- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008


By Honor Moore

Norton, $25.95, 365 pages


In part because it reveals an iconic and titanic figure, and in part because its author is a gifted writer with a capacious soul, “The Bishop’s Daughter” must be a remarkable book. Spiritual, psychological, political and quirky, it is celebratory and revelatory too, while it must be anathema to folks in several quarters.

Among the latter, I suspect, are some of Washington’s aging Episcopalian Brahmins (or their ghosts), gentlemen whom I remember 40 years ago gathered as old birds of an angry feather, wattling their jowls about the new bishop. Paul Moore, they clucked at a stuffy reception, had come here to shake up their antebellum church and he ought to be defrocked for anti-establishment heresy.

Paul Moore Jr. was the Suffragan Bishop of the diocese whose seat is Washington National Cathedral, a landmark edifice still in the making and “a church for all people.” It already held the tombs and cenotaphs of statesmen, warriors and churchmen, as it became the temple of choice for funerals of the mighty. This towering churchman meant it to serve the meek as well.

Bishop Moore, a Brahmin himself born to vast wealth and high privilege, had been elected by the laypeople of the Washington Episcopal diocese to be the number two guy to Bishop John Walker, himself a “first” many times over: the first black to attend Virginia Theological Seminary, the first black chaplain at the paradigm New England prep school St. Paul’s, the first black to wear the Episcopal miter.

Like Bishop Walker, Bishop Moore meant “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” By the 1960s, they were in the forefront of a crusade within the church and without to make America better honor her promise of liberty and justice for all through civil rights, etc. Call them theological progressives, political liberals, and social activists, they set out to make their Church follow more aggressively the teachings of Jesus Christ as they read them.

As a “cradle Episcopalian” who had barely set foot in church in a dozen years, I remember being astonished by this new breed when as cub reporter, I was sent to cover a Cleveland Park civic group that had met for decades in the community hall of St. Alban’s Church, the parish in the shadow of National Cathedral. It promised to be deadly dull, until the new rector arose and told the group to find another place to meet unless it changed its whites-only membership rule. Wow!

This blip exemplified the accelerating evolution of the Episcopal Church, which would have some important social and historical consequences. One reason “The Bishop´s Daughter” deserves attention is that the eponymous author, Honor Moore, describes one of the nation’s moral leaders up close, personal and conflicted. Further, this published poet offers a numinous and nuanced view through a child’s eyes of church, priest and priesthood - as telling a picture as, say, James Joyce’s view of Irish Catholicism, although far more benevolent and considerably more readable.

She begins: “It is Easter, and in the darkness of the Cathedral … the singing soars in descant, the gothic ceiling multiplying the clamor. And now, as if a great storm has ceased, there is no music, and in the silence held by five thousand worshipers, there come three resounding knocks. And as we wait, the massive doors swing open, an ethereal shaft of sunlight floods the dark, the roar of the city breaks the gigantic quiet and there at the far end of the aisle, in a blaze of morning light, stands the figure of a man. My flesh-and-blood father, the bishop.”

He stood 6 feet 3 and won the Navy Cross and Silver Star leading a platoon of Marines across a river at Guadalcanal where he took a bullet through the chest. His first parish was in a Newark slum, where he and his bride Jenny, who seemed to the world nearly as saintly and heroic, ministered to the poor, fed the hungry, fought slumlords, and started raising their nine children.

The daughter’s revelation that has made headlines is that Bishop Paul Moore, hero and crusader, had a secret gay life. This at a time when the Episcopal Church may yet split in schism over the snowballing issue of making a known homosexual a bishop. Indeed the row over both sex and gender in holy orders now threatens to rend asunder the worldwide Anglican Communion, the community of protestant churches that are heirs to King Henry V’s split with the Pope of Rome.

All the tut-tutting and homophobic ranting aside, I found the book an eye-opener, because having known immaculate, multi-children families of Episcopal ministers as a child, I had no idea that those men of cloth had any sex lives at all, let alone illicit ones. Honor Moore has done the worthy service of writing as illuminating a picture of an alpha couple as Nigel Nicholson’s “Portrait of a Marriage,” albeit partners in a rectory.

In part, she was able to write this probing work because her well-born parents’ upbringing led them to write copious letters, and to preserve them in caches of several thousand. Yet it is much more than an epistolary construct, and several other things as well. It is an expose in that it does “out” a priest and father. (Among others who would prefer that the book was never written are some of the author’s siblings, while others of them welcomed it. Fittingly, she dedicates the work to all eight, “each of whom would have [told] another story.”)

Ms. Moore’s book is also a partial history of 20th-century progressivism, a welcome contribution to its literature. And because of her parents’ shared silver-spoon legacies and their daughter’s deft depiction, it describes a now-vanished pinnacle of American society more transparently than Scott Fitzgerald and Louis Auchincloss. It is an engaging self-portrait by an ambivalent daughter and, as subtitled, one person’s memoir.

To this reader’s eye “The Bishop’s Daughter” is best in its biographical purpose rather than its autobiographical one. It movingly relates the inevitably bittersweet saga of the dashing Yale man, who finds faith, goes to war and lives, woos and weds the princess of his dreams; then sallies forth with her at his side to slay dragons and, sadly but truly, have nightmares. It is most memorably a frank, loving, faceted and fully realized portrait of an inspired rebel, visionary priest and passionate man who deserves no less.

Philip Kopper is a Washington writer and publisher.

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