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Originally published Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Taylor resigns as dean of troubled St. Mark's

Prominent cleric says he and vestry have different visions of church's future. Both were criticized by an outside evaluator.

Seattle Times religion reporter

One of the area's most high-profile clerics, the Very Rev. Robert Taylor, has resigned as dean of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral.

Taylor, who led the congregation for eight years, said in a letter to church members that he was resigning because he and the vestry — essentially the church board — diverged in their visions for the future of St. Mark's and because there was a loss of trust between them. He declined to say what the differing visions are.

"I decided it was best for me to walk on," he said Friday.

Taylor's resignation came after more than a year of turmoil at the cathedral and after an outside evaluator issued a report outlining problems with church leadership — both on the part of the dean and the vestry.

Taylor preached his last sermon at the church on Palm Sunday, and his resignation was effective Wednesday. He will receive a $313,333 settlement package, $20,000 of which will come from the Olympia Diocese, which covers Western Washington.

Taylor made front-page headlines when he was elected in 1999, making him the first openly gay man to become dean — or head pastor — of an Episcopal cathedral. He has spoken out on behalf of gay rights.

In his years in Seattle, Taylor also became known for community outreach and interfaith efforts, and for tackling social-justice issues, including homelessness. He was the first chairman of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, and St. Mark's has hosted Tent City encampments many times.

He also brought in major gifts and grants for the cathedral.

But the congregation at the prominent Seattle institution has been in tumult since shortly before Holy Week last year, when two priests and an administrator were laid off because of a budget shortfall.

Parishioners expressed shock over the suddenness of the layoffs. Some became angry when they found out the dean was getting a sizable raise to nearly $220,000, including salary and benefits. And many accused cathedral leaders of not being transparent about finances. Pay equity among cathedral staff members also became an issue.

Church leaders have since moved to adjust pay among cathedral staff members and posted many financial documents online. The cathedral finished last year with a surplus.

But continuing leadership and management issues resulted in the vestry asking for an outside mediator, and a bishop currently living in New York state was called in. Bishop Herbert Donovan, who talked with about 100 people, including current and former church members, leaders, staff members and clergy, issued a report, which the church released on its Web site (www.saintmarks.org) Friday, along with Taylor's resignation letter and other documents.

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Donovan's report says the lack of "a genuine trust relationship between the dean and many of the vestry, staff and others in the congregation is an issue that must be addressed immediately."

The report says the vestry "needs to take a hard look at itself, and do what it can to address concerns such as staff morale" and needs to take responsibility for its actions and attitudes. Donovan recommended the vestry work with a consultant.

The report also says Taylor's "inability to take responsibility appeared to be one of the basic barriers to moving forward."

Donovan recommended the dean take at least six months away from Seattle and undergo professional counseling so he could address how to build "effective trust relationships" with the staff and vestry.

The report also said the dean needed to address management skills or a lack thereof, and that 22 staff members had left during his tenure.

The vestry accepted Donovan's recommendations, but Taylor strongly disagreed with aspects of them and "was not prepared to support a solution based on Bishop Donovan's recommendations," according to a letter from the vestry.

The documents released by church leaders did not address the issue of choosing a successor to Taylor. Both current and former senior wardens of the vestry, and several other vestry members, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Taylor said he has taken responsibility a number of times for what's gone on in the cathedral and that the report includes important omissions, such as a plan he developed late last year for leadership development.

He said Donovan's recommendation that he receive counseling could leave the impression that he had engaged in some form of misconduct when there was none.

In particular, he said, he found jarring the recommendation that he take time away from Seattle, likening it to "being sent into exile." The issue was personal for him, he said, "as one who has experienced exile from my home country."

Taylor, who grew up in South Africa, left in 1980 with the help of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, after being faced with mandatory service in the military, whose racist mission he said he could not support.

He said he's proud of what he has accomplished at St. Mark's, including working with others to acquire a nearby building, building trust with donors and emphasizing the cathedral's place in the community.

Taylor has "helped Saint Mark's reach its potential as a cathedral in the Greater Seattle community and as a crossroads for other faiths," said Susan Lewis, senior warden on the vestry, in a letter to the congregation.

Parishioner Jane Stonecipher, in a written statement sent to the media, said she appreciated Taylor's ability to make spirituality come to life and to link it to the real world. "Our family was deeply saddened to hear of Robert Taylor's resignation," she said.

But for parishioner Nan Nalder, the whole year has been "very pain-filled." She said she had mixed feelings about Taylor's resignation.

"I feel a need to honor him for his service," she said, "but he let us down" when the layoffs occurred and when he cut the cathedral's visual-arts program, which Nalder was heavily involved in.

Taylor said he and his partner, business owner Jerry Smith, plan to remain in Seattle. He doesn't know what he'll do next. "We'll see what unfolds," he said.

Bishop Greg Rickel, head of the Olympia Diocese, praised Taylor's accomplishments, saying in a letter that Taylor's "resignation is particularly difficult when one considers the tremendous spiritual and capital growth during his tenure. ... "

"This has been a long process, longer than anyone had hoped," Rickel said. "In the days ahead there will be much work for this community to do."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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