Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Story of the "Queer Saints and Martyrs": Taking Shape

Ever since I began writing for the Queer Church, one of the key themes I have been exploring has been that of the place of LGBT men and women in Christian history – recognized and unrecognised saints, martyrs for the church, some who have  been martyred by the church directly or indirectly, and those who have achieved remarkable high office in the church, as popes, bishops or abbots in spite of clear homoerotic interests and activities.

As I have explored individuals and notable groups, I have been seeing the outline of a narrative thread underlying them, which I have been using to draw them together into what I hope will become a book for publication. The outline for the book I have previously published, as a synopsis, and as a reflection of the feast of All (Gay) Saints. I have now expanded this synopsis one level, which I will be posting in instalments over the coming week, under six main divisions. For a preview of these posts and the work in progress, follow the links to my  “Queer Saints and Martyrs” pages here at Queering the Church, and from them to the detailed posts on individuals and groups at my satellite site, “Queer Saints and Martyrs – and others”.

Prologue: Before Christianity

Same sex relationships in other religions, in the stories of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and in the Gospels (before the disciples of Christ came to be known as “Christians”)

The Early Christians: Saints and Martyrs for the Church

From both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, a wide range of men (and fewer women). These include pairs of lovers, martyrs for the church, bishops who wrote homoerotic verse, and cross-dressing women.

Christian Homoeroticism in the Middle Ages: Saints and Others

Boswell has been criticized by more recent academics for his assertion that the Middle Ages represented a great flowering of a gay sub-culture. However, even if he overstated his case and the term “gay” for this period is subject to misinterpretation, there is no doubt that there were numerous recognized saints and other senior clergy who freely used homoerotic imagery in their spiritual writing, and  others who are notable for achieving high office as popes or bishops, in spite of well-known erotic relationships with men.

The prevalence of such relationships among the clergy prompted the most important of the calls for strong penalties against “sodomy”, by Alain de Lille and St Peter Damian in particular. For a long time though, these calls were rejected by the leaders of the Church.

The Great Persecution: Martyred by the Church

The figure of Saint Joan is of central importance to queer Christians, as a cross-dressing queer saint who was first martyred by the church, and later canonized.  As the Middle  Ages passed into the Early Renaissance, many thousands more alleged sodomites were tried and condemned to death by the church, either directly by the Inquisition or by secular authorities at its instigation.

Ecclesiastical involvement in these trials later gave way to purely secular proceedings, but the initial pseudo-religious motivation for declaring same-sex love a capital offence remained an important factor in the retention of the death penalty in many European countries right up to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and for the export of state-sanctioned persecution by the colonial powers to societies which had previously tolerated or even celebrated sexual minorities.

As secular authorities relaxed or withdrew criminal sanctions though, religious authorities applied a form of figurative martyrdom to gay or lesbian identified people in the church, attempting to censor the writing of theologians who dissented from the orthodox prohibitions, or excluding from ministry those who were seen to be gay or lesbian.

Modern Saints, Modern Martyrs.

In the early church, it was said that the growth of the faith was fed by the blood of the martyrs. Much the same thing appeared to be happening at the close of the twentieth century and start of the twenty first. “Martyr” means one who gives witness, and the witness of the LGBT identified men and women who refused to be silenced by the Church authorities has inspired many more. Over the last few decades there has been a great flowering of writing on faith and spirituality from a queer perspective, and of explicitly queer ministry.

Epilogue: All Saints, and the Call to Witness

“Sainthood” in Christian theology is not simply a matter of those few who have been formally recognised and canonized by the Catholic Church, but is a state to which we are all called.

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Modern Heroes: Bernard Lynch

I have serious reservations about any plan to out all gay Catholic priests, as described on the website of Church Outing I firmly support the principle of outing those who actively campaign against us, but particularly bishops, senior clergy, and individual priests who clearly ally themselves with the church’s public stance. However, for the rest, we should remember that we do not what individual priests are saying to people where it matters, in private. Silence need not mean consent: it can also indicated passive resistance. Recognising also the immense personal cost that can be involved for individual priests to come out, I prefer take the opposite route. Rather than naming and embarrassing those who would prefer to remain private, I would like to pay tribute to the great courage and honesty of those few who have indeed come out.

 

I would like to begin by introducing you to the London priest for Bernard Lynch, who was one of the founders of the Soho Masses 10 years ago, and who rather conveniently for me, unintentionally outed himself on national television on Saturday night. (Conveniently for me, because I can now write about this with full confidecne that I am not giving anything away. As he said to me after Mass last night, it can’t get him into any more trouble with the diocese than he is already in.) Now when I say he outed himself, I do not mean outed as a gay man, or even as a gay priest. No, he did that many years ago. Nor by “unintentionally” do I imply that he would prefer to remain private. No, he regularly introduces himself and his status fully and frankly. However, it was totally unintentional, as he had no idea the cameras and mic were running. This is how I chanced to see it.

My partner Raymond and I were at home on Saturday evening watching a BBC documentary on the English playwright Allan Bennett. (Raymond is a huge Bennett fan). One sequence showed Bennett as a guest of honour at the opening of new premises for a north London health centre. After the speechifying, there were background shots of the assembled crowds – and suddenly I saw Bernard in the centre of my screen. Briefly, he found himself introducing himself to the playwright, with the words, “I’m a gay man… and married”. Then, just before the camera moved on, he added, “and a Catholic priest.” Fr Bernard Lynch, introduced to the viewers as not just gay, not just a gay priest, but gay and legally married to his husband Billy.

Bernard’s honesty though has come at great personal cost. Years ago, while working in New York, he came under intense pressure as an openly gay priest, doing extensive pastoral work among people with AIDS, even facing prosecution for alleged improper behaviour with boys in the school where he was chaplain – allegations which were clearly shown to have been without foundation, and may well have been fabricated with malicious intent. (how ironic is that, when so many genuine abusers identified by the bishops have never faced criminal charges, and have simply been transferred or placed on “administrative leave”?)

Now based in London, Fr Bernard has a fraught and tense relationship with the local diocesan authorities, who refuse to grant him faculties to say Mass in a Catholic church. He does however, have the support of his order, and so is able to pursue a priestly ministry in private, especially as a spiritual director and psychotherapist.

Although I was living on the wrong side of London for it to be really viable, I did see Fr Bernard myself for a while for some direction, which I always found enriching and deeply thought-provoking. He had one key question which he asked on every occasion: “Where have you found joy? For joy is the unfailing sign of the Holy Spirit”. This observation I always found useful and enlightening then – and still do now.

Thank you, Fr Bernard Lynch.

St John of the Cross: 14th December

John of the Cross is important for queer Catholics, especially gay men, for two reasons. First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunize ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality. Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.

From the Calendar of LGBT Saints:

1542-1591

St. John of the Cross was one of the great Spanish mystics, whose outstanding Dark Night of the Soul is still read by all interested in Catholic mysticism. He also wrote a series of intense religious canticles. St. John, like other mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila, used the language of courtly love to describe his relationship with Christ. He also discussed, with rare candor, the sexual stimulation of prayer, the fact that mystics experience sexual arousal during prayer. With the male Christ of course, this amounts to a homoeroticism of prayer. It must be said that St. John was not entirely happy with this aspect of prayer. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared a Doctor of Church Universal by Pius XI in 1926

Quoted at The Wild Reed:

(from ) On a Dark Night

……..

……..
“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

See also:

Homoerotic Spirituality

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

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Saints Polyeuct and Nearchus, Jan 9th

The story of the Roman soldiers Sergius and Bacchus is well known. Polyeuct and Nearchos were similar. They too were also Roman soldiers, martyred because of their Christian faith, and in love with each other. Metaphrastes described them as one soul in two bodies, joined by boundless love. Polyeuct converted to Christianity because Nearchos was going to be executed for being Christian. Polyeuct wanted to be executed with him so that their souls would be united forever in the kingdom of heaven.

There names were paired together by early Christians as a same-sex couple, and invoked as such in the “adelphopoiia” ceremonies, recently discussed by historian John Boswell as indicating a Christian tradition of exclusive and publicly recognized same-sex unions. St. Polyeuctus had a huge church, modeled after the Temple of Solomon, built in his name in 6th century Constantinople.



Select bibliography
Boswell, John, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
O.Neill, Denis, Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People

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