Trinity Church’s purchase of a $3.6 million Beacon Hill condo to house its rector is sparking dissension among some members of the landmark Episcopal congregation, with a few even asking if the church could resell the property.
Some say they feel the new rectory, where the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III now lives, feeds the perception that Trinity is a bastion of privilege and obscures the congregation’s significant contributions to the city’s less fortunate. Others say the problem goes deeper than optics, maintaining that the purchase is a departure from the Christian ethic of standing in solidarity with the poor and marginalized.
“I thought it sent a very bad message about our values,” said Gary Sandison, a longtime congregant and former member of the vestry, the council elected by the congregation to make decisions for the church. “It pained me deeply because I know Trinity . . . is doing wonderful things in the city.”
About 100 of the church’s 2,000 or so active participants attended a conversation about the purchase with church leaders on Sunday. A second meeting is scheduled for Feb. 26.
Those who attended Sunday’s meeting, which was closed to the press because those present wanted everyone to feel comfortable speaking, said the discussion was forthright but respectful.
‘I have been seriously questioning how the church can educate the next generation of Christians when it fails to practice what it preaches.’Susannah Howe, 17, of Newton
Anne Phillips Ogilby, the junior warden — akin to vice chairwoman of the vestry — said later she apologized at the outset of the meeting for causing consternation within the congregation. She said she told those gathered that she wished leaders had included more details about the purchase in letters to the congregation that mentioned the new rectory so that there was a better understanding of the decision ahead of time.
Most members of the congregation learned about the rectory’s price and location in a Globe story last week.
Asked during the meeting whether the vestry would consider selling the property, leaders said that was off the table, according to several people who attended. Peter Lawrence, the senior warden, declined to discuss that issue in an interview this week.
“We’re listening very faithfully to what everyone has to say, and we will continue to work with the vestry and the parishioners and our partners throughout the city to make sure we are a center of faith, hope, and service,” he said.
Lloyd said he was not available for an interview this week, but in e-mailed comments, he called the episode “a challenging time in our community, as we have been called to address disagreements about how we live out our faith and how we can best serve the city of Boston.
“No matter what anyone’s views were,” he wrote, “everyone was saddened by the cloud cast over Trinity’s ministry and devotion to our city.”
Lloyd also said he was heartened by Sunday’s conversation.
“It was a prayerful, candid exchange of views, laced with passion, perplexity, wisdom, and hope,” he said. “There were words of apology, encouragement, and, more than anything else, determination that our commitment to serve those in need — both inside and outside our walls — will continue to deepen and grow.”
Several people who attended Sunday’s discussion said about 75 percent of those who spoke expressed concerns about the purchase, ranging from strong disapproval to milder discontent about church leaders’ failure to communicate more clearly with the broader congregation about the decision.
“We’ve got to do a better job of figuring out a way to get things done, but still be inclusive,” Geoff Smith, the church’s treasurer, said in an interview this week. “It’s a big place.”
Two young women, both active parishioners who live in Newton and who spoke at the meeting, said they thought the decision to buy the condo was deeply flawed.
“From the perspective of a young person confirmed at Trinity two years ago, I have been seriously questioning how the church can educate the next generation of Christians when it fails to practice what it preaches,” Susannah Howe, 17, said in an interview later.
She said she hoped the church would sell the new rectory.
“I think it would be a pretty powerful statement if they did that,” she said.
Hattie Gawande, also 17, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders in Sunday School, said helping the underserved has always been a dominant theme in her church.
“I thought Trinity was so sensitive to our relative privilege in comparison to the lack thereof of the people that we help, and it’s a really insensitive act to have bought a $3.6 million rectory in Beacon Hill,” she said. “So that was sort of a betrayal. It puts us in the position of one who treats business decisions and living in the lap of luxury above . . . putting that money somewhere else or living in modesty.”
Those who supported the purchase said in interviews that, even if the leadership could have communicated better, buying the condo was a good business move that would allow the rector to live within walking distance of the church, just as Trinity rectors have done through most of the church’s history.
“The treasure that is Trinity and its outreach to the city needs a steward right nearby,” said Lee Behnke, a parishioner who rents an apartment in the South End. “And this is an impossible neighborhood to get cheap real estate in.”
Robert Yearwood, who as Trinity’s verger assists with services, said, “I’m happy with the decision — we finally have a place for Sam and his family to live.”
The condo replaces the church’s historic rectory, an 11,000-square-foot building at Newbury and Clarendon streets, which was converted to church office space in 2006.
The Beacon Hill property is a refurbished 3,100-square-foot, two-level condo in a three-unit brick row house on Chestnut Street, about a block from Boston Common. Amenities include a two-car garage, a pantry with a wine cellar, an outdoor courtyard, and a guest cottage.
Because much of the rectory’s cost was covered by Trinity’s $30 million endowment, Lawrence and Smith said, the purchase had little effect on the church’s operating budget and no impact on its work for the poor.
The church, together with a subsidiary charitable organization, the Trinity Boston Foundation, pumps millions of dollars a year and thousands of volunteer hours into programs serving inner-city students, the homeless, the hungry, people in need of mental health counseling, prisoners, and others in need. The budget of the foundation is increasing from $2 million to $2.4 million this year.
Vestry members said they thought buying the condo would be a sound business investment because the church got a good deal on a property in a desirable neighborhood where home values appear destined to appreciate. Trinity plans to apply for a property tax exemption on the property, leaders said; rectories are normally granted exemptions in Boston.
Lloyd, who lived in the old rectory for 11 years before leaving for a six-year stint as dean of the Washington National Cathedral, returned to Trinity in 2011. Until last month, he and his wife, who have two grown children, had been living in a church-subsidized rental in the Back Bay. The vestry felt Lloyd needed a permanent place to live within walking distance of the church, and one large enough to accommodate church dinners, meetings, and other gatherings.
Caroline Abernethy, a teacher at the Epiphany School in Dorchester, a highly regarded Episcopal school that educates mostly poor students, said the issue was complex.
“There’s a bigger picture here,” she said. “I feel that Sam Lloyd, the rector, walks his talk, and the whole ministry here is about reaching out and really trying to be an inner-city church.”
Louise Burnham Packard, executive director of the Trinity Boston Foundation, said she was glad the discussion had prompted the congregation to ponder how it could contribute even more to the community and also contemplate a fundamental question in their own lives: “How much is enough?
“If this building purchase could prompt us all to take that question to whatever the next level is for each of us, what a remarkable thing,” she said.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.