Monday, April 6, 2009

Nassau, Bahamas 24.5.1993: Flying Priests and African Deacons

Mel, the prior, an Irishman, took us to the casino to gamble last night. En route he talked re: the missionary activities of the monks. Each weekend 4 or 5 of them fly to the outlying islands of Exuma, Eleuthera, San Salvador, etc., to celebrate liturgy. Some fly in the monastery’s private plane (Bro. Barry Gearman, pilot), others on the Bahamian airline.

Steve asked Mel if this is relaxing. He said no, quite strenuous, because there’s a Saturday evening Mass, then there are Sunday ones, and there’s often the need to pick up or carry people here and there.

What strikes me is the ecclesiological underpinning—the underpinning of ecclesiological assumptions—on which all this depends. Why should a church assume the necessity of a community of North American missionaries (themselves kept viable by infusions from St. John’s) to wear themselves out traveling all over the vicinity on weekends celebrating the liturgy, when surely there would be someone in the local churches (i.e., at the parish level) capable of doing so?

This is a church stuck permanently in the missionary phase, unable to indigenize, not so much because of a dearth of talent (“native vocations”), as because the ecclesiology mandated from/by Rome cannot conceive of empowering local churches via the ordination of those called in the church, but not susceptible to formation in the traditional seminary pattern.

In this sense, then, the problems of the missionary church are also those of long-established churches, such as that of the U.S. These problems have perhaps been thought about more acutely in the missionary setting (e.g., by Vincent Donovan), probably because the disparity, the injustice of “denying” ordination to “natives,” is so glaring here. But they are our problems, too, in the sense that we can’t see how graced married men, openly and actively gay men in committed relationships, and women are—called, gifted for a church that is unable, or better, unwilling, to avail itself of their talents.

So much is staked on a system of seminary formation, and a particular historical view of ministry, that has outlived its usefulness. And so much is so invested, because the church wants power to be centralized, “orderly,” ultimately, in imperial mode.

+ + + + +

At Mass yesterday, I was struck by how African (as opposed to African American) some of the people—especially a deacon—looked. This led me to think about parallels between the aspirations of gay and black people to liberation.

I’m convinced that there’s more to be thought about here, particularly from the standpoint of one who lived through the Civil Rights struggle in the South. Perhaps because blacks did not often hear what we said entre nous behind closed doors, they fail to see the evident connections they often repudiate and deny today.

To wit. Jonathan Z. Smith says somewhere that the otherness which most perplexes and troubles us is that which is closest to us—the otherness of one who’s like us in obvious ways, but radically different in other ways.

I believe that this has much to do with why Southerners resisted integration in the 50s and 60s. What I recall being said again and again in those years was that a) we would betray our ancestors if we gave in to civil rights demands and b) nothing would ever be the same again. All would be different.

I think that the latter objection was by far the prevailing source of opposition. Among white Southerners there was a sense that, once one allowed the color line (v. W.E.D. Dubois) to be transgressed, a radical revolution would occur in Southern culture. Of course this would be an economic and class revolution. But it would be, above all, a cultural one. One could not calculate the consequences of letting the despised and inferiorized Other in, where s/he had been barred before.

And an Other that troubled us greatly because this Other was so like us. S/he was human, ate, breathed, slept, nurtured our children, cooked our meals, made love with us, cleaned our houses, tended our gardens. We had known the humanity of this Other for some 350 years. This Other human differed physically from us in only the most inconsequential ways, when all was said and done—in skin color, hair texture, physiognomy.

But these differences were a cipher, a shorthand, for other cultural differences we fancied (both rightly and hysterically) to be more enormous. And it was those differences we most feared: integrate the schools, and the race will be mongrelized; delicate blond white girls will be consumed by the voracious sexual appetite of black boys; the toilets will transmit venereal diseases; our youth will learn to cuss; we’ll have to call Beulah Mrs. Jameson.

In what we said—my aunt Pauline, Christmas, 1957: “I’ll be a segregationist till I die, because Daddy was; but if I were colored, I’d be out there in the front lines marching for my rights”—we revealed how much this Otherness was, essentially, the Otherness of one like us. And we revealed this in what we did not say, in the subtext, the words beneath the words. An otherness that, because it was human otherness, could not fail to affect us, but because it was the Otherness of ones who were also very different, would change us radically.

So it is today with societal resistance to gay people.

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