It’s hard to remember the last time George W. Bush did anything to excite Episcopalians. Conservative Catholic leaders loved the President’s opposition to gay marriage. Southern Baptists went nuts for abstinence-only sex education. But those mainline Protestants haven’t had much to celebrate from the ex-Episcopal President.
So the President’s recent nomination of John C. Danforth as ambassador to the United Nations came as a particularly pleasant surprise to the city’s Episcopal clergy. That’s because Mr. Danforth, a former Senator from Missouri, also is an Episcopal priest. He’s currently best known as the white-robed figure whose homily at Ronald Reagan’s funeral skipped easily from Reinhold Niebuhr to Michael Deaver. But for 18 years in the Senate, he was known as “Saint Jack,” a moderate Republican who gave communion to shut-in parishioners of St. Alban’s Church in Washington, D.C.
Now, as Mr. Danforth,67, prepares to get in between Israel and Syria, he might also want to keep an eye on St. Bartholomew’s, St. Thomas and the Church of the Epiphany. The former Senator’s pending arrival in New York has touched off a genteel rivalry among the East Side’s Episcopal parishes over where he’ll attend, and perhaps serve as an associate priest.
“I’m sure there will be a competition,” said the Reverend Canon Andrew J.W. Mullins, rector of the Church of the Epiphany on 74th Street and York Avenue. He already has mailed a letter of invitation to Mr. Danforth’s St. Louis home. Father Mullins may have an inside track-Mr. Danforth served as an associate priest at Epiphany when he practiced law in New York in the 1960’s. But Epiphany, like many mainline Protestant churches, has fallen on hard times, with its congregation dipping below 100 when Father Mullins arrived in 1999. The priest has been trying to rebuild it with unusual offerings like a Sunday-night “mass with a beat.” Now, he’ll be up against the East Side’s most prestigious churches in wooing Mr. Danforth.
“I would hope that he would come here,” said Father Mullins, a trim 63-year-old with twinkling eyes and a small mustache. “Quite frankly, with that job I question how many Sundays he will be anywhere.”
Episcopalians-members of the American branch of the Church of England-have been in a slow decline since their numbers peaked at more than three million in the mid-1960’s. Evangelical Protestant churches have boomed, but the Episcopal Church U.S.A. now counts about 2.3 million members, and in New York a fading older generation has been supplemented in part by Anglican immigrants from the Caribbean. But Episcopalians aren’t big on tribal loyalty and favorite sons, and they weren’t the ones loudly hailing Mr. Danforth’s nomination. The praise came, in part, from Democratic critics of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy. Richard Holbrooke, a former U.N. ambassador supporting Senator John Kerry, called Mr. Danforth “a terrific choice, a moderate and conciliatory man.” Mr. Danforth was seen as a likely running mate in President Bush’s campaign of “compassionate conservatism” in 2000; instead, the President sent the Ralston-Purina heir to Sudan to settle one of that country’s civil wars.
When it comes to the politics of religion, Senator Danforth’s appointment sends a similarly moderate signal. Despite his clerical collar and pro-life views, he disappointed political Christians by refusing to take a leading role in the fight against abortion, and by opposing school prayer. He hasn’t taken a public position on the issue of gay marriage, or on the question of consecrating a gay bishop, which has divided American Episcopalians. But Missouri is seen as a liberal state in the divided Anglican Communion: Its bishop voted to approve the gay bishop, a move that also had the support of the former bishop of Missouri, a close friend of Mr. Danforth named Hays Rockwell.
“There’s a way in which Jack’s centrist politics does echo the middle way of Anglicanism,” said Bishop Rockwell. “Jack is an old-fashioned, moderate Republican. He stands in the middle. The Anglican Communion has stood there over its 400-year history. We’re in the middle. We’re not Rome and we’re not [John Calvin’s] Geneva.”
When Mr. Danforth moves into the ambassador’s traditional suite in the Waldorf-Astoria, at least three churches will have their eye on the denomination’s highest-profile priest.
“I’m sure that a number of us, especially in midtown, would offer him a place,” said the Reverend Andrew C. Mead, the rector of St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, a Gothic structure whose well-financed parish has a conservative reputation and a famous boys’ choir. “I’d be glad to have him hang his hat here and take a regular Eucharist here if he wants to, and we’ll probably extend an invitation,” he said.
But most Episcopalians who are following Mr. Danforth’s nomination expect him to attend St. Bartholomew’s, the low-lying Byzantine gem across the street from the Waldorf. Although the parish fell on hard financial times after a real-estate debacle in the 1980’s, St. Bart’s remains one of the city’s best-known and most active Episcopal churches. The Byzantine-style church is where the Senator celebrated his 45th wedding anniversary in 2002 with Bishop Rockwell. It’s also the church where George H.W. Bush worshipped when he was President Richard Nixon’s U.N. emissary, as did Ronald Reagan’s ambassador, Jeanne Kirkpatrick.
“I would be delighted to have him preach,” said the Reverend William Tully, the rector of St. Bart’s.
The Church of the Epiphany, a modest, red-brick structure built in the 1930’s in a plain Norman style, isn’t quite in the league of St. Thomas, St. Bart’s and several other wealthy, well-heeled city churches. It also doesn’t have a rectory or a working television. So on June 11, the day of Reagan’s funeral, Father Mullins headed downtown to his apartment on East 57th Street to watch Mr. Danforth, wearing a clerical collar under a white surplice. The former Senator led the procession into Washington’s National Cathedral, then sat quietly through tributes by former Presidents and world leaders.
His homily marked a notably different tone from the rest of the service, which was packed with personal anecdotes and political tributes.
“May I speak in the name of one God, who created us, who redeemed us, who comforts us, amen,” he began. “This is a service about Ronald Reagan, and it is a religious service. We’ve gathered to celebrate the life of a great President in a church where believers profess their faith. So this is not only about a person, but about faith.”
Father Mullins liked what he heard.
“It was absolutely straight Rite I-straight out of the prayer book,” he said in an interview at the church. “He was functioning strictly as a priest.”
The current U.N. ambassador, John Negroponte, is set to begin work as the American ambassador to Iraq on July 1, and Mr. Danforth could arrive in New York as soon as this summer. The Diocese of New York plans a welcome, and Episcopalians will be keeping an eye on where he winds up.
One friend of Mr. Danforth, the Very Reverend Ernest Hunt, said he thinks Father Mullins could emerge the winner of this decorous sweepstakes.
“I don’t want to speak for Jack, but I assume he will go back to Epiphany,” said Father Hunt, who ran into Mr. Danforth at the Church of the Epiphany when both men were in New York earlier this year. “He’ll probably pick up where he left off.”
An aide to Mr. Danforth, Martha Fitz, said choosing a church isn’t on the top of the ex-Senator’s to-do list. “I don’t think he’s had one second to think about it,” she said.
Another Episcopal priest, the rector of a church that isn’t in the running for Mr. Danforth’s favor, however, noted that even Mr. Danforth may not have the final say as to which church he will frequent.
“You would hope that God would be involved in the whole call process,” he said.