the neighborhood as a historic district, the Landmarks Preservation Commission took special note of Cooper’s new home, praising its entrance as “particularly handsome and large in scale,” with “exquisite” detail and “opulent wood carving and plasterwork.”

“He talks about it as being an investment for the future, a place where future rectors can live,” says a former vestry member. “But as a space, it doesn’t make any sense. Its layout wouldn’t work for anyone who has children or anyone who has trouble with stairs. The house is for Jim, not for the church.”

On top of the luxurious residence, Cooper also negotiated a further housing stipend—about $115,000 in 2010—to cover his vacation home in Florida.

“Trinity is a wealthy institution, and the rector has a lot of responsibilities, but it’s also a church,” says a member of the congregation. “When people learned about the house and his salary and everything, a lot of us thought it was really unseemly.”

Trinity has a long legacy of social activism and giving, from working for the uplift of slaves in early New York to backing a little-known bishop named Desmond Tutu in apartheid-era South Africa. Trinity’s charity was both local—its rectors launched shelters and housing programs all over New York during the 20th century—and global, with a fully staffed philanthropy department making millions of dollars in international grants.

“The philanthropy has always been a really central part of the identity of Trinity,” says one former vestry member. “That’s one of the reasons people felt so strongly that things were going wrong in recent years.”

In 2009, New York City announced that the John Heuss House would be losing its lease. For 20 years, the Heuss House, operated by Trinity in a city-owned building on Beaver Street, had served as a drop-in center, providing food, shelter, and services to more than 150 mentally ill homeless people a day. It was the only homeless drop-in center in Lower Manhattan, and members of Trinity’s congregation took pride in providing such necessary services.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In front of the cast-iron fence on either side of Trinity’s front doors, a dozen people in worn sleeping bags spread out across the sidewalk. This group has been camped outside the church for months. Some consider themselves activists and believe Trinity has been corrupted by its wealth; many are just people who don’t have homes to go to.

A hand-drawn cardboard sign on the sidewalk reads “Wall Street Temple of Greed: Trinity Real Estate Church Inc.”

Spilling out onto the street, congregants step over the huddled group and walk swiftly into the city.