Sunday, July 06, 2008

Humour in Unlikely Places

I spent Thursday and Friday looking through issues of The United Church Observer -- the official publication of the largest Protestant denomination in Canada -- from the early 1970s. I am doing this to find whatever I can that talks about projects directly involving the interview participant who is the focus for the chapter I am currently writing, as well as to get a sense of the institutional mood of the church around issues of sexual and gender oppression in that era. An unexpected bonus has been that the Observer from that era is frequently (and unintentionally) quite funny, in a laughing-at-the-oppressor-while-seeing-it-as-a-prod-towards-humility kind of way.

A background source of amusement running through practically every issue was the juxtaposition of articles with radical politics that would be a challenge to most Canadians even today side-by-side with all manner of conservative curmudgeonliness, like grousing about young people today and their long hair and their rock-and-roll music and their lack of direction and oh whatever shall we do.

Then there was the the clash of liberal sexism and conservative sexism demonstrated in two issues from 1970. The first contained a cover story profiling a woman who was very active in the Church. The author contrasted her with the stereotypical grey-haired member of the United Church Women organization by emphasizing her youth, her energy, her innovative (though not feminist) ideas, her short skirts, and, repeatedly, her ability to fill them in a pleasing way. The way it was written you could practically hear the TV voiceover from that era...I kept imagining it in the voice of the narrator of the little propaganda film in the middle of the South Park movie. The next issue contained, predictably, letters from readers outraged at the shortness of this young woman's skirt -- called a 'miniskirt' in the day but relatively conservative by today's standards -- and the presence of a 'cover girl' on a church publication. One woman who wrote in actually said, in so many words, that the skirt and the choice to publish it was an invitation to rape and murder.

It was also amusing how this quintessential white anglo-Canadian institution reflected in its own ways certain characteristic tendencies of white Canada as a whole. For instance, the first full-length article on feminism I found in the Observer was in May of 1970. It was in most respects a great article, and it touched on theological sexism, described the Toronto women's movement sympathetically if not in great depth, emphasized the political diversity within the movement and the humanity of its participants, and gave lots of space for feminist women's voices. But when it came to institutional sexism by churches, the article followed the fine Canadian tradition of avoiding one's own complicity by focusing on someone else by pointing out the Catholic refusal to ordain women and smugly noting that the United Church had been doing so since the '30s. This tendency to focus on the sins of the RCs and the Anglicans reappeared in a number of the (relatively rare) pieces relating to feminism published in those years.

I also laughed at the editorial from August of 1975 which began with a preamble that was very sympathetic to feminist struggle, admonishing churchgoers that "The women's liberation movement must be taken seriously." It then acknowledged that a certain use of language in a past issue had definitely been sexist and would not be repeated, and welcomed future challenges around sexist language. But it ended off by insisting that "We will use man, mankind and other generic terms with the conviction they are not sexist."

But perhaps the funniest stuff was around the occasional mentions of homosexuality in those years. Though the United Church has taken some important steps more recently, in those years there had been very little consciousness yet raised in the institutional church around queer sexual identities and practices. For instance, on a few occasions, editorials solemnly declared marriage to be "bisexual." Alas, it was just a different usage of that particular word than we are used to today, not a splendid and radical challenge to reform a very troubling institution.

But the best/worst was an editorial in December 1971. It was, really, quite horrid. I can only imagine the pain it caused for queer ministers and congregants when they read it. It reluctantly conceded, in a way that emphasized that there was no way the authors could know this first-hand and clearly showed their doubt as to its veracity, that "Apparently there are homosexual relationships marked by integrity, fidelity, mutual forbearance and love." They then went on to declare that that really didn't matter, homosexual acts were still wrong. They claimed that "Acceptance as persons they [homosexuals] already have" and then went on to demonstrate this acceptance by saying that "We should recognize that the increase of homosexual activity is threatening. We believe to be a homosexual is tragic." But the kicker was this piece of liberal justification for anti-queer practices in the church:

It should be known that some of the world's most creative people were homosexuals. The sublimation of homosexuality has helped many persons to live rich productive lives. The Christian faith and community have contributed immeasurably to such sublimation.

Thanks to the Church's homophobia and heterosexism, we have scads more great art and literature than otherwise! Yay!


Red Jenny said...

Very interesting. I LOVE reading that kind of stuff. Probably why I'm an aspiring historian. How's your project coming, BTW. I haven't been keeping up on the blog rounds lately.

Scott said...

Hey Jenny!

The project is going ahead slowly but surely. I was working part-time from January to April, which cut into the progress more than I'd expected. But I'm pretty near done the chapter I'm working on at the moment (barring a short trip to an archive that is current closed indefinitely), and I have...hmmmm...don't remember if it is two or three to go after this. Still no publisher, which I'm becoming a bit more worried about again, but not much to be done at the moment but press on with the writing.

How's grad school going?

Scott said...

[Bizarre comment spam deleted between the comment just above and this one. SN]