Secular Urban Sophisticate Seeks Religious ‘Other’

Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father, by Minna Proctor. Viking, 288 pages, $25.95.

Minna Proctor’s father was a Midwestern intellectual, a professor of music living a modest rural life, when he decided to become an Episcopal priest. An interesting enough premise for Ms. Proctor’s brief memoir, a book filled with as much middle-brow theology as personal revelation – but it gets better. The elder Proctor, alas, flunked one of the early stages of the priest-screening and preparation process, called “discernment,” because he struck the evaluating committee as overly intellectual and not quite nice enough to be a priest.

To better understand her father, and perhaps to defend and console him, Ms. Proctor began to dig into the Episcopal Church’s priest-making machinery. She hoped to figure out what the Church wants of its priests, and what her father might have been missing. The project sent her in two directions: back to her childhood – she was raised Jewish after her parents divorced and her father left home – and into the library, where a number of big-idea books by popular theologians helped her to understand her father’s yearnings.

As her memoir reveals, her father makes less of all this than she does. He sees no hidden messages, no windows into the spiritual heart, and no keys to his own or his daughter’s past in his decision to become a priest; he merely wants to help poor and rural churches. His daughter suggests angles and revisions for renewed attempts to secure a pulpit. But this Midwestern professor is not quite what he seems. Born in New York and raised on the immigrant streets, he’s more comfortable with conflict than his daughter seems to be. His position on the church’s “discernment committee” is simplicity itself: “Fuck them,” he tells his daughter. He seems to be already on the way to other paths of service; his daughter, meanwhile, is still polishing her book proposal.

Ms. Proctor is a good enough journalist to capture her own limitations as a character in the drama: She comes across as too self-involved to be anyone else’s effective champion. Her father, obviously honest and well motivated, has heroic impulses but doesn’t actually do anything in this book – other than serve as his daughter’s foil. All well and good, though it does leave the reader feeling a bit frustrated, because some important things almost happen in this book.

Ms. Proctor makes some fine attempts to untie the knot of faith, starting as a secular young Jew, a New York media professional no less, flabbergasted by her father’s turn to the priesthood. By her father’s design, she reports, “I was raised without God. An educated secularist, I’m left with a voyeur’s romanticized vision of faith, a tourist’s flirtation with ritual.”

Her father had in fact been headed for the priesthood when young, but dropped out of seminary fed up with its pettiness and created a secular household with his unreligious Jewish wife. Soon enough, though, he faded from that household, later blaming the spirit of the times for the sins that sunk his marriage. “I was influenced by that insanely stupid and laughable seventies society,” he tells his daughter. What, exactly, did the elder Proctor do wrong in those wild days? We never learn, though tantalizing hints go some distance to liven up long passages of second-hand theology and tales of Ms. Proctor’s visits with anti-nuclear nuns, brotherly fathers and fatherly brothers, her journey in search of the soul of the modern church.

It’s a search worth some effort, and Do You Hear What I Hear? is worth reading, if only for its glimpses into the good hearts of professional clerics making a difference in people’s lives. These are not hard-right Christians by any means. The Episcopal Church remains one of the more liberal denominations, allowing women as priests, allowing priests to marry, and embracing a host of social missions that range mostly from center to left.

Ms. Proctor approaches a more profound vision here as well – a look into the heart of the religious Other on behalf of secular urban sophisticates. If this vision is partly unfulfilled by the book’s end, the Episcopal Church might get some blame for not being nearly Other enough, as, say, any of the Evangelical denominations might be. The elder Proctor might get some blame too, because he’s still so much the academic, so much the rebel and so much the New Yorker that he’s ready to blow off the church too quickly, before his daughter and her readers have had time to enjoy their own struggles with the Episcopal hierarchy and the faith it seeks to support.

Religious passion is, after all, the force that has brought the wretched into some sense of grace throughout human history. It’s the force that has torn apart families and nations only to recreate them in new shapes. Ms. Proctor works hard to capture some distillation of that passion, but accomplishes only a series of clear gestures in passion’s general direction. Perhaps this is because a modern memoir is inadequate to the task of containing such a force. Or perhaps it’s because Minna Proctor remains distant from that passion, wholly unconverted, just as her father seems to have held himself back from that final surrender to faith. Both souls have not met the comfort they have sought, but the reader is better off for their struggles.

Peter Temes, president of the Antioch New England Graduate School, is the author of The Just War (Ivan R. Dee).

Secular Urban Sophisticate Seeks Religious ‘Other’