A bishop I respected for his outspoken views on many issues apparently had a few issues he kept quiet on.
As is customary during Lent, the sermon at St. John the Divine Cathedral on Sunday touched on the themes of seen and unseen truths, knowing and not knowing what is before one’s very eyes.
It was not intended as a veiled reference to the disclosure this week that Paul Moore Jr., the late, revered Episcopal bishop who became a national figure of liberal Christian activism from the cathedral’s pulpit in the 1970s and ’80s, had lived a secret gay life.
“I’m an old English major, and I can overlay meanings on anything, but in this case it was just the Sunday sermon,” said the Rev. James A. Kowalski, who delivered the words.
In an elegiac article in the March 3 issue of The New Yorker magazine titled “The Bishop’s Daughter,” the poet Honor Moore describes her father, Bishop Moore, who died in 2003 at 83, as alternately passionate and elusive, capable of deep “religious emotion,” yet just beyond her emotional reach. It was only after he died, she said, that she fully realized that he had had gay relationships during his two marriages, the first of which produced his nine children.
Bishop Moore was a famously outspoken Christian voice. His truth-to-power pastoring spanned almost half a century, including as leader of the Episcopal Diocese of New York from 1972 until his retirement in 1989. He marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was among the early opponents of the Vietnam War, railed at presidents and mayors for ignoring the plight of the poor, and, shortly before his death, took the opportunity of his last sermon at St. John the Divine, the seat of the diocese at 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, to deliver a scathing attack on President Bush and the war in Iraq.
The revelation of his hidden world comes at a time of deep tension within the Episcopal Church of the United States over the issue of homosexuality. Since the church ordained an openly gay bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003, a dozen congregations in various parts of the country have withdrawn from the American branch of the church and aligned themselves with theologically conservative African or South American branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part.
Those African and South American branches have described homosexuality as “an offense to God.”
At St. John the Divine, where inclusiveness toward those of all backgrounds and sexual orientations has long been fundamental to the culture of the congregation — in part as a result of Bishop Moore’s leadership — the reaction was more complicated.
“I’d like to say that we all have secret lives — and that’s why we come here,” said Mary Burrell, a longtime member of the congregation. “We are all sinners, trying to find our way.”
Everyone interviewed after Masses on Sunday praised Bishop Moore as a towering leader of his era. And nearly equal numbers said that because of the cultural mores of the time in which he lived, Bishop Moore may have deprived his family of the kind of intimacy that his daughter, at least, missed as a child. In her essay, she describes her father’s religious devotion — and perhaps the furtiveness necessitated by his other life, which was unknown to her at the time — as “a landscape, like a dream, a place to which my father belonged and from which my mother and I were excluded.”
Anne Wroten said she was saddened at the thought of “how much energy is wasted in living a closeted life, how much is lost in the forming of bonds with loved ones.”
Some were less kind, like Marsha Ra, who said, referring to the memoirist Ms. Moore, “I’m just so glad I never had children.”
Some were more fatalistic, in a positive way. “You know, if he hadn’t kept it secret, there would probably be nine fewer children in this world,” said Fred Imbimbo.
But few seemed to miss how the day’s sermon and readings resonated with the story of Bishop Moore as told by his daughter. The sermon was based on the Gospel story of Jesus restoring a blind man’s sight. It is a parable about recognizing the Messiah in the person of Jesus, but it is also about “opening our eyes and looking straight at the facts,” Mr. Kowalski said during his sermon. “Being able to see clearly what is in front of us.”
Howard Hadley, 62, a member of the church choir who considered himself a friend of the late bishop’s, said it came as no surprise to him to learn that Bishop Moore had been involved in gay relationships.
“It was the times he lived in. That’s the sad fact. But there was never any doubt in my mind about him,” said Mr. Hadley. “People who say they didn’t know? Well, you know, people see what they want to see.”
The writer of “The Bishop’s Daughter” might say that, in some cases at least, people see what they are invited to see.