An appreciation of Peter Gomes

In a recent appreication of Peter Gomes, William J. Willimon tells an anecdote with implications for ecclesiology:

One Sunday, as Peter say in the vestry and prepared for the morning service, a student usher entered and stammered, “There’s somebody preaching here this morning.”

Peter replied, “Of course, me.”

“I mean there’s somebody preaching in the pulpit. Now. Is that OK?”

“What?” Peter thrust his head into the sanctuary. Aghast, he saw an African-American woman in the pulpit ranting at the docile congregations, screaming over the organ prelude. Indignantly, Peter bustled over to her and hissed through gritted teeth. “You, come down here this instant. Yes, you.”

The intruder stared down at Peter.

“This instant!” he sneered.

Startled, she came down the steps and informed Peter that she had been commissioned to preach that day a word direct from the Lord.

“Look you,” said Peter, in love, “this is my pulpit. I have earned the right to preach in this place. No one is going to deliver any word from the Lord today except for the Reverend Doctor Peter J. Gomes. Now you go sit down on that pew and keep your mouth shut or I will call the campus police after I wring your head off.”

Peter reported that the woman sat there through the service — silent, with a beatific smile upon her face.

“As the prelude ended, I looked with scorn upon my congregation,” Peter confessed. “White, guilt-ridden liberals all, they would have sat there all morning, doing nothing while that woman continued her drivel unabated. They should thank God that their pastor is not some intellectual wimp.”

— “Harvard’s preacher” by William J. Willimon, The Christian Century, 5 April 2011, p. 11.

Would that all religious liberal congregations treated their pulpits with as much respect as Gomes treated the pulpit of Memorial Church.

7 thoughts on “An appreciation of Peter Gomes”

  1. are you saying that you think boundaries are acceptable in religious community? oh you rebel, you!

  2. I wonder if she came back to add diversity to his congregation of white, guilt ridden liberals.

    He was protective of his pulpit but he may not have been on the side of love in his interaction with her. In fact, his threatened violence could have led to a charge of assault.

    I think the Peace and Justice committee should have investigated.


  3. This story doesn’t sit right with me, but I can’t put my finger on why. He’s not explicitly saying he has “The Word” and she doesn’t, but the whole “sit down and shut up” mentality seems antithetical to UUism. He could have used the incident as a learning experience for the congregation, and for her. Also, the racial components aren’t necessary to explain what’s going on here. It’s extremely common for people of all kinds to sit by and passively watch while bad things happen – it comes from the diffusion of responsibility that is evident in large groups (SOMEONE should do SOMETHING). The more people around, the less likely anyone is to act, whether it’s to stop a woman from speaking when she shouldn’t, or to stop a woman from getting raped and killed (like with Kitty Genovese, the incident that started research into such phenomena). Basically, this seems like a swell example of the bystander effect to me.

    Also, she was railing on about docile congregations. Ironic, then, that the very criticism the Reverend had was that his congregation was too docile to stop her. I think this woman did have something meaningful to say. Maybe God did send her. He could have used this as a springboard to teach how to overcome the bystander effect. How to get past that “SOMEBODY will stop this, to “I WILL stop this.” But all the Reverend did was turn her into a docile congregation member along with the rest of them. Doesn’t sound like a win to me.

  4. Hm. The things you UUs debate is of serious interest to me, a lapsed UU, out here in the — how do you white guilt-ridden liberals call it? — the flyover Zone? We got lotsa self-proclaimed preacher types like that out here, many of whom actually have their *own* pulpits. And by golly they would tell you that God sent them to spread the Word from the church of the open door and the holy gospel.

    Which of course creates an entirely different phenomenon. The bystanders are members of the congregation now. And they listen and heed the word. No one is yanking anyone off the pulpit for them. Any teaching going on is what Paulo Friere called the banking effect: one preacher making deposits in many heads at once.

    Oh, but the good thing? If you want to go to the grocery store when it’s quiet, go on Sunday mornings. Everyone else is busy. Elsewhere.

  5. Angie, what I dislike about what he did is how rudely he did it. There’s no reason to address another person by “look, you.”

    That’s ALL that bothers me. He is not saying, nor is the writer, that we should sit down and shut up as a general principle. That would be antithetical to UUism (and I’m pleased to say the people of my congregation demonstrate that regularly). He’s saying we should sit down and shut up when someone is preaching. The day people stop doing that in my church is the day they choose themselves another preacher (though I wouldn’t mind a few “amens” and “hallelujahs”).

    Likewise, if word got out that they would sit quietly for anyone who thought they had a message to deliver, the line of crackpots would go out the door and down the street. (And it would move very slowly. My experience of crackpots is that their messages are typically well over the regulation 20 minutes.)

    I like your point about training a congregation to be less docile and I think, based on his glare at his congregation, that he would have agreed. In the circumstances, the right thing for him to do was not say “Aren’t you people going to do something?” but to do it himself.

  6. Angie and Amy — Perhaps part of what’s going on here is a cultural difference: Memorial Church was and is an East Coast urban church. In East Coast urban settings, sometimes you have to be rude just to get people’s attention; this is why Bostonians are the way they are: basically nice people, but direct and brusque. In my time in an East Coast urban church, sometimes on a Sunday morning we had to deal with addicts, thieves, people with untreated mental illness, and (once) a level 3 registered sex offender (I’m not mentioning the homeless people, for they were mostly nice, except when they were addicts) — these were people who were not going to take a polite “no” for an answer, and we sometimes had to be direct and brusque. Not that anyone tried to get into the pulpit there — but then, the congregation would not have let that happen, and they and I wouldn’t have hesitated to say “look you” to get someone’s attention. Indeed, I myself have been ruder than that upon rare occasion.

    However, I’m less interested in the specifics than in the general principle that underlies this anecdote: viz., to maintain a free pulpit you have to set boundaries around who gets to speak from that pulpit — this is what Amy’s getting at. Thus “freedom” in this context does not mean that anyone at all gets to speak from the pulpit; it means that a congregation bound together by covenant has made intentional decisions about who gets to speak. Persons who are outside that covenant must accept the responsibilities and strictures of that covenant before they get to have the rights that go with the covenant.

    Jean @ 4 — As you say, what you’re describing is a completely different situation. The preachers which you describe probably aren’t within the tradition of covenanted congregations; they probably come from branches of the evangelical and/or Pentecostal traditions wherein God is assumed to speak directly to individuals, and where there isn’t a strong sense that that direct communication needs to be held within a community. That can certainly lead to more exciting and variegated preaching; though I would probably join you in the grocery store rather than have to listen to such drivel.

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