Time to Spring the Final Closet: Gay Clergy

Published in: September-October 2009 issue.


RELIGION, particularly Christianity, is often disparaged by contemporary gay authors, but passing attitudes are sometimes misread as eternal verities. Certainly history is filled with deeply religious gay people whose spirituality reinforced their same-sex affinities. Among gays, particularly gay men, marriage has undergone a massive shift in attitudes during the last forty years, moving from widespread scorn to passionate embrace. Is it possible that religion (including Christianity) will undergo a similar transition and become a more important part of gay lives in the near future?

There are, of course, good reasons why gays feel so alienated from religion. The usual hostility of most Christian churches became virulent during the very years when gays were most deeply suffering from the AIDS plague and that is difficult to forgive and forget. But there is also a complex relationship between the spirit and the flesh that has touched gays in unique ways. While the negative consequences of the struggle between the spirit and the flesh have been emphasized, the positive, inspirational effects have not. Apart from Mark D. Jordan, there have been few academic successors to the gay historian John Boswell (1947-1994), who attempted to reconcile his Roman Catholicism with his sexuality.

The apparent absence of gay religious figures is probably connected with vocational pressures. Artists, 60’s countercultural rebels, actors, and writers predominated among the vanguard of gays who first came out of the closet. They were gradually joined by academics, professionals, and blue collar groups, but unique pressures on clerics have kept most of them in the closet. Because of this, we are still in the process of identifying them and incorporating them into gay history. As an example, one of the most notable religious leaders of recent times, Paul Moore, Jr. (1919-2003), has only lately been identified as bisexual. Bishop Moore became famous as a leader in the Civil Rights struggles of the 60’s and gay ordination struggles of the 70’s.

Moore was a child of privilege, born into an affluent family that was only conventionally religious. After graduating from Yale, he was commissioned in the Marines and almost died from a chest wound in the South Pacific. He received both the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. After his discharge, he entered an Episcopal seminary and was ordained. In the 60’s, he gained a reputation for social activism in the Washington, D.C., diocese, participating in the March on Washington in 1963, where he was deeply moved by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Although he offended many conservative Episcopalians, he was lionized by their liberal counterparts and, in 1970, was consecrated as the bishop of New York. He quickly became the most controversial bishop in the U.S. for his political and social activism (despite his conservatism in church liturgy and tradition). He married and had nine children. When his first wife died of cancer, he remarried a widow named Brenda Hughes Campbell. What he did not reveal was his attraction to other men.

I met Bishop Moore in September of 1977, when he and his second wife visited Mahopac, New York. He came not only to perform the annual rite of confirmation at the Church of the Holy Communion, but also to mend fences with the membership, which was withholding its contribution out of protest over his ordination of an out lesbian named Ellen Barrett. This was the first ordination of an openly gay woman. Church members were confused and angry over this apparent violation of Scripture. That was the dispute on the surface, but there was a deeper story here, one that it took me years to piece together. I was at the time serving as the junior warden in Holy Communion, a responsibility that I was much too young (33) and spiritually immature to handle. I was supporting the rector of Holy Communion in his opposition to Bishop Moore’s ordination of Barrett.

After the service, we stood on the parsonage patio chatting, mingling with the confirmands’ families, and trying to be polite to one another. None of us realized that all three of the parties in the dispute—Bishop Moore, the Holy Communion rector, and myself—were married and closeted bisexuals. I knew that the rector was because he had told me in vivid detail about his sexual seductions of young men in the church. I was a good listener, but so deeply closeted that I doubt he had any suspicions about me. Also, he was quite attracted to masculine males of Italian descent and he tended to romanticize them (and me) in ways that wasps sometimes do. I don’t think either of us knew about Bishop Moore’s same-sex attractions. I didn’t learn about them until thirty years later, when I read the memoir The Bishop’s Daughter, by Honor Moore.

In 1977, it would have been impossible for Bishop Moore to have revealed his same-sex feelings and to have maintained his authority as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. It would have been possible after his retirement in 1989, but he remained deeply closeted until his death in 2003. It is uncertain if his first wife ever discovered his homosexuality, but it appears to have contributed to the problems in his first marriage. His second wife discovered his sexual affinity for men and conveyed the news to his family, who kept the revelations to themselves. He was outed posthumously by his bisexual daughter in her memoir published in 2008 and first excerpted in The New Yorker. The picture she paints of her father is very mixed.

The details of her father’s same-sex attractions were first revealed in a phone call after her father’s funeral from a man named Andrew Verver. This unknown person had been given a bedstand (an unexplained romantic memento) as a bequest in her father’s will. Verver explained that he had been a student struggling with his sexuality at Columbia in 1975 when he first met Bishop Moore. Some 35 years younger than Moore, Verver had been her father’s gay lover, on and off, for thirty years. In Moore’s last years, Verver had accompanied Moore on a religious pilgrimage to the Isle of Patmos, where Saint John the Apostle was exiled—a climactic symbol of the life in exile that Moore’s own spiritual closet had imposed.


D. E. Mungello, author of The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800 (3rd edition), is a China historian living in Texas.


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