Welcome Home, Rev. John! My Hero’s Back at Grace

When I heard that the Right Rev. Canon John Andrew was returning to this country to take over at Grace Church, I almost jumped for joy. That I didn’t was due solely to my situation at the time I received the welcome news from Grace Church’s verger, who communicated it to me over the partition of the stall I was at that moment occupying in the august old Manhattan church’s petit coin .

Before retiring to his native England three years ago, to cultivate his garden in Bath and assist in the celebration of various observances at the ancient abbey there, Mr. Andrew had served with great distinction and style for almost three decades as rector of St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, located at 1 West 53rd Street, which is perhaps this city’s ranking high-church parish. It seemed, sadly, that fleeting glimpses of the man would be our city’s meager Andrew ration from that point on. But when Grace Church, an ancient and honorable Village parish more populist (that is to say, “low church”) in character than St. Thomas, found itself rent by administrative discord, Father Andrew put down his secateurs, blew his beloved roses a goodbye kiss, and accepted the call to return to the second city of his heart to sort matters out.

He has been here for close to six months now, as priest-in-charge of the church in which my son Francis will shortly be confirmed in the faith of his forebears, and his effect has been great, improving and manifest. In this tumultuous, roaring city, operating at giga-rates of speed and change, the presence of a single Episcopal churchman may seem small beer, but it is worth calling to mind that of the acronym WASP and its associations, of which much is made, pro and con, it is the “P” component to which least attention is paid but which may over the long run ( pace Keynes) prove most influential. It is also worth reflecting on the significant role that men of the cloth have played in the history of New York; in the current (February 2000) issue of that invariably worthwhile publication, my colleague Hilton Kramer’s The New Criterion , the architectural historian Francis Morrone’s review of Ric Burns’ New York TV series, quite apart from its virtues as an antidote to PBS-think, offers an enlightening account of the role played in the mid-19th century by Catholic Archbishop John Hughes in imposing ethnic calm on a turbulent, disordered society.

I sat down with Mr. Andrew the other day for a brief chat. Elegant and forthright in all respects that matter (he preaches a hell of a sermon!), he’s a man in whom the godly and the worldly seem combined in just about the right proportions. Once private secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he knows his way around behind the arras, which is essential for someone whose work is to exalt God in the face of the Net. If he wasn’t running a parish, he’d make an admirable master for an Oxbridge College or a House at Harvard. He could run a big foundation. These days, an effective man of the cloth needs to be able to work both sides of the rood screen. As the late Francis Cardinal Spellman once told my father: “Mr. Thomas, my knowledge of the liturgy is encyclopedic, but I know everything about New York real estate!” According to Pop, His Eminence smiled when he said that, but it’s certain he was only half-joking.

Our talk ranged over a variety of subjects, of matters churchly and otherwise. I was interested to see how John Andrew was adapting to the more hurly-burly downtown environment of Grace Church after three decades at resplendent St. Thomas, with its physical and social grandeur and its peerless music, under the leadership of the incomparable organist and choir-builder Gerre Hancock. I think it’s fair to say that he’s as happy as a clam in a dog collar. This is a man, after all, who’s used to digging in the dirt with his hands, and St. Thomas is at the most dire of times clean-swept to a fare-thee-well. You could eat caviar off its pavement with not a single black grain besmirched by a speck of dust. Well, maybe gold dust-but you know what I mean.

Anyway, Grace Church is, well, more basic , for which thanks be to God. There was one time, about 10 years ago, when I was forced to tweak John in this space for a WQXR radio commercial premised on the lines, “St. Thomas meets MTV.” Mr. Andrew is definitely “cool,” but “groovy” would be pushing it. He’s also at the age when a man can “take a view,” as they say in his native land. As suggested, his sermons are dynamite, largely because he puts God and not some world-almanac, pop morality at the center of his discourse. The Supreme Deity being perhaps the last Being in the cosmos and beyond who doesn’t think with His wallet, I find this refreshing. I look forward to John putting us on our spiritual mettle from the Lenten pulpit. I hope readers with a taste for strong thought will join me in the pews at Broadway and 10th Street to share that experience.

In the course of our conversation, John said something that has since sent my mind off on quite another, secular tack. Speaking of the vestry politics at Grace Church when he arrived, he observed, “No one had the slightest idea of what he wanted, and was prepared to stop at nothing to get it!”

It seems to me that this might also serve as a perfect summary of the present state of our Presidential campaign. At least as applies to the vigorous polymorphing on the Republican side of the aisle, now that my man Bill Bradley is out of it (and may always have been) and Earth-Colors Al looks a shoo-in.

The Bush-McCain contest interests me for two reasons. One-not much dwelt on by the talking-head corps-is the curious fact that John McCain was-is-a Navy aviator whose heroism consisted in surviving after being shot down, while W. is the son of one. The other is the matter of the Bush family, which I find as interesting in its Tolstoyan way as the Kennedys.

Indeed, I think you could write a wonderfully entertaining, possibly even moving and instructive, novel about two parallel family streams that end where these two seem to have: A second Bush-who, like his daddy, sold his Yankee birthright for a mess of Lone Star pottage-is running for the Presidency from which John F. Kennedy was plucked, while Ted Kennedy, whom few expected ever to be worth a damn, is ranked as a Solon and patriarch on Capitol Hill. About how it all seems to come out the same in the end, whether we’re talking high Greenwich WASP or Boston black Irish Catholic, with the Presidency as the ultimate goal, to be bought and paid for with the cash and connections engendered by financial fancy-dealing. About how the liars and cheats win, and the losers finish up with only their clumsy dignity for consolation. I suppose the common moral is that a lack of conscience makes whores of us all..

This is the sort of conundrum that makes holy instruction invaluable. I’m glad a John Andrew is here to furnish it. And especially glad to be able to report, with his winking permission, that he intends to remain here, that he’s thinking seriously- very seriously-of coming back (although instead of “back” he used “home”) for good. He’s just like all the rest of us truehearted children of this city, it seems. Adoptive or otherwise, we just can’t get away.