WOODBRIDGE, N.J. — James E. McGreevey has gone from altar boy to mayor to the nation’s first openly homosexual governor.
From the moment he stood at a podium in 2004 and announced he was a “gay American” who was resigning because of an affair with a male staffer (who denies it), people wondered what Mr. McGreevey’s Act Two would be.
Now we know: He is taking steps toward becoming an Episcopal priest.
Embroiled in a bitter divorce battle, Mr. McGreevey joined the Episcopal Church and entered a program for prospective clergy deciding whether the priesthood is their true calling.
Raised a Roman Catholic, he was accepted into the Episcopal Church on April 29 at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan. This fall, he will start studying at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York.
Preparing for the priesthood usually takes at least three years, but can last much longer.
“Where Mr. McGreevey goes with this is up to him,” school spokesman Bruce Parker said. “We have a lot of people studying here who are not interested in ordination at all.”
The former governor has joined a denomination embroiled in its own controversy: The Episcopal Church caused an uproar in the global Anglican family in 2003 by consecrating the first openly homosexual bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Anglican leaders have given the U.S. denomination until Sept. 30 to step back from its support of homosexuals or risk losing its full membership in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion.
Within the 2.3 million-member U.S. denomination, theological conservatives are a minority. Many Episcopal parishes are welcoming of same-sex partners and homosexual clergy, and several bishops allow individual priests to conduct blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Some see an inspiring tale of redemption in the former governor’s new vocation; others see him as something akin to a bad rash that won’t go away.
“He needs a lobotomy, not a collar,” said Tom Balasia, who was waiting for a haircut in the same barbershop that used to trim Mr. McGreevey’s locks when he was mayor of Woodbridge. “He’s a liar who’s hiding behind the cloth. He should be ashamed to show his face.”
But Steve Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, the state’s leading homosexual rights group, said reaction in the homosexual community has been overwhelmingly positive.
“If I were not a nice Jewish boy studying to be a rabbi, I would embrace Jim McGreevey as my pastor in a New Jersey minute,” he said. “I think it will take about one week for a congregation to fall in love with him.”
Mr. McGreevey declined to be interviewed by the Associated Press.
Word of his plans came the same week as his estranged wife, Dina Matos McGreevey, hit the talk-show circuit to promote her book, “Silent Partner,” about their life together and subsequent breakup. Their ongoing divorce has become so nasty that a judge scolded the two to use common sense and remember that their daughter, now 5, will someday read what they are saying about each other.
Mrs. McGreevey did not respond to requests for comment left at her office and through her book publicist. But she issued a statement to WABC (Channel 7), a sister company of her publisher, terming Mr. McGreevey’s seminary plans “the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.”
“He needs to be in the spotlight,” she said. “I am astounded by his arrogance.”
Mr. McGreevey stepped down in 2004, claiming he had an affair with Golan Cipel, whom he appointed as homeland security adviser, and that Mr. Cipel threatened to sue him. Mr. Cipel denies having an affair with Mr. McGreevey, claiming he was sexually harassed by the ex-governor.
Many in his former hometown see Mr. McGreevey as a cunning political operative, even now. They note he got married and had a child knowing he was homosexual, resigned before Mr. Cipel could accuse him of wrongdoing, wrote a tell-all book just as he and his wife were hashing out divorce terms, and joined a new religion and the seminary the week his wife’s side of the story came out in her book.
“He was deceitful, he lied, and if he thinks he’s redeeming himself now, I’m not so sure,” said resident Ken Zelenakas. “Please, get him out of the papers. There’s more important things to write about than Jim McGreevey.”
A close friend of the former governor, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, insists Mr. McGreevey had long been interested in becoming a priest or religious member.
“It’s always been on his mind,” said Mr. Lesniak, who attends prayer meetings with the ex-governor. “It’s been a natural progression since he acknowledged who he truly is.”
Mr. Lesniak said that since being received into the Episcopal Church, “he’s very much at peace and yet at the same time disturbed by the fact that it came out at that time.”
“He would have preferred to have had this happen privately, but him being who he is, that’s not possible,” Mr. Lesniak said.
Louie Crew, a McGreevey friend from northern New Jersey who founded the group Integrity, an Episcopal ministry for homosexuals, said the former governor could be an effective minister.
“A lot of energy comes when people go through life-changing experiences, especially identity crises,” he said. “Sometimes when you get knocked down, that’s the time to start asking yourself the really important questions.”
The pulpit isn’t the only wooden lectern in Mr. McGreevey’s future; he also holds forth in the classroom where he teaches at Kean University (named after the family of another famous New Jersey governor), earning $17,500 as “executive in residence.”
He conducts guest lectures in the school’s Executive Master’s of Business Administration program. So far, he has taught a class on law and ethics, and another on management and leadership. The head of the state’s Republican Party likened Mr. McGreevey teaching an ethics class to “Doctor Kevorkian teaching health maintenance.”
But Mr. Crew said Mr. McGreevey’s talents from the political world, an asset in ministry, might not lead the former governor to the pulpit.
“He is obviously a very capable person in terms of moving with and juggling a lot of people,” Mr. Crew said. “Instead of some big, visible leadership role, that may translate into running one of the most efficient soup kitchens in the world, where no one knows who you are.”
Associated Press writers Jeffrey Gold and Janet Frankston Lorin in Newark contributed to this story.