By Fr. Graeme Napier
St John’s in the Village, the Episcopal church on the corner of West 11th Street and Waverly Place, has a long history of LGBTQ+ rights and culture in Greenwich Village. As early as the 1940s, there were openly gay members of the Vestry. Father Charles Graf became Rector in 1942 and recognized the opportunity for pastoral outreach and sought a ministry within the parameters of the Church’s teachings of his day.
Shortly after the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, St John’s hosted a civil rights meeting. Then on July 16 of that year the New York Mattachine Society (an early national gay rights organization) held a public meeting at St John’s that drew an audience of approximately 200 people. A poster announcing the event was also placed in the window of the Stonewall Bar, an event recorded in the PBS documentary The Stonewall Uprising. This meeting was a signal event indicating St John’s open and positive response.
In 1975, Fr. John Cannon became Rector of St. John’s and St John’s continued to be welcoming to the members of the gay and lesbian community, offering facilities to the Board of Integrity which sought an outreach to gay Episcopalians in New York. St John’s had a significant LGBTQ+ membership during Fr. Cannon’s rectorship but later on in his rectorship, Fr. Timothy Marshall was called as a curate at St. John’s. Father Marshall was openly gay and he and his partner lived in an apartment in the Rectory.
In 1988, a new Rector of St John’s stepped in, by the name of Fr. Lloyd Prator, who was the first openly gay rector in the entire Episcopal Diocese of New York. Under Fr. Prator’s leadership, St. John’s in the Village continued its social mission to the community. Throughout the years, activities and organizations have included the Caring Community which assisted the elderly; the Open Door AIDS Ministry a social group for gay adolescents; the Theatre Off Park & Rattlestick Theater; St John’s Pastoral Counseling Center; Alcoholics Anonymous and many other 12-step groups; and Dignity (worship for LGBTQ+ Roman Catholics).
Fr. Prator sponsored the People With AIDS Coalition, an organization which sought to empower people to articulate their needs, to lobby for assistance from governmental and private agencies, and to advocate for partners’ rights concerning medical decisions and end of life care. This organization was already functioning and using parish facilities when Fr Prator arrived as rector; he then served on its board. In 1995, the Outreach Committee of St John’s observed that, although many services were available to people with AIDS, there was insufficient ministry to those seeking to reinvigorate their Christian faith and commitment. An assistant priest named Fr. Samuel Cross organized the ‘Open Door’ which addressed that very need. The Open Door staff believes that this program was unique in the city, perhaps in the nation. St. John’s, in partnership with Reddin’s Funeral Home, also provided dignified church services and burials for non-parishioner victims of AIDS.
Fr. Graeme Napier, the present Rector, came to New York in May 2018 and began immediately to reinvigorate arts programs that the church offers to the Village community and the wider NYC area. This has involved the inclusion of LGBTQ+ musicians, painters, photographers, composers, playwrights, and actors.
In the last Pride month before the pandemic, St John’s presented over twenty LGBTQ+ arts events (concert, plays, visual arts, and dance) in the month of June.
St John’s arts programs have now resumed in-person and the programing has taken up that mantle once more, and not only in the month of June.
St John’s year-round 12-step groups include specifically LGBTQ+-friendly groups: The Red Door (AA on Sunday, Thursday, and Friday evenings) and Crystal Meth Anonymous (on Thursday evenings).
St John’s this year on Pride Sunday (June 26) welcomes New York’s premier transexual choir, TRANScend, the vocal ensemble of Odd Voices NYC, to sing the 11am sacred liturgy, which is followed by a welcome reception of drinks and lunch in the beautiful St Benedict’s Courtyard, a garden space kept open all Pride Sunday long to offer hospitality and respite to Pride-goers in the Village.