Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Out of silence: gay Anglo-Catholics

This is part 2 of my discussion of Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch. You can find a further definition of Nicodemism in the first part.

Some gay Anglicans have adopted Aelred of Rievaulx.
MacCulloch explains in the introduction that he brings a biographical advantage to his subject of silences in Christianity:
Through my historical career, I have been keenly aware of the importance of silence in human affairs, for a good biographical reason: from an early age, I was conscious of being gay,... In the Britain of half a century ago, gay teenagers were keenly aware of what could not be said; of when to be silent and of how to convey messages in other ways. In much of the rest to the world, depressingly, those skills are still necessary. ... This life-experience has left me alert to the ambiguities and multiple meanings of texts, and to the ambiguities and multiple meanings in the behavior of people around me.
In particular, he devotes a small subsection of this fascinating book to what he labels "a Nicodemite homosexual sub-culture within High Church Anglicanism or Anglo-Catholicism."
It has been a voice within the Anglo-Catholic movement which ... is simultaneously audible to those with ears to hear, and not heard by others. ... Gay male Anglo-Catholicism (traditionally lesbians have seldom been shown hospitality) is a perfect example of Christian Nicodemism ...
These men had considerable intellectual and spiritual influence within the Church of England. How this came about and what it meant in practice is fascinating:
...the modern Western Enlightenment form [of homosexuality], centring on same-sex relationships between equals, is first detectable from the 1690s, with the Netherlands and England pioneering what became a more general phenomenon. ... nevertheless, a homosexual subculture could not immediately find a home in the eighteenth century within the Protestant Church of England. Gay activity associated with English churchmen was of the variety which still sells the Sunday tabloids ...

The change came with the Oxford Movement [in the mid-nineteenth century]. ...they sought a new identity for the Church of England, although of course, in their eyes, their campaign was the rediscovery of an old identity. They aimed to make the Church 'Catholic' in far closer approximation to the Church of Rome than would have been tolerated by earlier High Churchpeople in England, Ireland and Scotland, who generally still gloried in the name of Protestant.

... It is indeed that very emphasis on clerical celibacy which is key to understanding why homosexual men gravitated to Anglo-Catholicism as promptly as they did. [Anglo-Catholics founded learned seminaries.] ...The result was a professionally trained clergy: Victorian England's only profession in which, thanks to the Anglo-Catholics, lifelong abstention from marriage did not cause too much raising of eyebrows. Anglican priesthood was a safe haven for those who found that abstention personally congenial....

... the early clergy of the Oxford Movement were commonly rebels by temperament, conscious that they were overturning the complacent certainties to their day. They were as a consequence likely to be powerful, charismatic personalities, who attracted admirers to their churches and the doctrine which they preached. Another borrowing from Rome which they introduced to the Church of England was individual auricular confession. That caused terrible fears for the moral welfare of young ladies in many a Victorian paterfamilias, but it is likely that the silence of the confessional was much more significant in building up some sort of self-awareness in confused homosexual males, as they talked through their personal confusions to those whom they trusted, in the secure knowledge that what they said would not be repeated, and felt their isolation evaporate in the presence of the like-minded.
These men created a party within the Church of England which stood for liturgical forms that they claimed derived from the early church. They were highly educated. Many worked in churches in the slums -- possibly because more conventional bishops were unwilling to have them in respectable, visible churches. There were even Christian socialists among them. Some, including their early leader John Henry Newman, defected to the Roman Church, but those who stayed retained considerable stature.

They could be très gai. In the early years of the twentieth century, the novelist Compton MacKenzie satirized an Anglo-Catholic environment in his novel Sinister Street according to MacCulloch.
Mackenzie portrays what amounts to a pick-up of the teenage hero Michael at Solemn Evensong by a slightly older bank-clerk called Prout, closely followed by Michael's initiation as a processional torch-bearer into the exotic world of the Anglo-Catholic sacristy: "The sacristy was crowded with boys in scarlet cassocks and slippers and zuchettos, quarrelling about their cotas and arguing about their heights. Everybody had a favorite banner which he wanted to escort and, to complicate matters still farther, everybody had a favorite companion by whose side he wished to walk."

... Anglo-Catholicism was fun, hospitable to extrovert mischief in its ritual, and generally full of delight at the annoyance that it caused bishops by its extravagant borrowings from Roman Catholic ritual. Clerical studies and drawing rooms frequently resounded with howls of laughter at the latest expression of episcopal or archidiaconal outrage.

Not all was laughter. ... Gay Anglo-Catholic clergy, pledged by their vocation to preach truth and integrity, constantly faced the debilitating necessity of compromising their integrity by concealing a major part of the truth about themselves. It was the same cruelty of concealment that crypto-Jews had faced in medieval Spain. It is a structural affliction for an Nicodemites ...
When Rome opened up somewhat to modernity in the Second Vatican Council and a gay liberation movement that included lesbians seized public space in the 1960s and after, Anglo-Catholic Nicodemites found themselves at sea. MacCulloch quotes an observer who concluded that their world had become a cul-de-sac of "gin, lace, and backbiting." Many went off to become celibate Roman Catholic priests, while the modern Church of England fumbled haltingly toward creating women bishops. MacCulloch notes
After a century and a half, as the various parties within Anglicanism realigned and struggled over how to relate to a reconfigured sexual landscape, a Nicodemite Christian sub-culture had outlived its usefulness within the Church of England. Its obsolescence has left a great deal to confused noise in its wake.
Yes it has. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- having harbored for two centuries a party of closeted gay men, English Anglicans have had a far more troubled path toward full inclusion of people from all the parts of the sexual spectrum than the U.S. branch of the Anglican sheepfold, the Episcopal Church.

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