Paragould native returns to Arkansas to lead St. Mark’s

After roughly a quarter-century away, Episcopal priest Barkley Thompson has moved back to his native state to serve as rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock.
(Courtesy photo)
After roughly a quarter-century away, Episcopal priest Barkley Thompson has moved back to his native state to serve as rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock. (Courtesy photo)

After a decade as dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Paragould native Barkley Thompson has returned to Arkansas to lead one of the state's largest Episcopal parishes.

Saint Mark's in Little Rock selected Thompson, 50, to replace its longtime rector, Danny Schieffler.

Thompson will be formally welcomed with plenty of pomp and circumstance at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Bishop Larry Benfield will preside.

"In the Episcopal Church, being the daughter church of the Church of England, we love liturgy," Thompson said. "When a new rector arrives at a parish there is a formal liturgical installation, almost like a marriage ceremony, where the parish and the priest formalize their pastoral relationship."

Among other things, he'll be handed a key to the church by one of the parish's wardens.

Members of the youth group will provide him with the Communion bread and wine.

Someone else will give him a stole, which Thompson describes as "the scarf that a priest wears around his neck during the Eucharist."

Amy Dafler Meaux, dean of Little Rock's Trinity Cathedral, will hand him a copy of the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church and Mary Vano, the rector at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church on Chenal Parkway, will deliver the sermon.

"She and I were seminary classmates, and she's one of my best friends," Thompson said.

Unlike many of his members, Thompson isn't a cradle Episcopalian.

Growing up, he attended First United Methodist Church in Paragould on Sunday mornings -- and Saturday night Masses as well, after he began dating a Catholic girl in high school.

Thompson found both traditions appealing, but neither left him fully satisfied, he recalled.

"I wished then that there was a church that combined the Catholic sacramental and liturgical sensibility with the ... broad theology of grace that I experienced in our Methodist church. And when I went to college, I learned that there is such a church: I discovered the Episcopal Church," he said.

While at Hendrix, he fell in love with a lifelong Episcopalian, the former Jill Benson of Little Rock.

After graduating with a degree in philosophy and religion in 1995, he pursued a master's degree in religious studies from the University of Chicago, envisioning a career in academia.

He initially had no interest in ordained ministry.

When it comes to the priesthood, "it's never been, for me, about what I want to do. It's what I'm called to do," Thompson said. "I ran from it for a decade, but I couldn't be happy doing anything else. It brings me deep and abiding joy.

Eventually, he found his way to the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Upon graduation there, he served as a rector at parishes in Collierville, Tenn., and Roanoke, Va., before answering the call to Houston in February 2013.

Located in the heart of the nation's fourth-largest city, Christ Church Cathedral opened its doors for worship but also for service throughout the week, operating Houston's largest day center for the homeless.

At Saint Mark's, there is also an emphasis on serving the poor. The congregation operates one of Little Rock's largest food pantries.

It's good to be home again, he said.

"I have already fallen head over heels for the people of Saint Mark's," he said. "I'm loving it, and I couldn't be happier."

Todd Rice, who headed the parish's rector search committee, said Thompson was the consensus choice.

"We interviewed I think five or six priests and he was our standard throughout. It was very clear to all of us that he was the right person for our church," Rice said.

Philip Tappan, the parish's senior warden and a member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said Thompson possesses ample experience as well as "wonderful liturgical skills and knowledge of the gospel."

"He's just a great human being and fun and entertaining and energetic," Tappan said. "And I recently had the opportunity to take him on a duck hunt and found out that he's a pretty good outdoorsman, too."

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