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Trinity Church Wall Street: Can reporters solve the case of the missing Episcopal rector?

Trinity Church Wall Street: Can reporters solve the case of the missing Episcopal rector?

By Julia Duin
Jan. 21, 2020

It was a strange way to announce one's resignation, I must admit.

On Jan. 5, the rector of the richest Episcopal church in the country was standing before his congregation in downtown Manhattan giving some rather banal parish announcements. Then, he added, he knew that some folks had heard that he was leaving and yes, this would be his last Sunday there. Comparing himself and his wife to the Mary, Joseph and Jesus trio in terms of being on the move toward Egypt (and away from Herod, one supposes), he said they were going to take a sabbatical and that he wished the church well.

It was clear that many in the church had no idea what was going on, including the choir that was awkwardly standing by, waiting to sing an anthem during the offering. (You can see all this go down in this video. https://www.trinitywallstreet.org/video/1115am-holy-eucharist-195 Start at the 50-minute mark).

Episcopal News Service ran a brief announcement the next day:

The Rev. William Lupfer resigned as rector of New York's Trinity Church Wall Street on Jan. 3 after five years leading one of the most influential parishes in The Episcopal Church.

In a brief letter to Trinity's staff, Lupfer, 59, did not offer a specific reason for leaving, but Trinity spokesperson Patti Walsh said in an email that Lupfer is "discerning a new call outside of Trinity."

Founded in 1697, Trinity was Manhattan's first Anglican church. As a result of a land grant from Queen Anne, it owns 14 acres in lower Manhattan and has become a major real estate developer. It had a $6 billion portfolio as of February 2019 and acquired Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, California, in March 2019.

About that $6 billion portfolio, here's a very informative New York Times piece that ran about a year ago. While it's not quite as much as the $100 billion Mormon slush fund I wrote about last month, it's a lot of cash.

Although the Times piece notes that Trinity gives away some $10 million a year, there are churches all over New York that are closing because they cannot afford basic upkeep. (And here is tmatt's critique of that Times story.)

JuicyEcumenism.com, which is fast becoming the most reliable source of what's really going on inside Episcopaldom, noted how weird this whole sudden departure is. Jeffrey Walton (who is the Anglican program manager for the conservative Institute of Religion and Democracy) writes:

Such an abrupt departure is highly unusual. Stepping down over a holiday break with no announced transition to an interim rector (Lupfer will be succeeded by church vicar Phillip A. Jackson, who will become priest-in-charge) indicates the departure decision was sudden. As of the morning of January 6, Lupfer's name and photo had already been removed from the Trinity staff page.

About the $6 billion: Are there any other relevant facts that readers need to know about the health of this parish? How is the church itself -- the people -- doing these days?

The parish largely lives off these assets, reporting no congregational plate-and-pledge income for the past four reporting years. Prior to that, the parish reported exactly $600,000 in annual plate-and pledge donations going back to 2010. Statistics made available by the Episcopal Church Office of the General Convention list an unchanged membership of 950 and attendance of 625 from 2011 onward. Streaming video of services appears to show an attendance closer to 200 persons.

Obviously there must have been some recent plate-and-pledge income, but the church simply isn't reporting it to the diocese. Being that the diocese takes a cut out of church income, maybe Trinity is simply cutting a pre-arranged check to the diocese each year so they don't have to mess with exact attendance figures.

Trinity seems to be one of the few Episcopal churches that are doing well, financially, if not attendance-wise. Maybe the church is living off the gifts of previous generations?

The always helpful, if blunt, VirtueOnline site described the latest membership figures for the Episcopal Church as down to 1.6 million with an average Sunday attendance of just over a half million people around the country. It was at 3.6 million back in the 1960s when I was growing up, so times have definitely changed.

I am reminded that on Feb. 2, it will have been 20 years since the Revs. John Rodgers (former dean of my Episcopal seminary in Ambridge, Pa.) and Charles Murphy, a South Carolina priest, were consecrated bishops by several Anglican bishops in Singapore in an effort to start a separate Anglican denomination in the United States. I am happy to say I was the first reporter to get Rodgers on the line (in Singapore) for an interview with the Washington Times (where I was working at the time) but the two men were highly criticized for doing such an unorthodox deed.

Three years later, the Episcopal Church approved the consecration of a gay priest as the new bishop of New Hampshire and all of a sudden, what Rodgers and Murphy had done didn't look so crazy after all. By 2006, large chunks of conservative Episcopal churches, including 11 in northern Virginia who left in one fell swoop late that year, were joining what would become the Anglican Church in North America in April 2009.

At this point, the ACNA is headquartered near Atlanta, includes 1,062 congregations encompassing 134,649 adherents and is on its second archbishop. Its growth seems to have leveled off in recent years but it did produce a new Book of Common Prayer last year plus a new Catechism. It's been a rocky 10 years as many congregations, including one I used to attend in Fairfax., Va., lost all their property and their bank accounts to the Episcopal Church via various lawsuits. It takes awhile to recover from such losses.

The once-every-10-years Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops is slated for this coming summer in the U.K., but large chunks of the Anglican Communion headquartered in the Global South, known as GAFCON, will ignore the summit and have their own meeting.

So, in terms of its endowment, Trinity Wall Street is very much an outlier in the waning fortunes of the rest of the Episcopal Church and it's expected that its billions will keep the 14 acres in lower Manhattan solvent for some time. But, again, what about the actual church and its people?

As for Lupfer, it appears that journalists have not stepped forward to get to the real story of why this almost 60-year-old priest decided to step down after five years. Most clergy gives months, if not a full year's notice before they leave -- especially in a church this famous -- so something or someone is obviously showing Lupfer the door.

The New York Times is unusually flush with religion reporters at this point, so I'm expecting a story on this soon. Let's hope someone gets to the bottom of what or who that may be. Inquiring minds always wish to know.

PS (added later) - Then again, the Times may not be on this at all. As first noted by Juicy Ecumenism and reminded by the comments section for this piece, Gabrielle Sulzberger, wife of retired New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. and a private equity fund investment manager in her own right, sits on the church's vestry. I realize reporters can't follow every clergyman who suddenly retires but when it comes to what may be the country's richest church, exceptions can be made.


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