Bishop Mary Glasspool
Bishop Mary Glasspool has now been consecrated as a bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles, making her the second openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church. (There could soon be another Episcopal gay bishop. Rev Michael Barlowe is one of four candidates for a vacancy in Utah). Some sources are describing her as the second gay bishop in history” – but that would be pushing it, and is breathtaking in its cultural myopia. So, for context and a refresher once again of how deeply homoerotic relationships have been embedded in the Christian church, I offer some reminders.
Mary Glasspool is the first openly lesbian bishop in the Episcopal church, but not the first globally: that would be Bishop Eva Brunne, consecrated by the Swedish Lutherans last year.
Bishop Gene Robinson was the first modern bishop in the Anglican communion to be consecrated while openly gay, but there have been others before him who came out openly after being named bishop – for example, Otis Charles, also of Utah, Derek Rawcliffe of Glasgow and Galloway in the Scottish Episcopalian church, and Mervyn Castle of False Bay (part of the Archdiocese of Cape Town in the Anglican, “Church of the Province of South Africa”).
In the days of the early church, Bishop Paulinus of Nola not only had a boyfriend, he commemorated his love in some frankly erotic love poetry. Bishop Venantius Fortunatus was another. Both of these men are canonized saints. Bishop Arno of Salzburg may not have written erotic verse, but he received some, from Saint Alcuin of Tours. (He also had a relationship with Paulinus, as did Alcuin, in some kind of clerical threesome). Bishop Marbod of Rennes (11th century) also wrote erotic verse to a boyfriend, but was not canonized. Other early bishops also had male lovers, but because they are not remembered as saints, and have not left memorable erotic verse, we do not know their details.
We do know about the ordination of one openly gay bishop, John of Orleans, in the eleventh century, at the instigation of his lover Ralph, the Archbishop of Tours, because of the scandal it caused. This scandal was not because John was both gay and famously promiscuous, but because of his youth and Ralph’s obvious nepotism. How many other openly gay bishops were consecrated at that time without the same scandal, we just don’t know.
Clouding the issue of “gay” bishops is one of terminology, especially against a background of monastic celibacy. There are strong grounds for describing another recognised saint, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, as “gay”, even if celibate, on the basis of his writing and passionate love letters to his monastic “friends”. He should definitely be remembered as a protector of gays, for rejecting a decision by the London synod to impose harsh penalties for homosexual actions.
Then are the succession of gay popes: Julius II, Julius III, Paul II, and possibly John XII (r. 955-964), Benedict IX (r. 1033-1045; 1047-1048), John XXII (r. 1316-34), Paul II (r. 1464-1471), Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Julius II (r. 1503-1513) and Leo X (r. 1513-1521) (See Jesse’s Journal at Gay Today).
In the modern Catholic Church , there have been no openly gay bishops or popes, but there have certainly been many in the closet. There are credible claims that that Paul VI may have had his share of boyfriends, at least before becoming pope, and similar suggestions that the “Smiling Pope“, John Paul I, may have been gay. And on Wiki Answers, there is a claim that Pope Benedict himself is gay.
Then there are certainly hundreds of closeted gay bishops in the Catholic Church. The late Cardinal Spellman of New York was notorious in his day. Allegations have been made against Cardinal Wuerl of Washington and others who surround themselves with obviously gay fan clubs – while publicly attacking LGBT equality.
I accept that hard as it is to be openly gay as a Catholic priest, it will be obviously that much harder as a bishop. But I do wish journalists, who undoubtedly have the required evidence, would be less reticent about outing those gay bishops who are publicly hostile. If it is too much to hope that we in the Catholic Church can expect any time soon to see bishops coming out publicly to join their Episcopal and Lutheran counterparts, perhaps the threat of involuntary outing could at least dampen their public hostility to civil rights advances.
And, for some historical notes on outing Anglican bishops in the UK, read Peter Tatchell on Media Mendacity
Read some of these letters in Boswell, or read then on-line at Rictor Norton’s Best Beloved brother, extracts from his book: My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries.
However, he is also important as an early protector of gay men from the rising tide of intolerance that came to dominate the later medieval and renaissance periods, intolerance that persevered today, and is widely mistaken for something which is somehow inherent to the Christian faith.
From the Calendar of LGBT Saints: (April 21):
The Council of London in 1102 wanted to enact ecclesiastical legislation which declared – for the first time in English history – that homosexual behaviour was a sin, and they recommended that offending laymen be imprisoned and clergymen be anathematized.But Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited the publication of their decree, advising the Council that homosexuality was widespread and few men were embarrassed by it or had even been aware it was a serious matter; he felt that although sodomites should not be admitted to the priesthood, confessors should take into account mitigating factors such as age and marital status before prescribing penance, and he advised counselling rather than punishment.
The Medieval Flowering of Homoerotic Christianity
The Homoerotic Catholic Church
Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century
Jordan,Mark D: The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism
Norton, Rictor: My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries.
Although some would dispute the description of Paulinus as ‘gay’, the description seems to me entirely appropriate to his sensibility. Although history records no evidence of physical expression of his same sex attraction, nor is there any evidence against it. Given the historical context he was living in (4th/5th century Roman empire) , when sex with either gender was commonplace for men at at all levels of society, inside and outside the Christian church, the absence of written records of private activities after 15 centuries is completely unremarkable. Nor is the fact that he was married particularly significant – for Romans, marriage and sex with men were entirely compatible.
What is known is that he was passionately in love with a man, Ausonius, to whom he addressed exquisitely tender love poetry. This is of sufficient quality and gay sensibility to be included in the Penguin book of homosexual verse:
I, through all chances that are given to mortals,
And through all fates that be,
So long as this close prison shall contain me,
Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven,
Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face
Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,
Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken,
And from the earth I shall have gone my way,
Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me,
There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me,
Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee;
Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin,
Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections,
Hold them as dear as life itself to be,
Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.
[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]
It is surely clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call "Gay". Paulinus’ feast day is on June 22nd. It is fitting that we remember him, and the multitude of other LGBT saints in the long history of the church.
For more online, see Paul Hansall’s invaluable LGBT Catholic handbook, or the Catholic Encyclopedia. (Note though that the latter’s entry on Paulinus is an excellent case study on how official Church history scrupulously edits out our LGBT history. In a reasonably lengthy entry, Ausonius and the verses addressed to him are noted – but the essential facts that the relationship was passionate, or that the verses were clearly love poetry, are carefully filtered out.)
In print, see John Boswell’s "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality", pp133 – 134.