Passion Play


About 15 years ago, Richard A. Maxwell landed a part in what he calls “the worst Off-Off-Broadway production of Hamlet ever.” At 29 he was young for Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous uncle, but he recalls his prayer monologue as one of the show’s few credible scenes. Kneeling, he dithered like a man who’s repenting deeds he doesn’t fully regret.

Maxwell quit acting soon after Hamlet closed, but now he’s auditioning once more as a man struggling with prayer. He wants to play an openly gay priest in a drama about art, sex, and salvation. It sounds like a sequel to Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally’s recent piece about a queer Jesus, but this passion play is real.

On February 6, Bishop Richard F. Grein is expected to ordain Maxwell as a deacon at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. If he joins the priesthood next fall, as he plans, he won’t be the first openly gay Episcopal priest. But it remains a controversial issue. Last summer, at a global meeting in Canterbury, England, 526 of Grein’s fellow Anglican bishops endorsed a resolution “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.”

Maxwell, now 44, doesn’t look like a heretic. Sitting in the refectory at Holy Cross Monastery, a Benedictine cloister beside the Hudson River in West Park, New York, he resembles a taller, heavier Kenneth Branagh. Regaling me with his life story, he exemplifies the creed of his old acting guru, Sanford Meisner, who believed great performances come from being “truthful, spontaneous, and emotionally credible.”

His spiritual odyssey began in the rich little town of Midland, Michigan. He describes his father, an insurance broker there, as an “Emersonian transcendentalist.” His mother, a Catholic and “a healer of sorts,” took him to mass and confession weekly. A budding actor, he “made up sins because I didn’t think I had enough. I saw it as a creative challenge: How far can I go? What’s believable?”

One thing he didn’t confess was a nagging doubt about God’s omnipotence. “I thought I was supposed to be a girl, and God somehow screwed up.” He spent much of his youth trying to reconcile the realization that he was gay with his fantasies of becoming a monk. The theater became his sanctuary: a place to ponder higher truths, lead a congregation, and escape condemnation of his sexuality. “I think what I was aiming at was a ministry of acting.”

When acting didn’t pan out, he took his ministry to the offices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Music-Theatre Group. “Max has a chameleonlike ability to make connections with the people around him,” says Maryann Jordan, a college friend who worked with him in the Met’s development office. “Within three days at a new job he becomes the heart and soul of the place.”

In 1991 he made a leap of faith, enrolling at Union Theological Seminary. While pursuing a Masters in Divinity, he apprenticed at All Souls Unitarian Church on the Upper East Side. Preaching there was a challenge. “I did not want to lecture or do psychobabble. I wanted to point to some kind of truth, but I didn’t know how to do that without Jesus.” At St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side, he found a liberal congregation more willing to invoke Jesus’s name. It sponsored his studies at Chelsea’s General Theological Seminary, where he earned a master’s in Sacred Theology last spring.

Holy Cross appealed partly because its founder, James Otis Sargent Huntington, was a labor organizer and social worker on the Lower East Side. In 1902 the order moved to West Park, a place more suited to contemplation. “I find that tension in myself, and it intrigues me. I have a desire to live in community, and at the same time to help the needy.”

He expects some grumbling about his sexuality, but nothing to derail ordination. “I’ve been open throughout this process and I’m certainly not leading an immoral life— my God, I’m in a monastery. But if someone made it a provision of my ordination that I couldn’t enter into a homosexual relationship, I’d object on moral grounds.” Episcopal priests are permitted to marry, and therefore do not take a vow of celibacy, but because gay marriage is not recognized, a cleric like Maxwell finds himself in a Catch-22 situation.

For now, he spends his days praying, singing, and managing the guest house. At night, after 17 years in a five-room flat in Spanish Harlem, he sinks into the Murphy bed in his cinder block “cell.” He’s at peace. “Many people only see the confinement in this life. But what it’s really about is being free. Really free.”