The Robbie Low Interview
Fr David Moyer
Perhaps I have led a very sheltered life but, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met a defrocked clergyman. Well not until this October anyway when I was introduced to Fr David Moyer.
What, I had begun to wonder, could anybody possibly do to get defrocked in the Anglican Church these days? In my experience the authorities usually turned a blind eye to 'inappropriate' sexual misdemeanours or simply moved the priest if exposure loomed. If the clergyman was unable to affirm the Creed, he was more likely to be made a bishop than run out of town. Moyer must have done something quite spectacular to achieve his bête-noire status in the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. Indeed he had.
Moyer's ‘sin’, it turned out, was much more serious than infidelity or atheism. He had refused to welcome the bishop of his diocese to his parish unless the bishop, a well-known heterodox, affirmed the Creed and acknowledged scriptural authority in the area of human sexual relations. The bishop, one Charles Bennison, being unable to give assent to this very basis of his episcopacy in the apostolic order, declared war.
So it was that Fr David Moyer came to the Forward in Faith National Assembly in October. There, in a humble, godly and moving address, he spoke to the priests and lay representatives of the people of these islands who stand exactly where he does. They know that all that is between them and Moyer's position is the Act of Synod and that what happens Stateside rapidly and, seemingly, inevitably infects the whole white Western part of the Anglican Communion.
When Moyer stood down from the podium, it was, unsurprisingly, to a standing ovation. Some of the more radical clergy, at the Assembly communion, wrote to Bishop Bennison to ask to be added to his blacklist of clergy who have, celebrated with or received from Fr Moyer.
But how did all this come about? And how did Moyer, a model of priestly rectitude and quiet decency, find himself in the eye of the storm? I got an opportunity to hear his story over tea just before the Assembly began.
We met in the Carlton Club (the Conservative Olympus), where Moyer and his wife, Rita, were staying. (Moyer's own local club in America has a reciprocal arrangement and he was amused and surprised to find himself at what was once the heart of a certain kind of English political life). The Carlton is warm and welcoming with an air of shabby gentility and comfortable family sitting room feel to it, yet surrounded by spectacular reminders of its history and influence. The party, in every sense, may have moved on from here even if it seems to have no clear idea of where it is going.
The staff very kindly arranged a private room and some tea and, while Moyer sorted out his pipe and tobacco, I asked him,
Where did you begin?
'Somerville, New Jersey. My father was a schoolteacher and my mother a housewife. I had two older sisters, so I was the baby of the family.'
'Cradle Episcopalian – broad church. I was very influenced by the Rector of the church I attended while at High School. As acolytes at the early Mass I observed our priest on his knees always by 7.30am and the seriousness of his prayer and focus on God. You couldn't help knowing that something important was going on!’
What were you good at in school?
'I was a good all-round student with no particular speciality or passion and went off to college to read Sociology!’
Any signs of vocation?
'When I was 17 I began to experience it, but put it on the back burner. It returned powerfully when I was a senior in college. A great influence there was Fr Jenkins, an older priest who had come over from England in the 1940s. He was a lovely parish priest and he and his wife became a model for Rita and me.'
Moyer had met Rita when he was 21 and she was 19. They now have three grown-up children, in their twenties, and he describes Rita as "an active grandmother". When I finally meet Rita, after tea, I am amazed how young and beautiful grandmothers are these days.
Where did you train?
'Seabury Western Theological Seminary, Chicago 1973–76. It was a difficult time and we almost left because of the turmoil there. Drunkenness, wife swapping, moral chaos. The 1970s were visiting the Church and the degree of cynicism there was profoundly unsettling.'
The Sixties and Seventies spawned a profound rot in the Western Church. The fruit of moral revisionism in the Roman Catholic Church's seminaries is a desperate homosexual crisis. For Anglicans, less publicly, there is the same issue coupled with widespread marital infidelity.
Where did you serve?
'There was a great shortage of priests in the maritime provinces so we went to Newfoundland to serve my title. It was good experience but I missed the USA and we came back for second post to the Ascension, Staten Island, New York and were there seven years. After that we were at St John's, Ogdensburg, Albany, New York for another five years. Finally, in 1989, we arrived at Good Shepherd, Rosemont in Pennsylvania.'
What sort of church is Good Shepherd?
'Catholic, affluent mainly, mixed race and age. We have everybody from the bag lady to the banker. It's a very educated congregation – 27 PhDs and a Pullitzer Prize winner. But they want the Gospel. It's a wonderful parish with a strong history. Evangelical Catholic – not precious. I love it.'
The Good Shepherd has always been on the front line of the war for the soul of ECUSA. Fr George Rutler was the single protester at the illegal 1974 ordinations and in 1976 tried to take Good Shepherd out of ECUSA. They would not go and Rutler became a Roman Catholic. Father Andrew Meach battled on for seven years and then Father Geoffrey Steenson only survived two and a half years after refusing a previous heterodox Bishop entry to the parish.
How important has stability been?
'Once I passed the seven-year point the parish seemed to relax and grow. "It's OK, Daddy's going to stay with us" probably sums it up.'
How did the present troubles start?
'Slowly. In 1989 Bishop Bartlett instituted me. He had been a co–consecrator of Barbara Harris, so he was expressing his wide tolerance. However in 1994 Bartlett ordained a practising homosexual. I protested at the ordination and nine parishes declared that, as a result, they could no longer welcome Bartlett as he had stepped outside the faith of the Church. In response Bartlett granted us Donald Parsons, retired bishop of Quincy, for three years with the possibility of renewal. This unofficial flying bishop arrangement worked well.
‘By 1997 Bartlett was coming up to retirement and Charles Bennison had been elected as Co-adjutor. Bartlett didn't renew the arrangement before stepping down, but we were confident Bennison would, as he had made a pre-election promise to do so. In the event Bennison reneged on his promise and demanded sole access to the parishes.'
Naively the nine parishes had supported Bennison's candidacy because of his promise to keep the Parsons Plan. They had not done their homework. Bennison had never been a popular man and, in his previous post, was felt by not a few to be divisive and somewhat dictatorial.
'Five parishes surrendered. Four resisted him as a false teacher. One rector went to Rome, one parish dissociated from the diocese and is in court as we speak. One went to the American Mission and Good Shepherd remains in ECUSA. Bennison sent a pastoral direction (Godly admonition) obliging us to accept his visitation and I wrote asking him not to come. Mercifully, he backed off.'
The dispute rumbled on. Bennison refused to affirm the virgin conception and bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ or to acknowledge marriage as the only proper place for sexual intimacy. Then in 1999 the dispute cranked up a gear. There was a huge Confirmation service at Good Shepherd. It was conducted by the Archbishop of the Congo and, from South America, Bishop Maurice Sinclair – an act of astonishing solidarity across diocesan and provincial boundaries. It was no accident that it came in the wake of the shameful apostasy of much of the American hierarchy post Lambeth Conference 98. It was at that moment, as Bishop Ed McBurney remarked, 'Bennison put Moyer in the cross hairs.’
What precipitated the crisis?
‘Relations continued to deteriorate and Bennison refused to take "no" for an answer. Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury tried to persuade the Presiding Bishop, Griswold, to set up flying bishops. The Forward in Faith America assembly produced the names of seven potential candidates. These were then whittled down to two – mine was one of them.
Bennison says this was the trigger for him to act. He asked for full background checks on me and accused me of wanting to break the structures. We met for four hours in February this year and got nowhere. I was then summoned before the Diocesan standing committee on the 27th February. After I had spoken, they voted to inhibit me from the 4th March – a decision faxed to me on 1st March.'
Inhibition means that a man cannot function as a priest. Moyer could be restored by submission to Bennison or, after six months, be defrocked by him.
What did you do?
'I celebrated and preached at Good Shepherd, told my people and asked for their prayers and stepped back.'
For the full six months Moyer remained in the pews, ran the office and taught Bible study – everything else was off limits. His assistant clergy ran the parish. At the end of the period of inhibition Bennison had not affirmed the Christian faith and Moyer had not bowed the knee to false teaching. On September 5th Moyer was formally deposed – again by fax!
What happened then?
'A whirlwind of activity. I was received into the province of Central Africa by Archbishop Bernard Malango and transferred to the Diocese of Pittsburgh under Bishop Duncan who invited me to celebrate Mass in the cathedral while he served as an acolyte.
Meanwhile Forward in Faith had written to Archbishop Carey and he had opened the English Province to me as a priest in good standing. His successor confirmed that he would continue that policy.'
Twenty three active and retired ECUSA bishops have backed the Bishop of Pittsburgh. Bishop Duncan is not with us on women priests but, like a number of bishops on both sides of the Atlantic, is increasingly disturbed by where the revisionists are leading the Church.
'The 20 page deposition may be acted upon. Bennison can file a civil lawsuit for parish property and claim that I am a trespasser. I have 60 days to operate without a licence and then he may insist on me leaving. I will not go until the sheriff is sent in. Meanwhile I have filed counter suits against Bennison, so we must wait and see.'
How have your family coped?
'We have had peace in the Lord about it all. We've been soaked in prayer from around the world. Every morning I been before the Blessed Sacrament at 6 o'clock and I have no fear or foreboding. My children have been angry at the Bishop and the Church situation. "How can they do this to Dad – he's a good priest?" etc. But read Acts – "They were persecuted for righteousness sake." We have never sought this conflict. The issue is "false teaching" and that endangers salvation.'
It is a privilege to be with Moyer. He is such a relaxed, straight guy – no side, just interested in the Gospel. Why do the present hierarchy hate godly priests so much? How many children in traditionalist homes have had to conclude that, if the treatment of their parents is anything to go by, the chief pastors are really ravening wolves.
During Moyer's deposition Bennison held four two hour meetings with parishioners. As the overwhelming majority signed a petition supporting Moyer, these meetings were never going to be large. The initial attendance to hear the bishop’s case was 45. The final meeting was nine. One parishioner said to Bennison, "If David Moyer goes, you will have a Church with half-a-dozen people." Bennison reportedly replied, "We've weighed that ."
The sad truth of heterodoxy is that they would rather have empty churches than ones pastored by orthodox priests and, in many places, they are well on the way to achieving that tragic ambition.
Meanwhile the search for a solution goes on. Archbishop Carey went out of his way to invite Moyer and Rita to Lambeth to see if a settlement was possible and his kindness was much appreciated.
Bennison has upset Griswold by provoking a politically unproductive and wholly unnecessary crisis. (It provoked Carey's warnings about sexual licence at the Oxford conference of Evangelicals.) For here was Bennison publicly sacking a priest he had himself described as, ‘faithful, gifted and devout ‘!
One of Carey's last acts in office was to write to Bennison, who had angrily complained about Carey's opening the English Province to Moyer. Carey wrote, 'The path you chose is the path you must now walk. No one will be bound to the blind acceptance of your judgment of deposition.’
The difficulty for orthodox in this country is that, much as they appreciate Carey's efforts, they also know that he has been largely responsible for importing the American revisionist crisis into the Church of England. There are a large number of bishops, appointed during his time, who bear a remarkable doctrinal resemblance to Charles Bennison and not a few who, while eschewing public unpleasantness, share his single-minded desire to remove orthodoxy and its priests from the parishes where it dares to prosper.
As we go to press the Diocese of Pennsylvania speaks darkly of the standing committee beginning the legal proceedings listed above. More than that we do not know. Nor do Fr Moyer and his family until, probably, he receives the next 'pastoral' fax.
Keep them in your prayers.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the Diocese of St Alban’s.
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