Sergius & Bacchus – and Me
I first heard about these legendary gay saints over 5 years ago, shortly before I started attending the Soho LGBT Masses. I was astonished that there might have been such people as gay saints, and took careful note. Some time later, I was in the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral, and thought it might be an opportunity to do some simple research. I went into the Catholic bookshop outside the cathedral, and sought out a couple of comprehensive books of saints. One listed the two men and their story (without reference to their relationship) and their feast date. The other gave the dates, but included a disclaimer to the effect “Their cult was suppressed in 1969”.
This was the first point of uncertainty I found about them: their status as saints was unclear. Later I learnt that this was not unusual: until the consolidation of papal power in the 11c /12 century, saints were created by popular recognition, not by the formal process we know today. Sergius & Bacchus were not the only saints removed at the time: there was a wholesale clearout. Still, whether deliberate or not, this loss of recognition as saints seemed to symbolise for me how lesbian and gay lives have been written out of church history.
Some months later, I faced a period of extreme uncertainty and anxiety in my life. I had ended my first year teaching in the UK without having my contract renewed, or securing a new appointment. With my employment ended, so too was my work permit, and my legal right to remain in the country where I was convinced I needed to be. I initially stayed on here as long as I dared, continuing a fruitless search for fresh work, before facing the obvious fact that to avoid getting into permanent trouble with the UK immigration authorities, I would have no choice but to return to South Africa. I decided to do so, but then to attempt to secure a new placement from January and to begin all over again. So I began the process of wrapping up my life, selling or disposing of much of the possessions I had acquired over the previous 13 months.
What I did not get rid of, was books. With plenty of time on my hands, I had the opportunity to read, and to reread. One book that I started to reread, was John Boswell on Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, with his telling of the story of Sergius & Bacchus. I started wondering about their feast day, and looked it up: October 7th, exactly the day on which I was reading about them.
10 days later, after long weeks of attempting to find a new mathematics teaching post without securing so much as an interview, I suddenly had a call to attend an interview on the Friday of that week, the last school day before my flight out. I attended the interview and delivered a demonstration lesson at Wimbledon College, a Jesuit school. Before my train home even reached Waterloo station, I received a phone call offering me a post with the one school in the country that, with my interest in Ignatian spirituality, was the one school in the country where I most wanted to work.
I stuck to my original intention of going back to South Africa for the two months before Christmas and the start of the new employment in the New Year. While away, I was able to sort out the required work permit, and to spend very welcome time with family and old friends. I still had plenty of time, though, for reading, reflection, study and prayer. With the help of an excellent reading list suggested by a Jesuit friend, and copies of some of the books suggested, I spent a full week on a private silent retreat during which I began more extensive investigations of the Scriptural and theological basis for the traditional opposition to same gender relationships. I came out of this retreat clearer than ever in my mind that learning more about faith and sexuality was not just an interest, but something that at a deep level I really needed to do.
In telling the story of Sergius & Bacchus and their feast day, and that of how my employment difficulties ended so unexpectedly, I do not wish to claim any causal or supernatural connection. But for me, the simple fact of two extraordinary events so close together in time, has them firmly embedded in my memory. Taken together, they began a journey that continued and developed further, culminating with the launch of my blog “Queering the Church“.
The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition. Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.
Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints. For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous ‘worship’ of the saints; for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints: remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regions of Europe. There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people – creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships. (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with ‘sin’.) Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness. We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe. There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate. But we in the LGBT community remain excluded – or think we are. “How great it would be”, we think, if we too could have saints of our own. It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised ‘gay saints’ in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these. Is it realistic to think of these as ‘gay saints’? Is it helpful? I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably “No”, at least not as narrowly defined. But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, “Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly.” The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic. For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem. Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as ‘gay’. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there. So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined? I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria: agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay. Nevertheless, I don’t think this is important. It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised. The “communion of saints” includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese ‘gay’. (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered ‘heterosexual’). By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many ‘gay saints’ that have gone before us, and many who still live among us. This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation – but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history. It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed ‘gay saints’.
Who are the “saints”?
The first problem lies with the familiar word “saint”. We popularly assume that it refers to people who have been formally honoured after death by a process of canonization in recognition of their obvious holiness, but this was not always so. For the first millenium, half of church history, there was no formal process. Saints were honoured by popular acclaim. Many of our best known and best loved saints from the early centuries of the church have never been canonized – there was no need for formal process of canonization.
While the intention behind the introduction of a formal process may have been simply to introduce some order and rationality, in practice the system has been wide open to abuse. The lengthy processes involved make it expensive, while the benefits accruing from a successful cause (for example, to a religious order founded by the new saint, or to the tourist industry at his home region) leave it open to manipulation by lobbyists. Leaving the process firmly in the hands of Vatican bureaucrats also guarantees rapid advancement for the theologically orthodox and Vatican insiders – such as popes – while placing major barriers to approval for those outside the establishment, such as gay men or lesbians, and Protestant Christians. The same factor has resulted in what may well be retrospective censorship of some of the early saints, such as Sergius and Bacchus, who were once honoured, but whose stories have become an embarrassment to late orthodoxy.
These considerations demand that any serious discussion of LGBT saints move beyond those officially recognised by the Vatican, to include others who have been so recognized by popular acclaim, especially by the LGBT community itself, and those from the Protestant churches.
Who are the “gay or lesbian” saints?
Modern sexual terminology is similarly unrealistic when considering the saints. First, they are modern terms, often not applicable even to contemporary societies outside of North America and Europe, and also of limited value to people of the classical and medieval worlds, where concepts and standards of sexual behaviour were so very different to those of the modern West. They are particularly inappropriate when dealing with clergy or other men and women professed to a religious life of celibacy. Does it make any sense to think of John Henry Newman, for instance, as “gay”, when although clearly of an effeminate and homophile disposition, it is generally accepted that he had no sexual activity with this beloved John Ambrose?
The problem is even greater for the significant body of trans people in church history. Although there are a number of them, it is misleading to think of them in quite the same way as modern trans people. Although the effect may be the same, with people of one biological sex living and dressing in accordance with the opposite gender, the motivations may have been entirely different – for some of the early cross-dressing saints, the motivation may have been simply an opportunistic desire for a monastic life that would otherwise have been denied them, or to evade an unwanted marriage forced on them by parents.
This has led me to avoid entirely the terminology “gay”, “lesbian” or “trans” when writing about saints, and instead to insist on “queer” – by which I mean simply people who may be thought of, for one reason or another, as falling outside the conventional framework of heterosexuality and gender conformity. (This also opens the door to consideration of some notable women, who cannot be classified as lesbian or trans, but who significantly defied the gendered expectations imposed on them by a patriarchal world).
Who are the martyrs?
The usual understanding of “martyrs” is of those who have been persecuted and killed for their Christian faith, for which the blood they have shed stands as witness. The example of Joan of Arc reminds us though, that martyrs have been killed not only for the church, but by the church. In the centuries that followed, thousands of others were martyred by the church, either on the dubious grounds of heresy or sodomy, or both. When the church stopped initiating or encouraging these executions, civil authority continued on the pretext that they were acting in accordance with divine will.
Over the last century or so, most countries have ended the judicial execution of their sexual minorities, but individuals within them have continued to murder gay men, lesbians, and (especially) transmen and women, again on the pretext of defending religion. Discussion of queer “martyrs” should include collectively all those who have been killed specifically for their sexual or gender identity, even where they are not necessarily saintly in any conventional sense. It is neither feasible nor appropriate to record every single one of them individually, but some will deserve particular attention, for the manner in which their deaths have come to symbolize the persecution in modern times. Just as St Sebastian, after the first attempted execution, returned to the emperor to berate him for his wickedness, the ghosts of Matthew Shepard, Angie Zapato and Tyler Clements permanently reproach the society which allows hate -fuelled violence against sexual or gender minorities to continue, and the churches that turn a blind eye to this hate (while vociferously denouncing our loves).
The Modern Martyrs.
The churches no longer exact or encourage physical execution of modern queers, but the Catholic churches and other denominations have a record of imposing a figurative, professional martyrdom on its LGBT clergy and aspirants. They have done this by excluding gay men and women from from ministry, or by insisting that they may be admitted only if they remain celibate and single, or by preventing them from writing and publishing honestly about theology from an LGBT perspective.
Like Sebastian, some of these, such as John McNeill, Chris Glaser, and Janie Spahr did not respond to this modern version of martyrdom simply by accepting it. Instead, they have continued to speak truth to power, confronting the church authorities, and exercising alternative ministry to queer Christians outside of formally approved structures.
The conventional thinking about saints is that we honour those that have died – but these modern martyrs, very much alive, also deserve honour and recognition.
What of the non-saints?
As I have explored the history of sexual minorities in the Christian church, I have been conscious of the prominent place of many men who have had sex with men, or who have sheltered those who did, or who patronised homoerotic artists – but who nevertheless achieved high office in the church, as abbots, bishops, cardinals and even popes.
These are not people that I particularly want to honour in any way, but they do need to be recorded and noted, for the clear way in which they contradict the modern claims that the church has always and necessarily condemned homoerotic relationships.
We are all saints.
While we usually think of the saints of the church as those that have been formally recognized, in fact in orthodox theology they are only the most visible examples. It is accepted that there are very many more saints than these. We are all called to sainthood.
And so, having begun my exploration of gay saints some years ago with an orthodox but narrow understanding of the term, I have now expanded my definition to an also orthodox, but broader understanding, which also incorporates those still living.
I now intend my title for this blog, “Queer Saints and Martyrs”, to represent not a literal listing of formally approved saints, nor of those who have died and since been recognized by popular acclaim by the LGBT community, but as a figurative description for all of us. I intend to explore here, all those people in church history, ancient and modern, whose stories have something to say about the place of queer people, in faith.
These will include also the well-known and obscure conventional saints, like Sergius and Bacchus, Galla and Benedicta, and John Henry Newman, that I already been covering. I will expand these to consider also some figures from Protestant history that (not being Catholic) are not usually considered “saints”, but are also deserving of honour. I will continue to cover the history of persecution of its own people by the church, and the martyrs they have created, directly and indirectly.
And I will pay considerable attention to the extraordinary story of the queer clergy who, by their courage in facing up to the authorities of the institutional churches, have led the way in forging for us all an expanding place of welcome in church.
October is LGBT history month. As a contribution to LGBT History, I will begin my expanded focus by re-posting from Queering the Church a series of profiles of some modern “LGBT Icons – in Faith”, to complement the existing stories of the recognized saints – and will thereafter continue to add more.
What of the non-saints?
Up to now, at this site I have been working within the framework described above – saints, recognized either by canonization ….
Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.
The Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include into their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships as well as the books of the prophets who were eunuchs.
The Christian Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality which may have included some male love interest. However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example , which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds.
After the Gospels, the most important Christian writings are the letters of Paul, who has a reputation as strongly condemning same sex behaviour – but a more careful consideration of his life as well as his letters, in their own context, can offer a different perspective.
The cultural context of the early was one where they were political and even social outcasts, in a society of a bewildering range of attitudes to sexuality, ranging from substantial sexual licence for Roman citizens, to negligible freedom of sexual choice for slaves, to sexual abstemiousness for those influenced by Greek stoicism. The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of martyred Roman soldiers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions), cross-dressing monks.
In addition to the examples of individuals who were honoured as saints, there are also important examples from Church practice. Evidence from archaeology and written records shows clearly that from the late Roman period onwards, the Church made liturgical provision for the recognition of same sex couples. From Macedonia, there is extensive evidence of Christian same sex couples who were buried in shared graves. More telling evidence for church recognition of same sex couples comes from the existence of formal liturgical rites for blessing their unions. In the Eastern Church, these rites (known as “adelphopoeisis”) date from the late Roman period. In the Western Church, where the evidence begins a little later, they were known as making of “sworn brothers”.
The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.
This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.
By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections.
It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops.
However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy. Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.
Symbolically, the great change can be seen as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc – martyred not for the Church, but by the Church, for reasons that combined charges of heresy with her cross-dressing. A combination of charges of heresy and “sodomy” were also the pretext for the persecution and trials of the Knights Templar – masking the naked greed of the secular and clerical powers which profited thereby. The same confusion of “sodomy” and heresy led to an expansion of the persecution from the Templars to wider group, and also the expansion of the methods and geographic extent, culminating in the executions of thousands of alleged “sodomites” across many regions of Europe. This persecution was initially encouraged or conducted by the Inquisition, later by secular authorities alone – but conducted according to what the church had taught them was a religious justification. Even today, the belief that religion justifies homophobic violence is often given as a motivation by the perpetrators – and the fires that burned the sodomites of the fifteenth century had a tragic echo in the gay holocaust of the second world war.
Yet even at the height of the persecution, there was the paradox of a succession of popes, who either had well-documented relationships with boys or men, or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture. This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally.
The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century). From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods. In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.
In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.
Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members. However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity, refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.
Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.
November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognized and canonized saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For queers in Church, it is especially a day for us to remember our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church – and that we, too, are called to martyrdom, in its literal sense: to bear witness, in our lives, to our truth.
Epilogue: All Saints