Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Peter Gomes, R.I.P.

During our years in seminary, it was the custom to invite foreigners -- meaning speakers from outside the seminary cloister -- to deliver commencement addresses. One of these was the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.

Gomes, a Baptist minister, was a well-known figure, not least for being a Republican at Harvard. And not a "Republican-in-name-only," either; Gomes gave the benediction at Reagan's second inauguration, and preached at George H.W. Bush's.

He was just the sort of person our seminary liked to invite: intelligent, ecumenical, conservative.

The invitation was sent and accepted shortly prior to an incident of gay-bashing on the Harvard campus. In response to the incident, Gomes publicly declared that he was "a Christian who happens as well to be gay." The declaration caused a stir, and we expect that Gomes lost a great many friends. And what of his invitation? We remember quite a bit of heated discussion on campus at the time.

Here is how Gomes described it, in a 1999 speech in London:

About nine years ago Tom [Gillespie, then the president] invited me to give the Commencement address at Princeton Seminary and I happily accepted; and between the acceptance of the gracious invitation and the time that I was to appear at Princeton, I created a spot of bother, I guess one would say, and gained my fifteen minutes of notoriety on a subject that has seemingly obsessed the Presbyterians for many years. So, not wanting to embarrass Tom, and not wanting myself to be embarrassed, I called him and told him that I thought that, considering everything, I should withdraw from the obligation and we would call it a draw. I was aided in that decision by a letter from several Christian students from Princeton who, in the name of the gospel, asked me not to come because my presence would be divisive.

Who was I to divide the Presbyterians? So I prepared not to go. Well, Tom Gillespie, praise God, would not hear of it. He said, "You were invited and you must come, and I promise you a warm-hearted and faultless reception here at Princeton," even though our views -- he didn't say this, but I understood it -- on the subject of sexuality are not only different but pretty widely publicized.

So I girded up my loins and made my way to Princeton Junction, and found my way to the Chapel. As you know, Princeton Chapel is an enormous parking garage of a place, and thousands and thousands of people were there, and there was that slight undercurrent that you know so well -- nothing explicitly stated but you could feel that there was a little something going on. It was just as Tom had said, however, with everything very nice and pleasant.

Then came the moment when I was to preach, and up I went into the enormous pulpit -- it takes half an hour to get into that pulpit -- and there was a hushed moment of expectation. I said to them, "I want to commend you at Princeton for your courage, I want to commend you for your hospitality; you have done a brave and good thing in inviting me, an out and open and affirming and practicing Baptist, to speak to you on this occasion."

It all sounds very jolly. On the other hand, during the last years of our education, the seminary decided that it would no longer invite foreigners to deliver the commencement address. Perhaps there is no connection.

During the years since he came out, which proved to be the last of his life, Gomes changed course. From the Times obit:

I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he told The Washington Post months later. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”

He was true to his word. His sermons and lectures, always well attended, were packed in Cambridge and around the country as he embarked on a campaign to rebut literal and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.

To his credit, Gomes managed to do this while retaining his donnish public persona. There were some changes of association, to be sure. In 2006, he joined the Democratic Party. But so far as he was able, Gomes tried to remain Gomes -- the black Yankee scholar of New England Puritanism, politically engaged, now just a bit more frank about his own life and commitments.

His death, at the comparatively early age of 68, comes as a shock to us, and leaves a curious hole in the constellation of American religious leaders.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"How many choir directors and organists are you (i.e. Black churches) going to bury before you do more than light a candle?"
--AIDS sufferer talking to black churches about why he went to a mostly white church.