Thursday, February 11, 2016

Diarmaid MacCulloch on Historians, Silence, and Sexual Orientation: "As a Gay Child and Teenager, I Also Effortlessly Developed . . . An Observer Status"

A few days ago, I made some connections between Diarmaid MacCulloch's book Silence: A Christian History (NY: Penguin, 2013), which I had just finished reading, and the silencing of abuse survivor Peter Saunders by the Vatican abuse commission, which has expelled him for speaking out about the inaction of Pope Francis vis-a-vis clerical abuse of minors and its cover-up. An interesting theme of Silence, and of MacCulloch's work as an historian in general, is how his growing up gay (and the son of an Anglican parson) informs his work as an historian.

As MacCulloch unambiguously informed Ralph Jones of the New Humanist last year, the Anglican church has rejected him because he's openly gay and unapologetic about this. He was trained to follow in his father's footsteps as a parson, but after the church ordained him a deacon knowing he had a boyfriend, it refused to ordain him to the priesthood — a refusal that MacCulloch views (rightly, I think) as a repudiation of him as an openly, unapologetically gay man by the Anglican church.

But the church's loss has been the academy's (and our) gain. MacCulloch attributes his keen historical insight quite precisely to the fact that he grew up gay and the son of an Anglican parson, and learned early on to look behind the flat, illusionary and uncomplicated surface of what is taken for granted as "reality" by others. As he tells Freddy Gray in a Spectator interview in 2013, when Gray asks him whether being gay make him a better historian,

'Immensely, immensely,' says Diarmaid MacCulloch. 'From a young age, four or five onwards, I began to realise that the world was not as it pretends to be, there are lots of other things there. You learn how to listen to what is being half-said or implied, and that’s a transferable skill.'

And then he glosses the observation when Gray asks him whether he's really saying that the historian has license to read anything she wants into the silences of historical records:

'Yes, but you need to see that silence is never silence,' replies MacCulloch. 'There’s no such thing as a vacuum in this created world. You can hear what is in silence if you shut your ears and try to listen above it.'

MacCulloch opens his book Silence with an extended meditation on these themes: he writes, 

All 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, and that proved to be a great blessing for a young historian. 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 of the world, depressingly, those skills are still necessary. I was lucky to be able to face up to this challenge early on, was able to live life as I wished, and have enjoyed life much more as a result, but 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. I have become attuned to listening to silence and to finding within it the keys to understanding many situations, far beyond anything to do with sexuality. Particularly in the still half-hidden structures of gay sociability, there are all sorts of means of disclosure and concealment, ways of encoding meaning and subverting the mainstream assumptions of society. As a gay child and teenager, I also effortlessly developed the historian's other essential quality, a sense of distance: an observer status in the rituals constructed for a heterosexual society in a world which in reality was not quite like that. I did not need the jargon of post-modernism to teach me elementary survival strategies in this world of mirrors, just what Chesterton would have called common sense (p. 3).

I'm struck, in particular, by MacCulloch's observation that, as a gay child and teenager, he effortlessly developed the historian's essential quality of acquiring a sense of distance from the "realities" others (with more privilege and automatic entrée) take for granted: "an observer status in the rituals constructed for a heterosexual society in a world which in reality was not quite like that." What he says here resonates with me as someone who grew up in a very different part of the world, in a very different church tradition, but sharing MacCulloch's experience of becoming that observant child consigned to the sidelines by my sense (and that of others) that I was "different" — a sense that elicited in me, as it did for MacCulloch, the awareness that things are frequently not as they seem in the world taken for granted by those for whom the path is easier, that silence is often pregnant with unspoken meaning, that what's defined as up is actually often down, and vice versa — something one realizes if one looks and listens closely.

Kevin Sessums articulates the experience of many of us who grew up sissies (or tomboys) in the heavily evangelical Christian culture of the of the American South:

That’s what most sissies do when we are children: We sit apart and listen (Mississippi Sissy [NY: Saint Martin's, 2007], unpaginated preface). 

We sit apart and listen, and we see and hear a great deal that others, who enjoy more protection in a world we've discovered is perilous for folks like us, miss, because they don't need to pay as much attention. In our academic lives, we're frequently drawn, as Jung noted decades ago, to the field of history, because we see in the past a rich complexity that more protected (and, thus, simple-minded) folks have flattened out with their "official" histories that rob the historical record of its manifold twists, turns, ambiguities, fascinating unrealized possibilities. 

And we point to those twists, turns, ambiguities, and fascinating unrealized possibilities to remind those who construct the flattened-out official histories of things as they are and are meant to be that, since things were not as many of us choose to imagine they were in the past, the present, too, may well be more complicated than the guardians of official meaning prefer to think. And riper with possibilities, as well . . . .

The photograph of the front cover of Silence is from its page at

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