Ghosts of New
by Andrew Walsh
Like an old lion, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore commanded
respect until the very end. When he roared, which was often, people paid
On March 24, only five weeks before his death from
brain and lung cancer, the 83 year-old retired bishop of New York willed
himself into the pulpit at St. John the Divine Cathedral in Manhattan one
last time. From that familiar platform, he ripped into President Bush’s plan
to invade Iraq. “It appears to me that we have two types of religion here,”
Moore pronounced. “One is a solitary Texas politician who says, ‘I talk with
Jesus and I’m right.’ The other involves millions of people of all faiths
The next day, that typically pungent Moore quote (Moore
once described business leaders abandoning Manhattan as “rats leaving a
sinking ship”) appeared in dozens of American newspapers. When he died on
May 1, substantial obituaries appeared in newspapers from Boston to Los
“Moore was arguably the most visible symbol of
Christian social action in the city, an unapologetic voice for human and
civil rights, social justice, economic fairness, and a dozen other liberal
causes,” Charles W. Bell wrote in the New York Daily News. “He
ordained the first avowed lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church, marched
with Martin Luther King, and was an early, vociferous opponent of the
A liberal for all theological, social, and political
occasions, Moore was, by and large, warmly remembered when he passed.
“During his tenure,” the New York Times’ May 2
obituary observed, “Bishop Moore transformed the seat of the diocese, the
Cathedral of St. John the Divine, at 112th St and Amsterdam
Avenue, from a moribund backwater church to a place where peacocks roamed,
orchestras performed, elephants lumbered, inner-city youth found jobs and
the homeless slept in supervised shelters.”
“I was usually wrong when I became timid,” Moore wrote
in his 1997 autobiography, A Bishop’s Life in the City. “History
seemed to be on the side of boldness.”
His controversial style and his theological and
political values did not endear him to everyone. The Richmond
(Virginia) Times-Dispatch, for example, editorialized on May 13 that
Moore’s project of revitalizing St. John the Divine had “rich potential, but
[was] rendered ridiculous by ideological excess. A magnificent Gothic pile
symbolizes a squandered inheritance.”
Moore, who served as bishop of New York from 1972 to
1989, was widely recognized as a kind of physical icon for liberal
Protestantism, which was a hefty force in American society in the decades
after World War II. “Who are these liberal Protestants?” asked Jonathan
Dorfman in an August 12, 2001 Boston Globe review of a book about
liberal Protestantism. “Imagine the Eastern Establishment, Episcopal clergy
division, sometime during the Eisenhower or Kennedy administration. Think
McGeorge Bundy in a collar. Think Bishop Paul Moore, the former Episcopal
Bishop of New York.”
At 6’4”, Moore was a son of privilege, the father of
nine children, and winner of a chest full of combat medals during his World
War II service in the Marines—all in all, the liberal man of action in full.
By the time of his death, however, there was a distinct aura of twilight.
His Times obituary recalled a time when Moore was New York City’s
“most outspoken Christian voice.” But then it noted that that distinction
had passed in the 1980s to the far more conservative Catholic archbishop of
the city, Cardinal John J. O’Connor.
insiders, one clear indication that Moore had outlived his day came was the
byline on the Times obit: Ari L. Goldman. Goldman covered religion
for the newspaper but left to teach at the Columbia School of Journalism
more than a decade ago. Moore’s obituary had been sitting in the can for a
long, long time.
If Moore resisted the
ravages of time rather well, the same cannot be said for the religious and
social culture that produced him. New York City was once the intellectual
and organizational capital of a vigorous, high profile, mainline Protestant
establishment that has virtually evaporated.
In the postwar decades,
that establishment seemed firmly aligned with all of the leading forces in
American life. Three of the most significant Protestants denominations—the
Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ—were all
headquartered in Manhattan. The United Methodist Church’s massive mission
bureaucracy was also located there.
Seminary, headquarters of the then-reigning theological movement,
neo-Orthodoxy, stood head and shoulders above other American seminaries, its
faculty boasting men like Reinhold Niebuhr and Harry Emerson Fosdick, who
were genuine opinion leaders in American society. The then-vital and
well-funded National Council of Churches added measurably to the
gravitational pull of Manhattan.
influence in Manhattan was also bolstered by the presence and activity of
important foundations reflected mainline social goals, methods, and values:
Rockefeller, Luce, Ford, and others.
But since that heyday,
mainline Protestantism and its institutions in New York have been hollowed
out—declining farther and far faster than in most other parts of the nation.
For example, between
the 1950s and the 1990s, the total membership of the Episcopal Diocese of
New York dropped from more than 90,000 to fewer than 50,000, an Episcopal
historian reported in a recent scholarly volume on religion in New York.
“Most churches in the diocese, are, as one priest put it, ‘hanging on by
their fingernails,’” Robert Carle wrote in New York Glory:
Religions in the City.
The demographic decline
of many of the city’s old-line Protestant churches is startling. On June 28,
the Daily News’ Bell wrote a laudatory story on the retirement of an
influential Methodist pastor under the headline “A Jewel of a Church Loses a
Gem of a Pastor.” Bell called the Rev. James McGraw “one of New York’s
uncelebrated pulpit treasures,” noting that he had led the John Street
United Methodist Church in lower Manhattan’s financial district with
distinction for 11 years.
“John Street is a
sanctuary with deep roots and an illustrious past connecting it with the
American Revolution and nearly every political movement that followed,” Bell
pointed out. He also revealed that current total membership is “56, and most
Sundays attendance ranges between 35 and 45”—arguing, incredibly, that “the
numbers are not a big deal.” In fact, John Street and many other historic
and once-prominent New York mainline congregations survive only because of
their financial endowments.
The measure of the
fallen fortunes of the city’s mainline can best be taken in one small slice
of the Morningside Heights neighborhood on the Upper West Side. Ranging
between Broadway and the Hudson River are three related institutions that
once epitomized the power of the mainline in the city: Union Theological
Seminary, Riverside Church, and 475 Riverside Drive, a.k.a. the “God Box,” a
19-storied religious office building that once held the headquarters of the
United Presbyterian Church and United Church of Christ, and the expansive
offices of the National Council of Churches.
While maintaining a
share of genuine intellectual distinction (it has been the American
headquarters of liberation and feminist theology), Union Theological
Seminary has fallen into a sustained and profound financial crisis and
appears to be cutting itself into smaller and smaller pieces. Its troubles
also include a drastic decline in enrollment.
In January, Union
announced that it was leasing three of its campus buildings to neighboring
Columbia University and transferring its million-volume theological
library—probably the outstanding seminary library in the world—to Columbia.
covered a long debate—very lightly reported in the press—about how to make
the painful adjustment from an establishment titan to a panhandling prophet
that has willingly chosen to stand at the margins as a result of its
“Union has alienated a
lot of people in the church because of its strong stand of inclusiveness,”
the seminary’s president Joseph Hough told Chris Hedges of the New York
Times January 9. “This began with the opposition to the Vietnam War.
This was the breaking point, but it has continued as we have embraced the
concerns of women, gays and lesbians, minorities, and opened our doors to
other religious traditions.”
“The twin tasks of
keeping the seminary true to its inclusiveness and paying the bills is a
headache that dominates Dr. Hough’s life,” Hedges wrote. “He does so because
he wants to preserve a theological school where ‘we teach people that they
have to be willing to pay the price that comes with fighting for freedom and
Along the way, that’s
meant finding new revenue streams wherever possible—a good chunk of the
campus is now given over to the “Seminary’s Landmark Guest Rooms,” open to
all comers at $135 to $175 a night. A Lexis-Nexis search with the keywords
“Union Theological Seminary” is now more likely to produce accounts of
wedding receptions in the seminary’s neo-Gothic halls and obituaries of
accomplished but elderly alumni than news accounts of path-breaking
initiatives in theology or social action.
In recent years, rumors
have floated repeatedly around the academic world that Union is on the verge
of abandoning its course of study for the ministry—a monumental change, but
one that might allow it to preserve its endowment. (Union’s endowment was
reported to be $69 million in January. By contrast, Princeton Theological
Seminary, currently the strongest mainline seminary, has an endowment of
more than $700 million.)
remains convinced that the seminary’s prophetic stance is justified, despite
its high costs in worldly success. “There will come another time when the
dominant voices in this society are not exclusive,” Hough told Hedges. “And
when that time comes, Union will have educated those who will lead a new
church in a new American climate.”
The going has also been
rough next door at Riverside Church, which was built with Rockefeller money
in the 1920s to provide a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick, the scourge of
fundamentalism. Compared to Union, the 2,400-member church is stable. But it
is no longer the bastion of white, liberal Protestantism that flourished for
decades under Fosdick, or even under William Sloane Coffin, who led the
church from 1975 to 1985.
Now pastored by the
Rev. James Forbes, Riverside’s future is tied to a multicultural
Protestantism in which the African-American influence is dominant.
Riverside’s website celebrates the “Three I’s”—interdenominational,
interracial, and international. The ties that once bound Riverside to New
York’s Protestant social elite, and their money, are no longer in evidence.
The decline of public
Protestant power is perhaps starkest at 475 Riverside, which was dedicated
as the “Interchurch Center” by President Eisenhower in 1959. “The civil
rights movement for the churches was born in this building and was
headquartered in this building,” Rev. Joan Campbell, then general secretary
of the National Council of Churches (NCC), told David Henry of Newsday
in a 1994 article. “It’s a center of progressive religious thought.”
The Presbyterians moved
their headquarters to Louisville in 1990 and the United Church of Christ
left for Cleveland in 1992. The large though reduced staff of the United
Methodist General Board of Global Missions remains in the building, but the
NCC has dwindled dramatically and may not survive much longer. Major tenants
now include Columbia University and Alcoholics Anonymous.
headquarters fled New York at least partly because they could no longer
afford the city’s high costs, but New York itself has gone from an asset to
a liability. In the early 1990s, when the Methodists were debating moving
the Global Missions Board to Kansas City, an internal report (quoted by
Newsday’s Henry) confessed, “The New York City location compounds
the perception that [the staff] is theologically and philosophically remote
from the mainstream of the United Methodist Church.”
Church—and the rest of mainline Protestantism—is not dead in New York, but
it is a far weaker force and its resources are vastly diminished. It is no
longer, in Ari Goldman’s words, the home of “Astors, DuPonts, Morgans,
Vanderbilts, Mellons, and Roosevelts.” Its future rests more in the hands of
West Indian immigrants than in those of bankers’ sons like Paul Moore. But
that was probably all right with Moore.