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Trinity Church Snuffs Out Grassroots Push for Leadership Change

By Julie Shapiro | March 22, 2012 6:03pm

LOWER MANHATTAN — Downtown's troubled Trinity Church has snuffed out a grassroots push for changes in its leadership.

Amid concerns that the church's rector, the Rev. James Cooper, is lavishly overspending on music programs while neglecting philanthropic work, Trinity's congregants asked earlier this week for a greater voice in how the 314-year-old Episcopal church is run.

The congregants wanted Trinity to hold a rare contested election for the church's 22-member board of directors, or vestry, which is usually chosen at a small closed-door meeting.

But Trinity's Nominating Committee, a panel of church leaders that includes Cooper, voted Wednesday night to put off any changes until at least next year.

The Rev. James Cooper, rector of Trinity Church.
The Rev. James Cooper, rector of Trinity Church.
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Trinity Wall Street

The committee believed that there was not enough time before the April 10 vestry election to find more candidates beyond the 22 who have already agreed to serve, church officials said. Those candidates are largely supportive of Cooper.

Trinity released a statement saying the Nominating Committee would consider the idea of a contested election for the spring of 2013 instead.

"While the process for nominating new vestry members is well underway for the current year, the Nominating Committee agreed that the request of the [Congregational] Council to explore new procedures is valid and will be considered by the entire vestry for the next cycle," the church said in a statement.  

"To start that process, a member or members of the Nominating Committee will attend the next meeting to engage the Council to discuss new approaches for conducting future elections."

Jeremy Bates, the former Congregational Council president who has been pushing for leadership changes at Trinity, called the Nominating Committee vote "a travesty."

"This decision is deeply disappointing," Bates said in a statement. "The rector is putting his own interests first. And the Nominating Committee has failed to check him."

Bates said that after eight members of the vestry resigned earlier this year in protest of Cooper's tenure, the Nominating Committee picked replacements within a week — suggesting that the committee could easily find even more potential vestry members to compete in an election.

"Entirely disregarded today are the interests of Trinity’s congregation," Bates said. "The congregation deserves leadership in which it can put its trust. The lack of such leadership is more and more apparent."

The seven-member Nominating Committee — which includes three congregants, three vestry members and Cooper — voted unanimously against the contested-election proposal, Trinity said.

Trinity's vestry is charged with overseeing Trinity's three-part mission as a Lower Manhattan community church, a major real estate company managing 6 million square feet in Hudson Square, and a philanthropic organization donating millions of dollars to projects across the globe each year.