CAN WOMEN BECOME priests? Can homosexuals of either sex be ordained? These are the first two questions Paul Moore, Jr., Episcopal Bishop of New York, asks of his readers. The questions are forthright, uncompromising, and - no matter how one answers them - unsettling.
Bishop Moore answered them in the affirmative. On January 10 1977, he ordained to the priesthood Ellen Barrett, an avowed lesbian. Since that historic laying-on of hands, he has been assailed with outrage and prejudice, dissent and open rebellion.
Bishop Moore's ministry has been exceedingly diverse. He and his first wife, Jenny (who died in 1973), served for eight years in a New Jersey innercity parish and kept their door open 24 hours a day to all residents of the neighborhood. Both husband and wife turned their experiences into successful books. Paul Moore's The Church Reclaims the City is a vivid handbook of techniques for an urban apostolate. The People on Second Street, by Jenny Moore, is a personal account of her experiences in a ghetto parish.
Then, after a short stint in Indianapolis, Paul Moore was elected suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Washington in 1964. The Moores became vital presences in the Washington community, and Bishop Moore continued to act to bring about social change. He marched on the White House with Martin Luther King Jr., registered black voters in Mississippi, and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. Several times his life was threatened. Yet, despite this experience with controversial causes, he was ill-prepared for the hostility and outright hate that met his ordination of Barrett. Distorted by news coverage, the ordination swelled into a media event, misunderstood and denounced by clergy and laymen alike. One person wrote, "With a bishop like you, small wonder there is so much rotteness, crime, and everything terrible in New York City."
Take a Bishop Like Me provides a frank, firsthand account of the personalities and issues involved in the historic decision to ordain Ellen Barrett. It is neither a polemic nor a theological treatise and will not provoke anyone to change his or her position on the ordination of women, much less of homosexuals. Indeed many of the Bishop's arguments can easily be turned against hu,. Using plain, straightforward, occasionally tedious reportage, he attempts to place his action in historical perspective - to elucidate and justify.
In part, Bishop Moore's theology is one of change. The Church, he stresses, must meet the new challenges of today, must reexamine and, when necessary, reinterpret its doctrines. The image of the Church must be of "an open, expanding, welcoming, joyful Church, full of accepting love for all of God's people, opening its doors wide... being able to accept any of God's people who are called to full, glorious priesthood." Hence, when an avowed lesbian presented herself for ordination, the Bishop and the Standing Committee (which must approve all candidates to the priesthood) could find no impediments. In their judgment, clearly she had been called by God. To those who shake their heads over Barret's homosexuality, the Bishop remonstrates: "Persons known, or virtually known, to be homesexual have been ordained for years. The only difference between such persons... and Ellen Barrett is her candor. Candor, or, if you will, honesty is not a bar to ordination."
But this ordination, argue some, will set a dangerous precedent: Other gays will flock to the altar; the Church will become a community of the sick and perverted. The Bishop reminds such protesters that the Episcopal Church did not ordain a class of persons but an individual.
Having stoutly defended and explained his action, the Bishop, nonetheless, wisely recognizes that the ordination of a lesbian is a stumbling block to many: It throws awry concepts of a masculine God, of sexuality, of selfhood. Thus in no way does the Bishop bludgeon his readers; he respects opposing views, but firmly and gently argues for what he considers to be right and just. God's word, he points out again and again, is not fixed or static, but forever evolving: "Jesus Himself said that His disciples could not bear to hear all the truth at one time and that the Holy Spirit would continue to reveal the truth to them."
The controversy over the ordination of women and of homosexuals promises to rage on. In the midst of it, Bishop Moore remains undaunted, hopeful, visionary. For him there is no distinction between slave or freeman, Jew or gentile, black or white, male or female, gay or straight - all are one in the Body of Christ. He forsees the day when a responsible homosexual relationship will not be condemned as contrary to God's will.
History, he writes, moves in jerks like an old steam engine leaving the station. Bishop Moore has certainly not made our ride any gentler. He might well admonish us, however, that a smooth ride augurs far more trouble than a rough one.