"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Is nothing sacred? Or, is everything?

In her memoir, “The Bishop’s Daughter,” Honor Moore doesn’t merely leave a door ajar, giving readers a glimpse into the coat closet in the front hall. Instead she flings wide open the door to her parents’ bedroom, and her own. She invites us into rooms filled not only with family heirlooms, but with dirty laundry, as well.

Moore has posthumously taken her father, Paul Moore, the longtime Episcopal Bishop of New York, out of the closet. Although much of this memoir/exposé is not actually a salacious tell-all, the threads of a secret life and romantic, if not sexual, angst are woven throughout. Moore chronicles her father’s remarkable ministry over many years to disenfranchised, poor minorities of Jersey City, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and New York. Her mother stepped into her husband’s ministry as a willing helpmeet, but eventually was just worn down trying to be the über-clergy wife and mother to nine children. (Just conceiving nine children with a husband who had a secret sex life with men during the course of their marriage is remarkable in itself!)

Paul Moore mostly refused to speak in any detail to his daughter about his secret sex life, but he theologized that sexual feelings and religious fervor come from the same source. Honor Moore says her father did not consider his affairs with men to be adulterous—they were something else altogether, something he found a way to justify on one level, while carrying secret shame on another. If he’d been born of another generation, would his life have gone differently?

Paul Moore died in May 2003, the month before Gene Robinson, an openly gay Episcopal priest, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson was born nearly 30 years after Paul Moore, still not enough time for his gayness to be considered ho hum. Like a Yellowstone geyser, Bishop Robinson’s election broke the already-simmering surface of the Episcopal common ground. The turbulence has not subsided and the issue of gays in the clergy is in the forefront as 800 Bishops from the worldwide Anglican Communion are gathered this month for the Lambeth Conference, which takes place every ten years at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Robinson was not invited.

The oldest of nine, with parents who were occupied outside the home and preoccupied inside, it is clear that the author craved nurture, security and love. Like the shoemaker’s child who had to go barefoot, this child of a pastor was a little lost lamb. Despite her successes academically and professionally, Honor Moore is always seeking something. Often, that “something” masquerades as a search for answers or experimental sex or feminist activism, but what she is seeking is love. Unconditional, parental, cuddly love. Many times throughout this book, the little girl in Honor seems to be pleading, “Pay attention to me!”

Honor steadfastly pursues therapy in an attempt to understand her family dynamics, her relationship choices and her own sexual preferences. Her coming of age in the sixties, and her search for herself, demand that Honor unearth the family secrets. It presents a modern-day generational tension: In the world in which her parents’ grew up, people simply did not discuss these things—not in public and, in most cases, not even in private. For Honor, however, raising one’s own consciousness and that of others was a way of life. Although assured by her late mother’s friends that Mrs. Moore definitely “knew” about her husband’s proclivity for men, the most Honor’s mother ever said to her was, “I’m having a problem with my marriage.” Perhaps Honor should have left it at that. Her mother was doing her a favor by not going into detail. There are just some things you don’t want to know about your parents and, at times, I found myself inwardly screaming “TMI!”

It is well-known in recovery circles and family systems theory that “secrets keep us sick.” So for her own mental health and self-knowledge, I understand Honor’s search for the “why” of her parents’ inability to love her the way she needed to be loved. She needed to uncover the secrets in order to discover herself. But at what cost?

A question that won’t go away is, “Did she really need to tell the world?” Memoir writers certainly wrestle with truth and honesty and self-disclosure. But how far is too far when you are disclosing on someone else’s behalf? And does the knowledge we now have of Bishop Moore take away from his decades-long advocacy on behalf of minorities, the homeless and the hungry?
If Paul Moore’s passions—both sexually and religiously—came from the same spiritual force, does it mean that nothing is sacred? Or that everything is?

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