Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Summer Camp

Andrew Sullivan has blogged a couple of pieces under the heading "Exhuming Newman."  They are worth reading in their entirety here and here , not only out of academic interest but because of light they may shine onto current events.

The gist is that John Henry Newman, the famous convert first from Evangelicalism to Anglo-Catholicism, and then from Canterbury to Rome, was "an effeminate, delicate intellectual who had almost no real interaction with women at all and bonded mainly with younger men."  In short, what in crude boyhood we would have called a pansy

Of immediate interest is Newman's lifelong intimate friendship with the linguist Ambrose St. John -- a friendship so intimate that the two men arranged to be buried in the same grave.  (A reader observes that Robert Bellarmine had done something similar).  Sullivan is irritated by current plans to exhume and rebury Newman without St. John, a violation of the wishes expressed by both men, which he attributes to "the now pathologically homophobic Vatican."

Is is nothing new to observe that early Anglo-Catholic circles seem to have included a great many intense male friendships.  Nor is is only then, or only among Anglicans.  Setting aside purely theological concerns, we suspect that a great deal of emotional resistance to liturgical renewal has historically come from a perception that its proponents are insufficiently masculine.  (Come on.  Men in dresses with silk gowns funny hats?  How does that not sound gay, prima freakin' facie?)  This perception almost always goes unspoken, and must be teased out by historians, as for example by a close-reading of Kinglsey's attack on Newman, searching for buried codewords.

Now, in rush the qualifiers.  (1) Newman may have been, ahem, a pansy, but that does not mean that he was "gay" in the modern sense, much less "queer."  The evidence is strong that he was serious in his commitment to celibacy, and we are inclined to suspect that the only consummation he and St. John contemplated was a spiritual union beyond the grave.  The same is surely true of a great many lesser figures with similar characteristics. (2) Victorian same-sex friendships, as scholars have demonstrated over and over, often included a degree of physical and verbal intimacy that misleads modern readers -- if they had all been as gay as they sound, there would never have been any Edwardians.  (3) Then as now, we are only describing a minority even of the ultra-high-church crowd.  (Why, the Egg pressroom itself is as masculine a retreat as one can imagine, from the buffalo head mounted over the pipe rack to the college football regalia covering up some vintage Playboys.) 

But with all that said, let us acknowledge the underlying reality:  many of the best minds and most creative ministries in catholic-revival circles have always belonged to men who were not romantically  inclined toward women.  Some of them were celibate, others probably were not.  Nearly everybody has always known this, but -- what with good manners and  charitable assumptions -- it has always been a difficult and uncomfortable thing to talk about.

Some readers, especially the young and naive, may therefore find it remarkable that so much of the hostility toward equal treatment of gay people in Christianity has come from the high church types.  (Which it has -- among Lutherans, for example, this has created the truly strange alliance between the Society of the Holy Trinity and the WordAlone Network , organizations that in a rightly-ordered world would be devoted to mutual assured destruction.) Thus, the charge against Gene Robinson is being led not only by crypto-tyrants like Peter Akinola, but also by deeply closeted gay bishops, apparently including  Lindsay Unwin.  Look at the so-called "theocons," and then count the career bachelors.  If younger readers don't get this, it is because they no longer recognize the stereotypical "self-hating homosexual," who like his brother the "self-hating Jew," is en route to being forgotten, an image requiring a footnote for graduate students when they stumble over it in American literature of the 1950s.

What's up with that?  There is a lot to say on the subject.  At the most superficial level, catholic revival movements, by definition, have a strong conservative element.  They are all about repristination and the retrieval of lost traditions.  But of course, they also have a radical, counter-cultural element -- click the sidebar for info on Anglo-Catholic Socialism.  At the emotional and psychological level, just as the slave may begin to love his chains because they are all he knows, so too the repressed love their repression, the closeted their closet.   For many gay men of a certain generation, the closet is a warm and comfortable place, and they wish nothing more than to have theirs well-furnished with the likes of Ambrose St. John.  Women were bad enough, but nothing compared to the post-Stonewall gays and queers, who insist both on being here and having others get used to it.  They are a terrifying sign of the end times.

Our point is that the battle over the Church's treatment of gays, and especially gay clergy, is to some degree a battle between the elderly closet queens and the youngish queer activists.  And there are days when one is tempted to set conviction aside and just let them fight it out.

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