Scroll To Top

Doubting St.

Doubting St.


At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City, gay parishioners are accusing their conservative leader, the Reverend Andrew Mead, of being antigay. Whether to stay and fight or find a more accepting environment is the same question facing the entire denomination.

In December 2006, nine gay Episcopalians filed a complaint against the rector of New York City's St. Thomas Church alleging that he made derogatory comments about a fellow clergyman's homosexuality. It was one of 16 charges leveled at the Reverend Andrew Mead, leader of the prominent Episcopal congregation at the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 53rd Street whose wealthy, influential parishioners include Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and Standard Oil heiress Minnie Mortimer--who married Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan at the church in May. Among the other accusations in the complaint: that Mead paid for cat litter for his own cats and "large quantities of alcohol" out of St. Thomas's kitchen budget; and that the rector, while dressed as Santa Claus, forced female employees to sit on his lap to receive presents at a staff Christmas party.

The complaint, signed by 12 people altogether, was investigated by the New York diocese's governing committee this spring and ultimately dismissed, the matter declared formally closed at St. Thomas's 11 a.m. Sunday service on May 20. For the gay complainants, it was a "crushing defeat," in the words of one, Bruce Gilardi--and the final straw in a series of questionable events at St. Thomas since Mead arrived over a decade ago. "If the church feels it can sweep us under the rug," says Gilardi, an entrepreneur who had attended the church regularly since moving to New York in 2000, "then that's an indication that this isn't a place for me anymore."

Indeed, many gay parishioners say they have drifted away from St. Thomas in recent years because of Mead and a general air of homophobia at the church. At the same time, many have stayed, unwilling to desert one of the few American churches that exhibits the kind of high Anglican ritual that wouldn't be out of place in old England, in contrast to the less ornate style typical of domestic Episcopalianism. The push-pull dynamic is a case study in the ongoing struggle many followers are having with the Episcopal church these days--even in a bastion of liberalism and gay acceptance such as Manhattan--as debate in the worldwide Anglican communion continues to rage over homosexuality.

By all accounts, Mead, a graduate of Yale Divinity School who came to St. Thomas from Boston's Church of the Advent in 1996, is at the center of the unrest. An Officer of the Order of the British Empire--an honor he received in recognition of his ministry to British victims and survivors of 9/11, presented following a service that was attended by former prime minister Tony Blair and broadcast throughout the United Kingdom--Mead hews to the belief that homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture, a position growing ever-more outdated in a church that ordained an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003.

In conversations with clergy members and others, Mead is said to have openly spoken of homosexuality as a "disorder" and a "sign of profound immaturity," claiming that gay men choose their sexual orientation. Some say that his rhetoric is deliberately antagonistic.

Mead's views were widely known among St. Thomas's gay parishioners, but for several years the conservative rector was balanced by a glass-closeted gay priest as well as a heterosexual priest, the Reverend Park Bodie, who was hired in 1997 specifically to serve as a progressive counterweight to Mead. Bodie supported the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of gays and women, for instance, all of which are anathema practices at St. Thomas--notably, the church has no female clergy--yet he was encouraged to espouse those beliefs.

But in 2004, the gay priest was fired under mysterious circumstances (he declined to speak to The Advocate) and Bodie was told shortly afterward that it would be his last year at the church. Their dismissals were a major blow to St. Thomas's gay cadre, whose confidence about their own place in the church was shaky to begin with.

"Knowing that Mead had such Neanderthal ideas about sexuality in general, people weren't going to go to him with issues such as a relationship problem," says one disaffected gay man, who requested anonymity because he's not out. "After [the priests] left, it seemed to me that there was no one in a pastoral care position and the church was saying, 'That's not what we're here for.' The message was clear: 'We're really not interested in you.' "

Then, in 2005, Mead hired St. Thomas's first theologian-in-residence, the Reverend Victor Lee Austin, an orthodox priest-scholar from Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pa., who only exacerbated the lingering tension. "He's like some crypto-Roman Catholic," says the anonymous parishioner. "The vestry actually shut down one of his classes because he was teaching Roman Catholic doctrine from the 1930s."

"People like him use subtle, complicated academic arguments to say homosexuality is a moral disorder," says David Verchere, another gay parishioner who signed the complaint against Mead. "There's seven parts to the argument and nobody can follow it. The people with the 'God Hates Fags' posters are often easier to fight against."

Making matters worse, these gay parishioners say, was a group of closeted gay worshippers, including high-ranking lay officials, known around the church as the "bachelor gentlemen." For whatever reason, these men--none of whom would talk to The Advocate--were impervious to what was going on, at least outwardly.

"You've got a church with a whole bunch of gay people who think it's OK to say stuff that at a fundamental level is homophobic," says Verchere, an executive at a software company--and the president of the New York State chapter of Log Cabin Republicans--who attended St. Thomas from 2001 until 2005.

"A number of older men are very comfortable in the role I call 'the extra man,' the 'don't ask me about my life' kind of role," says the anonymous parishioner. After a service on pride Sunday one year, he remembers, the "old queens" made fun of the go-go boys and drag queens preparing to march in New York City's pride parade, which commences each June from the block St. Thomas faces. "I left church feeling sick to my stomach," he says. "I thought, I have colluded with homophobia today. It was one of the most profound experiences I've had."

Mead declined an interview request for this story. Instead, a church spokesman said that St. Thomas "welcomes all New Yorkers and visitors" and noted that it makes financial grants each year to social-services groups, including some with AIDS programs. "As a large urban parish on Fifth Avenue," the spokesman said, "our parishioners, who attend the more than 20 weekly services at St. Thomas, reflect all the many people of our New York City community."

But controversy is not new to the rector: At his previous post in Boston, he lost a no-confidence vote of the church's vestry; instead of resigning, Mead asked the bishop of Massachusetts to intercede, which led to a lawsuit over who had jurisdiction over the church.

Nevertheless, the situation at St. Thomas is unusual for New York, where many other Episcopal churches are known for being gay-friendly, including nearby St. Bartholomew's, whose congregation boasts a thriving LGBT component that includes former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey. So why didn't Verchere, Gilardi, and the other St. Thomas gay refugees go to another church in the first place?

Simply put, "St. Thomas does the best spectacle in the world," says Verchere. The beautiful French Gothic church, built in 1913, features one of the world's largest reredos, an 80-foot carved stone screen behind the altar depicting America's founding fathers alongside religious iconography such as that of the church's namesake saint examining Jesus' wounds for proof of his resurrection. That visual grandeur coupled with an elaborate liturgy and renowned men's and boys' choirs is an aesthetic feast too rich for some to pass up. "It's probably the same reason gay men go to the opera," Verchere says.

But now Verchere attends a different show, at St. Bart's, where he united with his partner in a blessed ceremony last fall. "As a gay person and somebody who cares about my fellow man," he says with evident relief, "the place is unbelievably focused on doing good."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Trenton Straube