'He Made Religion Fun'

As Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for 25 years, James Parks Morton forged a vibrant, eclectic and ecumenical community built on faith and the word “yes”

14 Jan 2020 | 09:59

The Very Reverend James Parks Morton passed from this earth on Saturday, January 4, just three days before his 90th birthday. Born in Houston, Texas, this much loved, iconoclastic figure served as the Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for 25 years, from 1972 to 1996. During that time, he helped transform the Cathedral, one of the world’s largest sacred spaces, from a cold, and to some even frightening cavernous empty space, to the thriving vital center of the renaissance on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Appointed by Bishop Paul Moore, who once referred to him as the Cathedral’s internal combustion engine, Dean Morton was an inspirational, visionary faith leader to New York and the world. He had the gift of helping the many who had the great privilege of knowing him, to see, feel and celebrate the deep connections between faith, the environment, art and social justice and so many other aspects of their lives and culture. As author James Carroll said at the service last week celebrating his life, “he made religion fun”.

The Ultimate Yes Man

Dean Morton changed so many lives, including mine. Through his inspiration, support and guidance. my view of the world expanded exponentially. I always like to refer to him as the "Ultimate Yes Man." With him it was always, "Yes, let’s find a way to do that" As a Jew, I found a home at his Cathedral. When I was able to get up early enough to attend his 7:15 a.m. Thursday morning Russian Orthodox-themed service, I was often given the privilege of reading the Hebrew Bible scripture. Afterwards, the members of the eclectic gathering of as many as 30 people – from someone with no home to the Ambassador from Ethiopia – would take turns outdoing each other with a sumptuous and very creative breakfast. Dean Morton referred to us as the Cathedral Mafia.

Those who found themselves at home at Dean Morton’s Cathedral, and in his community, included extraordinary world citizens, among them the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Ravi Shankar, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Mohammad Yunis, Helen Caldicott, Jesse Jackson and so many others. As a Blue-Blooded Episcopalian who could count among his relatives a former New York Governor and a Vice President of the United States, Jim could find the language to help everyone feel like we were one family at home in one world. His fond term for the congregation and himself – "us chickens" – let us all know that we all belonged, and our gifts were welcome.

Faith and Values

Early in his tenure at the Cathedral, in 1974, he hosted an International Symposium on the Holocaust. It offered Jews and Christians the opportunity to confront the Holocaust in an open exchange – a “Yes we hear you” from the Christian world to the Jewish community – and fostered a conversation about suffering in the context of faith. The four-day event was a perfect example of his relentless drive to bring people together.

Jim Morton believed that each of the many faith traditions was like a vessel that was fashioned to carry a set of values forward through time. To stay effective and relevant, sometimes the vessel needs to be repaired, sometimes it may need to be replaced. But the fundamental truth is the understanding that if we are on this earth - that is already all the confirmation we need to know that we are valued and loved as members of one human family..

As James Carroll reminded us this past Saturday night, Jim loved birds. Early on, he invited four peacocks to take up residence on the Cathedral grounds (or “Close” as it is called). One of his highest compliment would be to call or refer to someone as a “Great Bird.” I may have even been called this once or twice. But certainly this man, the Very Reverend Ringmaster of our kaleidoscopic circus of humanity, was the greatest bird of all in our high flying flock. An extraordinary, larger than life Holy Soul who changed the face of New York and our world in ways no one could ever even begin to measure.

As the Episcopal Bishop of New York, Andrew Dietsche, said at the holy celebration and farewell “75 years after its creation, the Cathedral had found a man who’s vision was big enough to fill it”.

Marc Greenberg is the founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing which was founded at the Cathedral in 1985.