Summer 2003, Vol. 6, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2003

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor
St. Francis to the Rescue

Keeping the Shi'ites Straight

Masses of Torts

The Trouble with Missionaries

Jihad for Journalists

The Smart Saga

Ghosts of New York

Santorum v. Sodomy

The Irreverent Eagle

The Latest Japanese Cult Panic

Israel's Tele-Rabbi

Letters to the Editor





Ghosts of New York
y Andrew Walsh







Like an old lion, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore commanded respect until the very end. When he roared, which was often, people paid attention.

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 who disagree.”

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 Angeles.

“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 Vietnam War.”

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.

For journalistic 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.

Union Theological 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.

Mainline Protestant 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.

The announcement 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 convictions.

“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 justice.’”

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.)

Union’s leadership 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.

The denominational 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.”

The Episcopal 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.



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