Harvard Religion: Gone Are the Halcyon Days

As a student at the Divinity School in 1965, Peter J. Gomes's first encounter with a Memorial Church service was hardly auspicious. "I knew I had arrived at Harvard," he said. "I didn't understand a word of what was going on." Now as acting minister to the University, he is in charge of this institution whose rationale has since come under close scrutiny.

Attendance at Memorial Church has dropped from the halcyon days of the fifties, when Sunday services drew crowds of 1000, triple their present attendance. Morning prayers, a tradition as old as the University, today attract 35 to 40 hardy souls--a far cry from the days when student attendance was compulsory.

But more basic to the current dilemna of Memorial Church is the anomaly of an established Protestant church (with strong Unitarian/Congregational leanings) in a community that has become increasingly otherwise. "I don't know what they believe in," Gomes said of the typical undergraduates at Harvard, "but whatever it is they don't do it here."

When Charles P. Price resigned last November as University minister, he recommended the formation of a committee to consider the future of a University church. That committee, headed by Krister Stendahl, dean of the Faculty of Divinity, will probably not submit its report before May, and a committee to find a permanent replacement for Price probably will not begin work until July.

Gomes, who was assistant minister under Price, is a prime candidate for the permanent position. As acting head of Memorial Church in the interim, Gomes has gained a considerable following among diverse church regulars.

During his Divinity School years, Gomes first glimpsed the possibility of ministry to Harvard College--and rejected it. In 1965, one possible area for divinity student field work was freshman counselling. "But we all said, 'Go over to those man-eating atheists? Forget it,'" Gomes recalled. "It's hard to believe, but we Divinity students were really intimidated by a bunch of pubescent Harvard freshmen."

FROM THE DEPTHS of senior crisis over what to do after graduation, Gomes answered a Time Magazine ad announcing that positions were open at Tuskegee Institute. "I got a letter, practically by return mail, saying they wanted to talk about a relationship," Gomes recalled. "Not too long afterwards, he was appointed Dean of Freshman and director of Freshman Studies at Tuskegee.

For a black from Plymouth, two years at Tuskegee was an experience in consciousness-raising. "I had never been in the South--I had never been out of New England," Gomes said. "My people looked upon themselves as a black version of Yankee, with all of the vices and some of the virtues.

At Tuskegee, Gomes found "a social microcosm by and for black folks," and the contrasts with home were striking.

"Growing up in New England we believed that if only integration would come every day would be Sunday," Gomes said. Instead, school desegregation in Alabama meant cutting out state aid to private black colleges.

Financial contrasts were not the only ones. "The most satisfying experience was the students," Gomes said. "Contrast the wealthiness of Harvard and the wastage of resources and intellectual wattages here versus the people at Tuskegee, who would have been written off anywhere else. One of the few things that restored my faith in process education was their tremendous determination."

Despite the uplift, Gomes returned to Harvard in the fall of 1970 at Price's invitation. "The one thing I wanted to do and couldn't do at Tuskegee," he said, "was to preach and teach as a minister, [Price's offer] was an opportunity to be identified as a Christian minister and live out that opportunity."

But since Price's resignation, the chores of administration have become a more important part of Gomes's job. "As an assistant your life is very clear and set," he said. "No matter who comes in you can always say to him, 'This isn't my decision.'"

Part of his job as acting minister is counselling--formally, for freshman, and informally, for anyone who drops in. "I do take the ombudsman role on this one," Gomes said. "The church is another source of advice, relatively non-threatening and certainly non-clinical--both of which are in vogue now."

MANY MEMORIAL CHURCH goers find Gomes decidedly traditionalist in comparison to his predecessor. "In comparison to Price, Gomes's theology is much more fundamental," said Stanley A. Gacek '74, a regular at services. "If you asked him a question, Price would always give a much more relativist view. If you asked him, for example, 'Does God exist?' his answer would be something like 'It depends on the individual's belief.' Gomes's answer would depend more on the Gospel."

"If you compare him with Price," said Marc A. Pembroke '74, a member of Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship and a fundamentalist Christian, "I think Gomes is much more strongly dedicated to preaching the Gospel without equivocation. Price made an effort to teach a view that didn't demand committment to Jesus and the truth of the Gospel."

In recent years, many have seen Memorial Church as a place for easygoing Christianity, among them Paul C. Stone '74, head usher at the church. Stone says that he has not seen any change in atmosphere under Gomes. "The church is a sort of halfway station--a place for those not really committed to any particular kind of Christianity. There are plenty of places in Boston for those who have decided.

"I see plenty of Roman Catholic and Jewish students in church every week. They're there because they like the service, they're not offended by it, and they're comfortable there. I think a definitely Christian' community would be a mistake.

"Memorial Church serves as a place to spend some enjoyable time in a worshipful atmosphere without being forced to feel too committed," Stone said.

Although Memorial Church goers differ on the Church's purpose and on Gomes's role in relation to that purpose, there seems to be general approval of his sermons and direction of worship. "He's a very good preacher," Stone said, "He's broad enough in theology to attract people without being wishy-washy."

"He's giving the message of Christianity in a way it can be heard by this community in an otherwise hostile and alien environment," said Eric M. Wilson '74, a member of the Christian Fellowship.

GOMES HIMSELF BELIEVES that any changes in Memorial Church in recent years have been a result of the times more than of the ministers themselves.

In the early fifties, when a religious revival swept the country, Memorial Church was utilized as never before. Harvard installed a new President, Nathan Pusey, who was committed to traditional Christianity. Also during this period, the words "Under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. "It happened when I was in high school," Gomes noted. "I remember that it broke up the rhythm of the words completely."

Price entered the job in 1963, at the tail end of that era in the midst of volatile social forces which his ministry reflected. Vietnam, for example, was a constant theme of his sermons.

Gomes sees himself faced with a period of revived interest in Jesus as an individual, without a renewed interest in Christianity. Unlike the fifties, according to Gomes, this movement is not a "revival of Christian faith, piety and devotion, or interest in the church." Gomes refuses to judge this "charismatic movement" yet; "There's not enough in on this business to say anything," he commented. In its historical context, the movement is the subject of a Lowell House seminar Gomes is conducting this semester, entitled "Images of Jesus in Western Culture."

IN DISCUSSING THE FUTURE of Memorial Church, Gomes defers to the Stendahl committee for general conclusions. Nonetheless, he has strong opinions about what the church should not be. "[As University minister] you tend to think of yourself as one more employee," he said, "and the church as one more service provided for the amusement and entertainment of students"--an opinion of religion that Gomes emphatically rejects.

He also rejects the idea of the Church as social reformer. "It is not necessarily the principal role of the church or the preacher to be the social gadfly, the relevancy gadfly. Such a view means you get caught up in being very trendy--"with it"--at limited points in time," Gomes said. "There is a longer view which the church and its ministers ought to have--one that doesn't derive its legitimacy from its passions."

Instead, Gomes prefers to view his role in light of what he sees as the traditional purpose of the church at Harvard. "This church is the one ongoing link with the founders of this University," he said. "It was designed to inculcate Godliness and piety--virtues which ring strange to our ears, but which were animating virtues of the founders of Harvard."

The application of these virtues was easier when Harvard was a religiously monolithic community. But in a community of pluralism, secularity, and ethical humanism a minister must tread cautiously, Gomes observed.

"I have several groups of clients," he said. "First the professed Christians, next those who come in for counselling, and thirdly, other religious communities to whom you can be hospitable and with whom you work to a limited degree."

One manifestation of the new pluralism is Memorial Church's relation to Jewish students on campus. Gone are the days in which two Jews couldn't have been married in Memorial Church--come are the days when they very possibly wouldn't want to.

"I am conscious of the rising feeling of Jewishness here and the desire of not being sucked in as a Waspish Jew," Gomes said. "Their presence in the University can't be reconciled by saying 'We're glad to have you here so nice of you to come if there's anything I can do please let me know.'" The large Jewish segment of the Harvard community is yet another aspect of what Gomes calls the "creative tension" around Memorial Church today.

"What indeed is the proper role of this anachronism? The question has not been asked since Harvard lost its last clerical president," Gomes said. "Regarding the church, we cannot take the attitude that what always is always will be."

But indeed, what should the role of Memorial Church be? "Come back next year to find out," Gomes replied with a smile.