Trinity Got It Wrong? (part 1)...

In mid-March, Dr. Cooper, Trinity Church's XVIIth Rector, preached the kind of sermon he does especially well. An interesting disquisition on the gospel that day — the parable of the prodigal son — it was also a program statement. After reviewing the video of this sermon, the program appears to be more or less this:

Real estate and mission strategies are to be linked, as the resolutions on them were adopted at the same meeting of Trinity's vestry.

A lively interchange over the course of the year nevertheless resulted in a workable (though not perfect) plan: Enhance the value of Trinity's real estate holdings; enhance the income from them. But, this is no longer fuel for mission, but part of the mission itself.

Trinity's land holding in lower Manhattan, mostly along Hudson Street, is to be the heart of a great neighborhood for New York. Trinity will work with retailers, residents, various boards and associations.

The idea is, in part, to apply that same skill and approach in works outside Trinity's immediate territory, to build community in the South Bronx.

The program statement: Create a city center in lower Manhattan. and nearby (in the south Bronx) and afar (in Africa).

The catch-phrase: Lay down the theological hammer and just hammer away Habitat-for-Humanity fashion, to build a house — to build community, in this instance.

Dr. Cooper is smart and capable and has a well-formed, up-to-date theological point of view. As a manager, he appears to be a sort of S3-sometimes-S2 (quadrants on a Hersey-Blanchard curve) leader. While this is a program that arises from much consultation, one strongly suspects that this is Dr. Cooper's program at the core — and this is entirely right and proper.

Still — there is always a "still" — Trinity may find itself having to deal with a trilemma. The first horn of the trilemma is political: Any discussion of community in any sense is always about politics; in New York, that means the very complex politics of this vast sprawling complex of Stadtteil and Landschaft. The second horn of the trilemma is, I suppose, historical and theological: How is mission possible in the context of Trinity's history? Finally, there is a strictly ontological horn: New York is not inherently communal; it is a complex of neighborhoods which interact very strangely, when you come to look at them. How does it stand with neighborhoods, and how can they be construed as communal — if that is even possible?

I am constrained by other commitments; I should like to develop this line more than I can. As it is, I will only sketch the first difficulty, that of politics. It needs further thinking, but seems generally correct.More...


New York is a fiercely political city. This is not surprising: Politics seems to be a natural outcome of the human propensity for having and expressing concepts in discourse. We seem to be (as Michael Gazzaniga surmises) belief-creating entities; part of our social nature has been the expression, and forcible discussion, of those beliefs.

New York has developed a unique politics over the last several centuries. It thrives on difference; the common identity — New Yorker — is commonly lost in differences. Differences manifest in the way people affiliate; one such way will be significant in the ontology of the neighborhood; another is significant as examine the way in which political discourse and action takes place.

It also thrives on greed: "I seen my chances and took 'em," was coined by a Tammany pol, after all.

Trinity is a political player; it has been a political player since its foundation (even before it was chartered). New York was a Dutch town; the old church in town — still very much extant — is the Reformed Church (the collegiate churches were chartered by William III before Trinity Church). Trinity's foundation represents the New Political Order; while cordial relations seem to have obtained between Trinity and other religious bodies (both Christian and at least Sephardic-Jewish), one cannot help but notice a degree of condecension in the interactions. The most visible sign of the ascendance of the English church is the establishment of St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, replacing the Stuyvesant-era Reformed church on that site and becoming the house-church (effectively) of Stuyvesants and their descendants. [There are rumors Peter Stuyvesant haunts St. Mark's; he would be a most unhappy ghost, given his general lack of tolerance for anything but the Dutch Reformed Church.]

Trinity's political character is cemented by its deep connection to city political and social leadership. Even as that leadership moved out of Trinity's "catchment", even taking leadership roles in the foundation of parishes closer to their new residence, Trinity's governing structure continued — continues — to be dominated by this political leadership. In part, this is considered desirable because these politically significant people are also commercially significant; the idea is, they can best guide the Parish in its stewardship of the wealth that has been committed to it.

The Parish of Trinity Church, therefore, should be understood as being in the midst of the larger political-establishment perspective — not, I think, leading it, but often being led by it.

Most important in this character is Trinity's role as an owner and speculator in real estate — but not (at least in recent times) a developer of real estate. Trinity's main wealth from its earliest days has been landed wealth. One has the sense this diminished relatively in third quarter of the 20th century, but that real estate and the revenue derived from it comprises the bulk of Trinity's "patrimony".

In New York politics, real estate owners, speculators and developers are a distinct and powerful political body. They control the destinies of great numbers of people — tenants of course, but also all those who work in building trades and vast numbers employed in building maintenance. It is a wealthy group, and it exercises disproportionate influence over those who lead the city's body politic.

All three sub-groups — owners, speculators and developers — are interested in return on investment. For owners and speculators, this return is an end in itself; for developers, the return is a means to an end — generally, the ability to undertake further development projects. On the surface of it, Trinity's ownership and speculative aspects appear to have been dominant; the revenue was an end in itself — at least for that part of the organization that engaged in the management of the real estate. The Parish took that revenue rendered to it, and applied it as it might; that was divorced from the actual acquisition.

Dr. Cooper's program, to which he has woo'd a consensus, would make Trinity more a developer. That is, the revenue derived from real estate would not be something for its own sake, and the actions of Trinity Real Estate would be consciously for the sake of another end — labeled "community building".This is a case of the leopard changing its spots. Can the Parish of Trinity Church impose such a teleological change on Trinity Real Estate? Generally, owners and speculators do not easily become developers.

There are two subordinate issues:

First, the head of Trinity Real Estate has a long history in lower Manhattan. Carl Weisbrod, now charged with running Trinity Real Estate, has generally presented himself in terms that are consistent with ownership and speculation (he is on record many times as favoring the shift of lower Manhattan residents toward greater uniform affluence). This is consistent with an ownership/speculator perspective; it is also consistent with a long-standing opinion about the nature of Manhattan (New York's Stadtteil) and the outlying boroughs (Landschaft — even Brooklyn...), and who should be encouraged, or discouraged from being seen where. This is perhaps less consistent with a healthy development teleology.

Second, those most likely to comprise the vestry of the Parish of Trinity Church, however well-meaning, tend not to be deeply familiar with or derived from groups with a strongly creative, development-oriented teleology.

In short, Trinity's place in the New York polity has generally been deeply committed the political equation of things-as-they-are with that-which-it-was-to-be. Is there sufficient Will to change this equation?