PRESENCES: A Bishop’s Life in the City.
By Paul Moore. Illustrated. 344 pp.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.
In 1988, a columnist in the right-wing American Spectator mocked Paul Moore, then the Episcopal Bishop of New York, as ”the very embodiment of new-wave American Protestantism.” Reporting on the annual Blessing of the Animals at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the writer sneered at the ecumenism and hints of nature worship that had become the norm under Moore’s episcopacy and that were, in his view, undermining ”traditional Protestantism.” That article — which is still in my files, because I was, I ruefully confess, its author — typified the treatment Moore received in many quarters during his tenure as Bishop of New York from 1972 to 1989. During those years, the charismatic Moore personified America’s activist liberal church and was a target for conservatives who employed alarmist rhetoric about the overthrow of the old-time religion by ”limousine liberals.”
Yet Moore is a more complex figure than the privileged lefty portrayed by his critics. He has always, he insists, had ”an old-fashioned kind of patriotism.” The scion of a rich, patrician family, he attended St. Paul’s and Yale, became a Marine officer and, at 23, was decorated for heroism in World War II. Though he later deplored how the Marines had desensitized him to suffering, Moore eschews simplistic military bashing: if the pride he felt while marching with his men helped him to ”understand how the young men of Germany became Nazis,” he also suggests that the ”sense of interdependence” he learned in the service may have been ”the emotional bedrock on which I came to understand the meaning of the Body of Christ — the Church — and why I found myself preaching with vehemence in later years that our salvation could not be a solitary matter.”
After his graduation from General Theological Seminary, Moore’s ministry took him and his family to Jersey City, then Indianapolis. In 1963, he became Suffragan Bishop of Washington and began to win nationwide attention as a supporter of the rights of blacks, women, homosexuals and the poor. After his move to New York, he became the first American Bishop to ordain an open lesbian. But this book is not only an account of Moore’s activism; it is also a primer in the faith that has undergirded that activism. ”One of the vocations of a Christian,” Moore writes, ”is to become so familiar with the patterns of God’s Kingdom in Scripture and in liturgy that we can recognize it glistening in the most unlikely places and occasions in the world around us. Then, having recognized the Kingdom, we are called to join in its movement.”
To be sure, Moore has his failings. Even now, he seems rather credulous about the cold war-era ”Soviet Friendship Committees” with which he cooperated. And though he has enjoyed camaraderie with the rich and shown compassion for the poor, he has trouble warming up to the middle class. In some respects, alas, Moore hasn’t left his silver-spoon upbringing completely behind. Yet one comes away from this book convinced that he’s tried his best. Anglicanism is often described as an incarnational faith; certainly it is for Moore, who has no use for a God removed from physical suffering and carnal pleasures. ”The underlying principle of the Christian faith,” he declares, ”is that spirit and flesh are one in Creation.”
An agnostic when I mocked Moore, I later became an Episcopalian and was so moved by one of his sermons — in which he preached that God resides ”in the flesh of everybody around you: your closest friend, the homeless man on the curb, your lover” — that I wrote a poem about it. By then, I had come to understand Christianity as I hadn’t before, and in doing so had also learned to esteem the extraordinary ministry of which this book offers an able and candid account.
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, 4 January 1998