The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Warden of Wall Street

So, I took a few days off from the blog. Largely, it's because I've been working on two long-form writing projects, and spent a lot of my energy there, but also because a story I read affects some people I'm close to.

Now, Trinity Church is a very special place in my personal story. I was received into the Episcopal Church there, just about 20 years ago. My spiritual director is HQ'd there, I have personally benefitted from its ministries, and, over the years, I have participated in those ministries--leading classes, prayers, and other associations, dating back from the time I was received. I am, as I have been described, a friend of Trinity.

And I'm glad of that. Trinity's motto, "for a world of good," is one it has earned. Music, liturgy, and oft-unnoticed service both at home and abroad:
As the current head of Trinity, [Rector James] Cooper has helped to carry on the church’s original mission to serve the poor and isolated. The church was established in 1697, predating the city of New York.
Cooper has worked tirelessly alongside groups including the Downtown Alliance, an organization that provides funding to house the homeless in lower Manhattan. The church also gave a leadership grant to the Downtown Alliance’s Back to Business grant program, which is focused on helping small businesses in Zone A and lower Manhattan recover from the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

In addition, Cooper helped to steer funding of $250,000 to the Robin Hood Foundation, supporting the transition of veterans returning from active duty in Afghanistan.

Other initiatives Cooper has lent his time and talent to include a Relief Bureau to counsel the sick and jobless, food pantries and soup kitchens at Trinity chapels around the city, global grant programs that award millions both abroad and to vital programs in New York as well as the massive relief effort and shelter the church provided to the rescue workers at Ground Zero after 9/11.
These are very real contributions to the City and the world. Yet, as the Times story notes, the Church has been "racked by infighting in recent years over whether the church should be spending more money to help the poor and spread the faith, in New York and around the world. Differences over the parish’s mission and direction last year led nearly half the 22-member vestry — an august collection of corporate executives and philanthropists — to resign or be pushed out, after at least seven of them asked, unsuccessfully, that the rector himself step down."

That's an admirably concise and non-judgmental summation of a controversy that has been reported in far more bitter terms elsewhere, and earlier. The internecine conflict appears to have been quite brutal. The Times, and every other story, agrees on one facet that appears to power the story: Money. From the NYT again:
It reported $158 million in real estate revenue for 2011, the majority of which went toward maintaining and supporting its real estate operations, the financial statement indicates. Of the $38 million left for the church’s operating budget, some $4 million was spent on communications, $3 million on philanthropic grant spending and $2.5 million on the church’s music program, church officials said. Nearly $6 million went to maintain Trinity’s historic properties, including the main church building, which was built in 1846; St. Paul’s Chapel; and several cemeteries, where luminaries including Alexander Hamilton and Edward I. Koch are buried. The remainder went into the church’s equity investment portfolio.


Trinity has released other estimates of its wealth over its 315-year history, but none recently. From 1909 to 1939, parishioners could find bare-bones annual statements at their pews; before that, the last disclosures beyond the vestry were in 1814.

“Trinity is moving more and more toward a transparent, modern system of governance, though not without bumps and bruises and pain,” said Mr. Cooper, adding that he supported the disclosure.

Some details are not included on the form, church officials said, like Mr. Cooper’s $475,000 annual salary — which rises to a total compensation of $1.3 million when his pension and the estimated cost of his residence in a $5.5 million, church-owned SoHo town house are added.
Now, when I first read these numbers, Trinity's percentage of income spent on diversification of investments and its endowment seemed disproportionate to me. But I have the financial savvy of a cocker spaniel (albeit a particularly cute, soigné cocker spaniel), so I asked a friend who had, you know, a clue. He told me that the basic structure sounded about right (in the sense of prudent), though suggested that some of the specifics of the spending priorities within the church budget might be debated.

So, why does the story still leave me dissatisfied? I think it could be what I call "The Warden Factor" You don't know Anthony Trollope's The Warden (1855)? What are you doing reading this blog, then? Seriously, it's the beginning of Trollope's brilliant Chronicles of Barsetshire and a lot more worth your time than anything I have to say.

In the novel, the Rev. Septimus Harding, a clergyman appointed to head a charitable institution at a stipend that is, for the work he does, lavish--it's the result of the appreciation of the property values which are the basis of the endowment, and, over the years, the salary for the Warden (the Chief Executive Officer, if you will), has risen to become disproportionately high for a clergyman engaged in charitable work. In the novel, Trollope refuses to accept a simple manichean good/bad distinction between his characters. Septimus Harding, a good, conscientious clergyman, is a much better man than his adversaries--but, he comes to believe that he is wrong and they are right, as in this scene when he hands a newspaper editorial critical of him to his daughter Eleanor:
"An action has been taken against Mr Warden Harding, on behalf of the almsmen, by a gentleman acting solely on public grounds, and it is to be argued that Mr Harding takes nothing but what he received as a servant of the hospital, and that he is not himself responsible for the amount of stipend given to him for his work. Such a plea would doubtless be fair, if anyone questioned the daily wages of a bricklayer employed on the building, or the fee of the charwoman who cleans it; but we cannot envy the feeling of a clergyman of the Church of England who could allow such an argument to be put in his mouth...."
As Eleanor read the article her face flushed with indignation, and when she had finished it, she almost feared to look up at her father.

"Well, my dear," said he, "what do you think of that;—is it worth while to be a warden at that price?"

"Oh, papa;—dear papa!"

"Mr Bold can't un-write that, my dear;—Mr Bold can't say that that sha'n't be read by every clergyman at Oxford; nay, by every gentleman in the land;" and then he walked up and down the room, while Eleanor in mute despair followed him with her eyes. "And I'll tell you what, my dear," he continued, speaking now very calmly, and in a forced manner very unlike himself; "Mr Bold can't dispute the truth of every word in that article you have just read—nor can I." Eleanor stared at him, as though she scarcely understood the words he was speaking. "Nor can I, Eleanor: that's the worst of all, or would be so if there were no remedy. I have thought much of all this since we were together last night;" and he came and sat beside her, and put his arm round her waist as he had done then. "I have thought much of what the archdeacon has said, and of what this paper says; and I do believe I have no right to be here."

"No right to be warden of the hospital, papa?"

"No right to be warden with eight hundred a year; no right to be warden with such a house as this; no right to spend in luxury money that was intended for charity.
The cases are not entirely apt; I have no doubt that Rev. Cooper works a great deal harder than did Rev. Harding, and, unlike the fictional Hiram's Hospital, the bulk of the income does not go to the incumbent by any stretch of the imagination. But the vexed relationship between God and Mammon is touched on here as in the novel; as the Telegraph quotes, the concerns that Trinity's philanthropy budget has remained roughly the same while other portions of the budget have "soared" and the Rector's compensation is described as "a Wall St pay and conditions deal." The Times cites a complainant describing the church as having become too "corporate." The notion that Trinity has become too much of the world, too comfortable among the Wall Street titans it resides among, seems to have some emotional resonance.

Consonant with this, the favorable article in the New York Press previously linked adds to its praise of the rector "But of all his responsibilities, perhaps the most important is the management of Trinity Real Estate, which handles the parish’s 6 million square feet of commercial real estate in Lower Manhattan. The income generated from the church’s real estate holdings, which Trinity has held for more than 300 years, enables the organization to sustain and develop programs and ministries around the world."

That--jars. It may even be true, as things currently are, but should it be? Is this yet another instance of that chilling line from The Mission, "thus we have made the world"? If so, what do we do about it?

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