Carla Carlisle on Paul Moore

Back in January, I was asked to write a few lines about ‘my hero’ and provide a quote for an anthology called Heroes. It’s a big word, hero, and hard to find shoes that fit. But today, when I opened my New Yorker, I saw a photograph of the man who fits my ‘size Hero’ in just about every way. For a start, Paul Moore was big: 6ft 4in, a good height for a war hero. A Marine captain in the Second World War, seriously wounded by a bullet that just missed his heart, he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. After the war, he entered the General Theological Seminary in New York. Moore’s background was a cliché of wealth grand houses in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Florida, educated at St Paul’s and Yale a privileged world he left behind when he went to his first parish in a run-down neighbourhood in Jersey City, beginning a life-long commitment of connecting the church to the real world. His ministry brought slum landlords to court, integrated public housing, and fought against police brutality, unheard of activi-ties for an Episcopal priest in the 1950s.

By the time I met him, in 1964, he was Bishop Moore, Suffragan Bishop of Washington DC. He’d travelled south to show solidarity with the civil-rights workers. One evening, he came to dinner with my family, southerners trying to bring Black and White churchmen together in a call for peace. The house was surrounded by a posse of circling cars that saw all ‘outsiders’ as the enemy. It took an FBI escort to get him back to his hotel. But he wasn’t one of the liberal clergy who made high-profile visits to the South and then returned home. When my family could no longer safely stay in Mississippi, he made the calls that found me a place in the National Cathedral School, next to the cathedral and his family home.

My sudden uprooting was softened by Moore family suppers. Even his family was heroic nine children, which made Jenny, his beautiful, bohemian wife, pretty heroic as well. I loved the music of her silver bracelets one for each baby. In 1970, Moore became Bishop of New York where he transformed the massive Gothic Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in Upper Manhattan into a living cathedral, involved with every aspect of the city, created shelters for the homeless and prayer vigils against the war. So why, five years after his death, is the bishop in the New Yorker? In an excerpt from her memoir, his daughter Honor reveals that, for the last 30 years of his life, he had another life, a secret gay life.

Two summers ago, when Honor came to Suffolk to talk about the book she was writing, she told me about her father’s secret life. Somehow, I managed to ask ‘Why? Why write what your father would never have wanted written?’ She replied that now it was her story, that she believed in the sanctity of each writer’s ‘material’. I don’t condemn his secret life, hard as it is to imagine his betrayal of the two wives who died before him. I only wish I could un-know what I now know. Paul Moore is still my hero. The quote I’d choose is from his last sermon, on the eve of the war in Iraq. ‘It appears we have two types of religion here. One is a solitary Texas politician who says: “I talk to Jesus and I am right.” The other involves millions of people of all faiths who disagree.’ He added: ‘I believe it will lead to a terrible crack in the whole culture as we have come to know it.’ Prophetic. Heroic.