ACHURCH IN turmoil faces a new controversy with word that James McGreevey, who made headlines as the nation's first openly gay governor, may become an Episcopal priest.
Sharp divisions already have arisen within the Episcopal Church amid its worldwide parent body, the Anglican Communion, after its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, was elected four years ago to preside in New Hampshire.
McGreevey, 49, who resigned as governor of New Jersey in 2004, after announcing he was a "gay American," couldn't be reached yesterday to respond to news reports that he had converted to the Episcopal religion and will begin seminary study in the fall.
A message left on the phone listed to his partner, Mark O'Donnell, wasn't returned last night.
McGreevey now is embroiled in a bitter divorce from his estranged wife, Dina Matos McGreevey, and a custody struggle over their 5-year-old daughter.
There was plenty of reaction elsewhere to news reports that McGreevey, raised as a Roman Catholic and once an altar boy, has joined St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Manhattan and has been accepted to study at the General Theological Seminary in New York, the oldest in the Episcopal Church.
"Oh, my gosh!" said a surprised Barbara Alton, assistant to Charles Bennison, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Pennsylvania, when told the McGreevey news.
But she said she didn't think it would have any effect on the troubles already roiling the church.
Elsewhere, an Episcopal pastor who believes in "biblical orthodoxy" responded to the McGreevey story by commenting: "The Episcopal Church, I don't think, can get any crazier than it is."
"It's sad to me that the Episcopal Church increasingly has become a refuge for former members of the Roman Catholic Church who cannot abide by [Catholic] church teachings," said David L. Moyer, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont and bishop for the armed forces.
"They don't come to the church for healing but for the acceptance of their lifestyle and values," Moyer said.
"This is not a judgment against the man [McGreevey]," Moyer said. "God loves us all," but "some things are right and some are wrong."
Like Alton, Moyer didn't think think McGreevey's becoming a priest would have any impact on the troubles simmering within the Episcopal Church, under pressure from the Anglican Communion, which includes the American church, to step back from its support of gays.
"I don't think that this is something that would cause a problem," Alton said. "It would be so long before McGreevey even became a priest."
Leonard Swidler, a Temple University religion professor, religious historian and Roman Catholic, agreed that McGreevey's entry into the Episcopal priesthood would be simply a blip on the radar screen.
"I think it will be just a publicity story for a short while and then just fade away," Swidler said. "From what I can see, the Episcopal Church has all kinds of difficulties in this country, anyhow."
Leading to pressures on the Anglican Communion, Swidler and Alton both noted, was the fact that the Episcopal Church is growing rapidly in Africa, where a conservative culture refuses to accept the existence of homosexuality.
Swidler noted that a group of Episcopal priests had converted to the Roman Catholic faith when their church first ordained women priests.
McGreevey, an Irish Catholic who attended Catholic schools, continued to practice the religion as New Jersey's governor but veered from church teachings in several areas, including his support of abortion rights.
McGreevey was officially received into the Episcopal faith on Sunday at St. Bartholomew, the Rev. Kevin Bean, the church's vicar, told the Newark Star-Ledger in a report posted yesterday on its Web site.
Bean said McGreevey was in the church's "discernment" phase that usually precedes seminary. "This process that he's in right now is not going to be some snap of the finger, overnight process," Bean told the paper.
"And so at the parish level and at the diocesan level, everyone knows that this is a process that . . . intentionally is deliberate. You don't enter into it unadvisedly."
McGreevey has been accepted to the master-of-divinity program at the New York Episcopal seminary and will be starting in the fall, school spokesman Bruce Parker yesterday told the Associated Press.
"Where Mr. McGreevey goes with this is up to him."
Parker said he didn't know if McGreevey wanted to be a priest. "We have a lot of people studying here who are not interested in ordination at all."
Religion has become an issue in McGreevey's divorce proceedings. Matos McGreevey has demanded that their daughter not be allowed to receive communion in the Episcopal Church because she is being raised a Roman Catholic. *