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The contradictions of Paul Moore

You just never know what you might find in parish libraries. A couple of weeks ago, searching for fodder for this blog, I pulled off the shelf a copy of Presences: A Bishop’s Life in the City by the late Paul Moore. I suppose it shows my ignorance that I’d never heard of the man, or at least didn’t recall hearing of him. As an Episcopal priest, I ought to have: the Rt. Rev. Paul Moore was bishop of New York for almost twenty years (1972-1989), which was only the capstone on an illustrious life in the ministry during which he was arguably the best known Episcopal cleric in the country and one of the best known of any denomination.

He stood six-foot-five and was born into Old Money and impeccable WASP credentials, one of the last in a line of old-school Episcopalians: St. Paul’s School and Yale, with a grandfather who made out like a bandit on Wall Street and helped found Nabisco, Bankers Trust, and a tin company bought out by Rockefeller’s U.S. Steel, among other things. Tom Brokaw may well have been thinking of Moore when he wrote The Greatest Generation: he was decorated in WWII and almost killed, then went back home to a lifetime of service to God, country, and Yale (quite literally), working tirelessly for civil rights, peace, and the poor, all the while raising nine children with his beautiful Boston socialite wife Jenny. He marched with Dr. King, did pioneering interracial ministry in a poor community in 1950s New Jersey, and had the good sense to have no less than Eli Lilly as his senior warden at the cathedral in Indianapolis, as well as Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post and, seemingly, about half of President Kennedy’s senior staff as old friends.

With such a pedigree, I was more than a little predisposed to judge him as arrogant and condescending, but that does not seem to be fair. From what I can tell, his friends were right to consider him quite modest. Richard Neuhaus, the conservative editor of First Things, considered him a friend and “about as personable as human beings can get.” Moore seemed to have had a genuine talent for friendship, and his autobiography is full of small nuggets from his long career that bespeak real pastoral wisdom. He writes with feeling and depth about his youthful religious conversion and sense of calling to the priesthood, about the suffering love of the crucified Christ that calls us to a life of affectionate service among the poor and oppressed and forgotten, and about the beauty and holiness of the worship of the Triune God that changed his life as a young man and remained at his core always.

All of this is true, I think, about Paul Moore. It is also true that his sexual life more or less left behind a long wake of emotional destruction, the brunt of which was borne by his two wives, who apparently both fell into deep and destructive depressions at least in part due to his habitual affairs. He was not able or willing to cordon off his ministry from his sexual dalliances, starting, not long after the birth of his first child, his first affair with a married instructor at General Seminary, having another with a priest in his diocese while bishop of New York, and having another while bishop with a young Columbia College student who had come to him for pastoral counseling. After his retirement, diocesan authorities became aware of some of these relationships, and he was temporarily inhibited from the exercise of his ministry. His family eventually became aware as well. But the public did not, and his 1997 autobiography gives no hint of any of this.

When I first picked up the book from the parish library and started reading, I mentioned it to a friend of mine. “Have you heard of this fellow, Paul Moore?”

My friend tilted his head and thought a bit: “Moore — isn’t that the gay bishop?”

“No, that couldn’t be! Apparently the man had nine children!”

“Well, I seem to remember a piece from The New Yorker a few years back…”

And he was right, or almost. Apparently, I was hiding under a rock or just not paying attention, but in 2008 his eldest daughter Honor Moore published a story in The New Yorker revealing her father’s bisexuality and his string of affairs with men while married. The story was an excerpt from a much larger book, The Bishop’s Daughter, which I somewhat compulsively read. The book was not merely an exposé, though Honor Moore rather obviously (and unattractively) used the titillating sexual revelations about her father as a dramatic page-turning device. It was also a search for her own past by way of uncovering the reality of her father’s character, which in many ways had long been rendered opaque to her by his deceptive double life. It was also an attempt to understand and defend her mother Jenny, who died in middle age from cancer after a long struggle with depression, and after a painful separation that nearly became divorce.

(Update: since I wrote this article, yet more has come to light regarding Bp. Moore and the legacy of abuse in the Diocese of New York.)

I can understand why Honor Moore felt the need to defend her mother. Her father’s autobiography gives no hint that his wife’s depressions and eventual distancing might have had anything to do with his affairs. By his telling, it was all inexplicable and deeply painful for him. Apparently, he thought he had successfully kept his secrets from his wife until her death, but he hadn’t: Jenny had pieced things together over the years and had confided in her eldest daughter but never confronted him. Before her cancer began, they had separated and “agreed to see other people,” and they both did: he a former girlfriend (among others), and she a former boyfriend. None of this was known at the time (he was after all the bishop of New York), nor was it known before Honor’s book.

In Presences, Bishop Moore includes a photo of Jenny and him as a young married couple, smiling together on some sunny seashore. Looking at it made me want to shake him, hard: How could you do it to this woman who loved you and whom you loved, to the mother of your children, to the tireless partner in your ministry? And yet, he did. And then he did it again to his next wife, Brenda. He and Brenda married about a year and a half after Jenny’s death, and, once again, it seems that at first they were happy. But his affairs continued, and eventually Brenda put two and two together as well. He promised to stop, he did for a while, then went back. As Honor tells it, the poor woman more or less drank herself to death.

I am afraid I do not have very much sympathy for the man’s choices. That’s carefully put: they were choices, not blind obedience to some kind of sexual tractor beam. Tobias Haller, himself a gay man and priest in the diocese of New York, put it this way: “I am very weary of those who blame society for Paul’s double life in the closet, and even more those who blame the closet for his misconduct. He wasn’t ‘forced’ — he made choices, choices which affected others than himself.”

Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times wrote in his review  of Honor’s book that Moore really seemed to have been bisexual, a judgment that Honor shares. Honor writes of a woman whom she interviewed for the book, a rather sophisticated and worldly socialite with whom her father had had an on-again, off-again romantic connection before, between, and after his marriages going back 60 years. She was quite surprised to hear from Honor that Paul had an interest in men.

Paul Moore could very well have been a faithful husband and father, but he was not. He could very well have refrained from sexual advances towards priests and students under his care, but he did not. The young man whom Honor calls “Andrew Verver,” with whom Moore carried on an affair that lasted nearly thirty years, had originally come to his diocesan office in New York as a vulnerable college student scarred from sexual abuse in his childhood by Roman Catholic priests. Though Honor and Andrew described this relationship as “consensual,” such a word does not even begin to describe the incredible power asymmetry between one of the wealthiest and most powerful (spiritually and temporally) men in New York, a bishop and a priest, and a young man who had come into his office to repair his faith after having been sexually abused by priests.

What to make of all this, beyond anger and sadness? It is said by some, including Oppenheimer and Neuhaus, that Honor Moore’s book should not have been written. Clearly it was against her late father’s wishes, and some of her siblings wrote a letter published in The New Yorker decrying her public airing of their father’s dirty laundry. I tend to agree with them: filial piety demands, I think, that one not drag one’s late father’s name through the mud.

At the same time, Paul Moore was a bishop who took public and controversial stands on sexual ethics, and his personal life cannot be neatly separated from his public life. We have learned the hard way that sweeping things under the rug when it comes to sexual scandal among bishops and clergy usually goes hand in hand with covering up serious abuses of power and trust. Honor Moore could have made the case (but didn’t) that her speaking out was an act of service to those who have been sexually exploited by priests, as well as an important bit of context for her father’s church today to re-evaluate his ministry and teaching.

In his final sermon as bishop, Paul Moore said (as he often did) that the Episcopal Church is and should be “a Catholic Church in love with freedom.” Speaking of his home life, he wrote that “our philosophy in bringing up the children was to give them as much freedom as possible.” Elsewhere, he writes:

I have never been much interested in the theological niceties that divide the people of God. The older I get, the less important they seem. Again and again I have felt closer to men and women of other faiths who are dedicated to God’s agenda of justice and peace than to members of my own Church who seem to block these movements.

Moore and his handpicked dean for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine up on Morningside Heights, Jim Morton, professed that the cathedral should become something of a “circus,” full of the entire life of the city, sacred and profane, with its arms open as wide as possible to include everyone in the Incarnation of Christ. Sensitive to the criticism of some conservatives over issues such as the installation of a “Christa” (a female Jesus on a cross), preaching invitations for the Dalai Lama and various secular political figures, and partisan politicization of the faith, Moore wrote:

The inclusiveness of our life there is true catholicism. I believe we have symbolized the wounded hands of our Lord outstretched to welcome all of God’s people into his house of worship. But we have been scrupulous in maintaining Anglican teaching and liturgy, lest we lose our own identity in welcoming others. …Those who walk down the great stone steps, we hope, carry with them into the world the love of God and God’s longing for justice and peace.

What to say? First, we pray in the collect for peace to the God in “whose service is perfect freedom.” It is very meet and right that catholic Christians should be in love with freedom, as the God whom we serve frees us from “all assaults of our enemies” — from the powers and principalities of this world, from sin and death and the devil, to be fully alive as the sons and daughters of God we were created to be. But Moore’s phrase played upon a popular contrast, between freedom and order, or liberty and law, which, at the end of the day, is foreign to the Christian vision.

“Freedom” is indeed a very important word in Christian ethics, sexual or otherwise, but it is not the last or only word that needs to be said. Moore grew up in a time and place where the cry for “freedom” was indeed a deeply important and Christian word, in the struggles against fascism and for civil rights in which he honorably took part. But, as the Brookings Institution scholar Isabel Sawhill shows in her recent book Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage, sexual freedom from the ordering form of marriage has been a far from untrammelled good, especially for the more than 40% of American children now born to unwed mothers. As Sawhill estimates, the child poverty rate in the U.S. would fall 20% if the marriage rate today had remained at 1970s levels. Sexual freedom can sound very liberating indeed, but its costs are not usually borne by the Paul Moores of the world.

It is probably worth mentioning that none of Paul Moore’s nine children remained churchgoers. As the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has shown, parents are by far the most important factor in whether or not teenagers grow up to maintain faith. Regular discussion of faith at home matters immensely, and parental authority is much more important than post-1960s tropes about rebellion would have it. As a priest married to a priest, I am very aware that “PK’s” may feel suffocated by the Church, especially if its demands on clergy parents are such that they feel in competition with the Church for their parents’ time and love. I wonder, however, whether the Moore household in the ’60s and ’70s may have been such that the Christian faith was never intentionally passed on for fear of quashing the “freedom” of their children.

What of the “theological niceties” that Moore cared little for, and the “circus” of his cathedral? Again, I am afraid that Moore fell prey to a false dichotomy between freedom and order. In his last sermon as bishop, Moore said:

I charge you to be free in your mind to push forward the boundaries of theology, to liberate your thinking from the dusty metaphysics of the past to a new dynamic of the Gospel, so that the vigor of its love invades the issues of the day.

Leave aside, first, that it is not clear that Moore ever dusted off those old metaphysical tomes to see what they said. More to the point, the “boundaries of theology” are not there to hem us in, but to help ensure that the God of whom we speak is the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. As David Yeago pointed out some years ago, Christianity is a dogmatic religion precisely because Jesus of Nazareth was a particular person who said and did particular things, whom the Scriptures claim to be somehow one with the One whom Jesus called Father and with the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost; hence, we are bound to say some things and not others, if we are to be the Church of Christ.

Moore himself in fact operated within those boundaries and was formed well to do so by an old Anglo-Catholic priest at St. Paul’s School and by his teachers at General. But like many of his time and place, particularly in the Roman Catholic church after Vatican II, he likely took too much for granted the value of the “boundaries” in which he had been raised. In Presences, Moore gives explanations of the Christa crucifix in the cathedral and the various sorts of boundary-pressing that went on there in his day that sound quite orthodox when viewed from a certain angle. But his own formation had trained him to see from that angle, and it is not clear that others without its benefit did. I am not myself deeply familiar with the liturgical life of St. John the Divine today, but when I walk through it I cannot help but wonder whether or not it is indeed a place where all things hold together in Christ (Col. 1:17). There are certain indications that give me cause for concern.

Finally, there are the stirring words with which Paul Moore closed his episcopate: that those who leave his cathedral would “carry with them into the world the love of God and God’s longing for justice and peace.” One hopes, indeed, that they would. But to speak thus runs the risk of envisioning God as a sort of cosmic cheerleader, longing ardently for us to do the real work of salvation that needs doing. As one of his own diocese’s priests, Fleming Rutledge, puts it so well, the arrow of action in the proclamation of God’s Word must always point from God to us; God ought to be the principal subject of our verbs, not ourselves. Or, as Philip Turner has said, it is not that Jesus ran his leg of the relay and then passed the baton to us; it is rather that Jesus has accomplished the work of salvation in his life, death, and resurrection, and now grants it to us to participate in his work’s fulfillment. It is quite true that Christian faith has much to do with what are sometimes thought of as “political” issues of peace and justice; Paul Moore was not wrong to press that, and it was no doubt a point that needed pressing for much of his career, though perhaps at times with more balance. But I suspect that people who complained of his over-politicization had a point, inasmuch as Moore’s sermons may too often have placed Moore and his hearers in the driver’s seat.

It is most certainly not the case that all of these tendencies and views are somehow wrapped together in the same package that contained Bishop Moore’s sexual dalliances. One may well have all of the “correct” views and yet be an abysmal failure in one’s personal life. The preacher Johnny Ray Youngblood, a man with no small amount of shortcoming in his own life, put it this way:

This thing [the Word of God] is a two-edged sword. It whips back and cuts the hell out of me and then comes forward and cuts y’all. And the truth of God’s Word is not predicated on my lifestyle. It is predicated on God’s word itself. He sends sinful men to preach to sinful men. I’m just another beggar, tellin’ other beggars where to find bread (Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, 13).

Unfortunately, the more that our sermons depend upon our hearers carrying “with them into the world the love of God and God’s longing for justice and peace,” the less able they are to point to the One who has already carried God’s justice and peace into the world, Jesus Christ, when we fail (as we assuredly will) to follow in his footsteps. I am not sure that Moore’s self-presentation to the Church and the world was as “just another beggar, tellin’ other beggars where to find bread.” Of course, he was just another beggar, and so am I, and so are you. Paul Moore’s moral failings, grave as they were, were not enough to keep countless people from finding Jesus through his life and work, particularly in the faces of the poor and the downtrodden. But we as his successors will have to keep pointing past ourselves to the Savior and Lord who has grace enough for Paul Moore, the people he hurt, and you and me.

Moore writes that he was converted to Christ at the words of absolution, after his first confession as a young man. His priest said to him that long ago day at St. Paul’s: “I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen. Go in peace, the Lord has put away your offenses, and pray for me, a sinner.”

So may it be. Paul Moore, rest in peace.

The image above is Paul Moore and his family at the funeral of his first wife, Jenny McKean Moore. It is taken from the page on Paul Moore found in the Episcopal Church resource “The Church Awakens: African-Americans and the Struggle for Justice.” 


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