The Two Worlds of Father Mount Priest raises thorny issue by his revelations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Easton -- Two main currents have shaped the life of the Rev. John Keener Mount: his love of God and his homosexuality.

They merged at the most dramatic moment of the 1992 convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, when Father Mount rose from his seat, frail, old and angry.

The convention, held at the Holiday Inn in Solomons Island, was engaged in a bristling debate over a task force report on human sexuality that was tolerant of homosexuality.

Father Mount, then 82, had something to say. He stood at the podium, looking out over the crowd of several hundred people -- bishops, priests, deacons and parishioners.

"I've never told this before," he said to the assembled delegates, "but I think it's necessary to tell it now: As far as I know, I've been homosexual ever since I've been born."

"Nobody said anything," he recalls. "Indeed, there was a great hush."

He praised the task force report, saying it was one of the best things he'd ever read on human sexuality and observing that "It isn't really a question of should we or should we not ordain homosexuals. The question is should we stop doing it."

When he finished, people stood up and applauded. He left the podium in tears, finally free of a secret he'd been keeping for almost six decades.

"For me it's over -- the struggle, the deceptions," he says. "And it was the deception that was the terrible part of it."

His 1992 debut, which helped prevent the report from being dropped in favor of a more conservative approach, got little attention outside church circles. But it set the stage for his latest -- and far more publicized -- challenge of traditional Episcopal attitudes toward homosexuality.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Father Mount defied a church moratorium on consecrating same-sex unions and blessed a gay couple who took wedding-like vows at a ceremony here on the Eastern Shore.

The blessing prompted Easton's Bishop Martin G. Townsend to strip him of his license to preach or serve Communion in any church in the Easton Diocese. In a letter, the bishop said Father Mount should not have treated the union between two gay men as a marriage.

"While such a relationship might be loving and faithful, it cannot be considered a marriage and you have no authority to bless it as such," he wrote.

Source of authority

Father Mount was unbowed.

"I have my orders from God," he said after getting the letter, "not from Bishop Townsend."

He knew, of course, that blessing the union of two men could get him into trouble.

Single-sex relationships had been at the core of the objections to the 1992 human sexuality report.

"Basically," says the Rev. Eileen House, a leader of the opposition, "our point was that acceptance or blessing of same-sex unions would be a radical, radical departure from tradition and Scripture.

"It's not that we were out to condemn homosexuality," she says. "It's important to us to uphold Scripture and the traditions of the church.'

"From the point of view of spiritual and intellectual integrity," says Ms. House, assistant rector at St. James Church in Lothian in southern Anne Arundel County, "there's no way I could bless a same-sex union."

Father Mount felt exactly the opposite. Both men were HIV-positive and deserved "some sort of reassurance, a blessing as two people."

L "It seems to me to be unconscionable not to do it," he says.

The couple, who asked anonymity, say they had no trouble finding a clergyman to bless their union. Three ministers said they would do it.

"But I was retired," says Father Mount, the most senior cleric in the Maryland Diocese. "I thought that this gave me a certain liberty I hadn't had before."

He tried, however, not to violate the diocese's injunction against same-sex weddings.

Father Mount made it very clear the ceremony could not be called a wedding, says one of the men in the union. "He even wanted to see the invitations before they went out," he says, "so they were worded properly."

The ceremony took place outdoors near Trappe in Talbot County. Only seven of 76 people there were gay.

"That wasn't really on purpose," the man says. "I invited my friends and loved ones and family, and 80 percent of them are heterosexuals. They love me for who I am. They don't care who I love."

As a gift, a friend who was a professional wedding coordinator arranged things. The men had coordinated Victorian tuxedos, the women wore Victorian lace gowns and hats. The ceremony took place on an Oriental rug between two faux marble columns wrapped in flowing fabric. There was a flower girl and a ring bearer. Two doves flew from a balcony at the end.

"It was very dignified," the man says. "Every single person said to me it was the most beautiful wedding they'd been at."

The men wrote their own vows. They pledged to honor each other as "long as life and faith endure. . . . With this ring I promise to love, honor, cherish and protect you until the end of time."

Father Mount doesn't remember the exact words of the blessing that offended the bishop.

"It went right out of my head," he says. "But of course I've done lots and lots of weddings. It was asking God to give them the strength to perform what they had promised to each other and to stay together as long as they were alive, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

"That was all I did, and that was all they expected me to do."

Just as they had done at the 1992 Episcopal convention, lots of people applauded Father Mount.

"Friends, strangers," he says. "Everything I've gotten so far has been friendly, favorable and laudatory, and 'Thank God for having some compassion.' "

The Rev. Carol Cole Flanagan, co-author of the much-debated report on human sexuality, wrote him a note saying she appreciated his courage. "I told him that as a retired priest what he had done was a gift to the church," she says.

Retirement advantage

But Father Mount gives himself less credit than he gets from his admirers.

"I said to 'em: 'It didn't take any courage. I've been retired and have been for years,' " he says in a long interview. "I said, 'When I was your age and was the rector of a parish, I wouldn't have had the courage to do it, either.' Because I would have known I'd lose my parish and never get another one.

"It's taken me 85 1/2 years to become as aggressive as I seem to have become just lately. I never thought of myself as aggressive. And I'm sure I wasn't ever, really."

Father Mount has a fine Anglican face that wouldn't be out of place carved in stone at York or Winchester cathedrals. He's had three heart attacks, and now developing glaucoma threatens his vision. He's bent and a bit infirm and moves slowly. But his mind is quick and light.

He thinks of himself as high church, an Anglo-Catholic. "Every now and then this gives me some trouble," he says, like a man describing arthritis.

But he has never thought of homosexuality as a vice: "Never had I," he says. "No." His diction sometimes has the count and cadence of the Book of Common Prayer.

"I believe that being homosexual happens genetically before you are born," he says. "I don't believe it's learned from anybody, or anything of the sort. You're born with it. And if God made it, it has to be good."

After the 1992 convention, the Maryland bishop, A. Theodore Eastman, and the suffragan, Charles L. Longest, who is now acting bishop, came over from Baltimore to discuss his coming out.

"The bishop himself said to me, 'John, how did you put this together, being a priest, ministering to the people in your parish, counseling people, and at the same time being an active homosexual? How did you do this?'

"And I said, 'Bishop, the only thing I can think of is that all of my adult life I have lived in two worlds that really were, when you come right down to it, only tangentially related to each other.'

"Now that, of course, would be for many people the absolute, ultimate of sin, to try to live in two worlds at once.

"I didn't ask to," Father Mount says, quietly, almost plaintively. "It just happened."

Facets of life

He knows many people would view his two lives as hypocritical.

"Trying to live in two worlds," he says, "if you had any mind in your head, you'd know they were opposed one to th'other. But, you see, I don't know if they're opposed at all. With me, they've been a part of a life."

Father Mount was born in Baltimore just off Pimlico Road in a house "long, long gone." He went to Pimlico Elementary School and the long-defunct and highly esteemed University School for Boys founded by the redoubtable headmaster William Staples.

He received his bachelor's degree from the Johns Hopkins University in 1932 and his theological degree three years later at the Virginia Theological Seminary. He was ordained a deacon at St. Margaret's Church, at Cold Spring Lane and Reisterstown Road, a church that was years ago replaced by a filling station. Toward the end of 1935, he was ordained priest by Bishop Edward T. Helfenstein at St. Stephen's in Severn.

Father Mount twice served as rector in the Severn Parish where he was ordained. He's also served at St. Bartholomew's in

Baltimore, St. Barnabas in Sykesville, a church in Great Britain and in chapels in Solomons Island before his retirement in 1972.

He also taught parish administration for four years at a small "very, very high-church seminary, the ultimate," called Nashotah House, in Nashotah, Wis. He's been good at taking care of business at his parishes.

"I don't know how many people I've helped to get into heaven," he says. "But I do know how many parishes I've gotten out of debt."

He believes his priesthood is a vocation conferred by God.

"That's how come I got myself into this shlimazel I'm in at the moment," he says, somewhat un-Anglicanly.

"It's a feeling that the Lord, metaphorically speaking, looked down and said, 'I want you to be a priest,' " he says. "You get the feeling that he's saying, 'Come on now, come on, come on, I want you as a priest.' "

Because of the bishop's prohibition, he can't officiate at Communion services anymore in the Easton Diocese. But he can still attend church and receive Communion. The next step in punishment, if he continues defying Episcopal authority, could be excommunication.

"So that I couldn't take Communion, or where any priest and parish who let me would be subject to censure," he says. That is a fearsome prospect. Communion is a deep need for him.

"And receiving what comfort, strength and anything else that goes along with it," he says. "Yes, it is important. I would say it's central to my life."

He was already a priest when he fell in love for the first time.

"It was with a young man who came down the aisle of the church after service to say good morning, and I looked up and I saw him and he saw me," Father Mount remembers. "He was in an Army uniform.

"And I said, 'Call me up and give me your telephone number when you get home, please.' Which he did. And that began a real wildfire. It was wonderful -- never known such an experience."

Few in any of his congregations ever realized he was an active homosexual.

"There might have been some who guessed it," he says. "Whoever guessed it would have ignored it. Did! Because I never had any problems from it whatever.

"But you can't have that sort of thing a possibility in your life without its being a burden of . . . living a lie, shall I say?

"I had, and I know from talking to others that they, too, have had the feeling that if anybody should discover this, then all hell would break loose, literally. And you would be fired from your parish and would never be able to get another. So you learn to keep this to yourself as much as you can."

Eventual marriage

He remained a bachelor priest for much of his career, but he did marry.

"That's right," he says. "I was not married until I was 50 and then married a perfectly wonderful woman. She was a social worker. She had had polio when she was 7 and never walked again without crutches."

Her name was Alice Thornton Dashiell. She was from an old Southern Maryland family transplanted to mellow, old-money Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. Her grandfather, who had the melodious name of Julius Matthias Dashiell, had twice served as rector of Severn Parish, just as Father Mount did.

Her mother and father had had a place on Gibson Island, and they went over to Grandpa's parish at Easter. She and Father Mount met there in 1936.

Over his sofa, a life-size portrait of the Rev. Mount in his vestments shows a handsome, soulful, young man of about 32 who might flutter the hearts of either sex. Across the room, in a portrait painted by her sister, Alice is a straightforward young woman of 20, lovely, clear-eyed, self-possessed.

"I'd always thought of Alice as invincible," Father Mount says. He used to visit her occasionally when she lived in Kennett Square, Pa., and he was coming East from Nashotah House.

"On one visit while I was there, we were talking about something. And I've long since forgotten what. And Alice burst into tears. I suddenly realized that Alice was not invincible and that she was not immortal, either."

She was an aging, disabled and unmarried woman facing an uncertain future and too independent to ask for help or haven from anyone.

"All this happened within a second or a split second," Father Mount says. "All this I just suddenly realized and knew. I thought, 'I can't let this happen.' And that evening I asked her if she would marry me. And she said: 'Of course I would. I've loved you since I first saw you.' "

And the marriage was, indeed, consummated, he says.

"Oh, yes. We had two or three years of pretty normal conjugal love. We seemed to have a wonderful relationship and a beautiful time together."

She died September 30, 1991. She was 84. They'd been married 30 years.

"I had a hard time getting used to her death," Father Mount says. "And I'm not used to it yet. I don't suppose I ever shall be."

"The amazing thing is all kinds of things that never used to be tearful for me, music I hear, a hymn I go to sing in church -- I suddenly fill up and can't go on, because if I tried it would make a spectacle."

He never told Alice outright that he was gay. Because she was a social worker, he says, he expected she knew.

"I've often regretted that I wasn't more outspoken," he says, "But it didn't seem to harm things much."

Father Mount is plenty outspoken these days, forcing the church to grapple with a divisive issue that it just wishes would go away.

The Rev. James R. Crowder, the other co-author of the 1992 human sexuality report, believes Father Mount's decision to come out at the convention was important.

"I thought he had a positive effect because people heard from a person who embodied the problem," he says. But the church remains divided on how it should regard homosexual unions.

Last year Father Mount lobbied the Easton delegation to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America to vote favorably for a bill authorizing the blessing of single-sex unions.

"Our delegation was one of very few that voted solidly for that bill when it came up," he says. "I was proud of 'em all."

But the measure failed, and the issue remains unresolved. The Memorial Day ceremony was the first at which Father Mount blessed a single-sex union. And despite the censure of the Easton bishop, he'd do it again.

"Because, you see, I did this out of conscience," he says. "And as long as the Episcopal Church, bishops and delegates, can't ** make up their mind about it, I would do it again."

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