Eminentoes

Too Messy Even for Liberals

The Episcopal Church passes on ordaining scandalized former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey.

By 4.27.11

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New Jersey Governor James McGreevey famously declared himself a "gay American" at a 2004 press conference, where, flanked by his parents and wife, he resigned in disgrace after a male staffer alleged sexual harassment. He subsequently went through a bitter public divorce and sought ordination to the priesthood in the highly inclusive Episcopal Church. But now even that denomination's extremely liberal Newark Diocese is rejecting McGreevey, apparently citing his messy divorce, not his homosexuality.

After McGreevey's confession to have appointed his purported homosexual lover as an aide (the adviser insisted he was the victim of unwanted sexual advances), the then still married New Jersey Governor stepped down from office and later began attending the Episcopal Church's General Theological Seminary in New York. He had quickly renounced his lifelong Roman Catholicism to join a more accommodating denomination. But apparently even New Jersey Episcopalians still have some ordination standards.

Episcopal Diocese of Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith has declined public comment about McGreevey's rejection as an Episcopal priest. But the New York Post, in an April 25 story headlined "Heaven Can Wait," quoted anonymous sources within the diocese about the church's decision to decline ordaining McGreevey at this time. 

"It was not being gay but for being a jackass -- [McGreevey] didn't come out of the whole divorce looking good," one diocesan source told the Post of the decision not to proceed with ordaining McGreevey.

After leaving office, McGreevey and his new male partner began attending Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York, in addition to All Saints' Episcopal Parish in Hoboken, where he began serving on staff. Almost immediately after being received into the Episcopal Church, McGreevey was accepted into General Theological Seminary (GTS) in 2007, where he graduated last spring with a Master of Divinity degree, a requirement to become an Episcopal priest.

Episcopalians typically wait years as discernment groups decide if they are in fact called to ministry; for McGreevey, there seemingly was no such period before his admission to seminary.

In a 2009 interview with Inside Jersey magazine, McGreevey described his pursuit of a career in the Episcopal Church as "a spiritual journey."

"At different points in my life, I had grappled with the idea of going into the priesthood -- in high school or law school," McGreevey said. "Where it ends, I'm not quite sure."

Some Episcopal Church officials were wary of McGreevey's sudden embrace of their faith after his scandal and feared the church was being used, the Post reported.

After resigning as governor, "he was sort of looking for every angle to make a complete redo of his professional life," another church source told the Post. "He ran to the church for some kind of cover, which isn't fully appropriate. Even if he's a good guy, he should wait five to 10 years to get over his issues."

In 2006, McGreevey wrote about his claimed affair with an aide who had threatened a sexual harassment suit.

"Inauthenticity is endemic in American politics today," McGreevey divulged in New York magazine. "The political backrooms where I spent much of my career were just as benighted as my personal life, equally crowded with shadowy strangers and compromises, truths I hoped to deny. I lived not in one closet but in many."

Saying he "craved love," the former governor described frequent illicit encounters with other men in bookstores and parkway rest stops, but lamented that "there never was an emotional meaning to these trysts."

McGreevey was ultimately forced into a public discussion of his homosexuality after he was threatened with a sexual harassment and assault lawsuit by the former aide, who allegedly sought millions of dollars from McGreevey in exchange for keeping the allegations secret. The former aide, an Israeli military veteran named Golan Cipel, dropped the suit after McGreevey's resignation.

"Hiring a lover on state payroll, no matter the gender, was wrong," McGreevey admitted in his 2006 article, which he would expand upon in a published autobiography titled The Confession. "I needed to take my punishment -- and to begin my healing out of the fishbowl of politics."

In 2008, former campaign aide Teddy Pedersen brought McGreevey back into the limelight after claiming he engaged in regular threesomes with then-mayor McGreevey of Woodbridge, New Jersey, and McGreevey's second wife Dina from the 1990s until his election as governor. McGreevey confirmed the allegations, while his ex-wife denied them. The claims and counter-claims were likely related to McGreevey's custody battle over a young daughter he has with Dina. He also has a daughter from his first marriage.

The ultra-liberal Episcopal Diocese of Newark, which encompasses the northern third of the state, is widely recalled as the seat of retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, who flamboyantly denied Christian beliefs about the virgin birth and bodily resurrection. Spong was among the first to ordain actively homosexual priests within the 2 million-member denomination. Having lost over 40 percent of its membership under Spong, the Newark Diocese never recovered and continues to spiral on the trajectory Spong established. It's unclear if priests like McGreevey are what Spong had in mind in his campaign for actively homosexual clergy. 

McGreevey currently cohabitates in Plainfield, New Jersey, with a male Australian real-estate executive. But evidently the former governor will not become an Episcopal priest anytime soon. According to the Post, the former governor has told friends the church has counseled he "needs more seasoning" before entering the priesthood. How much "seasoning" is unclear. But evidently even the Episcopal Church, so anxious to keep its permissive doors wide open even as its membership shrivels, is not yet ready for a Reverend McGreevey.

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About the Author

Jeff Walton directs the Anglican program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.