Tag Archives: John Boswell

SS Polyeuct and Nearchos, Roman Soldiers, Lovers and Martyrs

The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar- but should be.  John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before  Sergius & Bacchus .

Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians.  The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.

Up to this point, I have been careful to refer to the two men as “friends”, not as “lovers” – but this is an entry for queer saints and martyrs. What was the truth of the relationship? As with any couple so remote from the present, precise sexual details are unknown. However, there are clues. Boswell notes that in the early biographies, the Greek words used to describe their friendship are the ones commonly used in marriage ceremonies; these biographies describe several instances of close bodily contact (“Polyeuct leapt up and wrapped himself around Nearchos”); both were soldiers, with strong associations in the Hellenistic world between the military and homoerotic affections.

 The most compelling evidence though is in the story itself. Polyeuct embraced Christianity to enter eternity with Nearchos – thereby choosing separation from his wife on earth. Even if we disregard the other evidence, any man who chooses to die in the company of a male friend rather than live with his wife cannot be seen as a conventional, red-blooded heterosexual.

This alone is enough to mark the pair as queer.

There are two further telling pieces, which need to be assessed in the historical context.  Before declaring his intention to follow Christ, Polyeuct announced that he had seen Him in a vision, using a word (translated as “youth”) which had strong erotic overtones.

Polyeuct’s vision of Christ as a “youth” – using a word common in other Greek sources for a young mn in his prime as a sexual object – might suggest , at least subliminally, a homoerotic ambience of the story.

-Boswell, Same sex Unions

The near contemporaries of the two certainly saw something remarkable in their friendship. As the church formalise liturgies and rituals for blessing same-sex unions in church, their names were among many paired saints who were invoked in many of these liturgies. In this, they should be thought of today as possible patrons of gay marriage or civil unions in a modern counterpart to the early rite of adelphopoesis.

Other sources are less certain that they were lovers: the useful “God is Wonderful in His Saints” Orthodox Resources website describes them simply as “friends”. Before dismissing Boswell’s claim though, we should remember that “friends” has sometimes served as a euphemism for “lovers”, just as to “sleep with” someone in modern English usually means more than to share a snooze.

Note: Both the Calendar of LGBT Saints at the LGBT Catholic Handbook, and the Orthodox Resources website, list January 9th as the feast day of “Holy Martyr Polyeuctus” (Orthodox Resources), or SS. Polyeuct and Nearchus, martyrs (LGBT Catholic Handbook). Other sources give Feb 13th for Polyeuct, and April 22nd for Nearchos.

Recommended Books

Boswell, John, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

O’Neill, Dennis: Passionate Holiness

Related articles

12th January: St Aelred of Rievaulx, Patron of Same Sex Intimacy

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:

Collect

Pour into our hearts, 0 God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred draw many into your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The regard given to St Aelred by gay writers is based on his book, “On Spiritual Friendship”, in which he is clear in extolling the value of same-sex love. He does so on the basis of personal experience, and describes the impact that several of these friendships have had on him, and the desolation he has felt when a lover has died.

“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love;  in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness;  in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”

It is important to keep clearly in mind that although there is clear reference to the “embrace of love”, and to “kisses”, Aelred is writing about spiritual friendship, and that he stresses the spiritual riches  it brings, “with the Holy Spirit flowing over you.”

It is for this reason that opponents of homoerotic love deny that Aelred in any way presents a model of gay love as we understand it today. Instead, they point to his equally clear writing about chastity, and his lifelong struggle to remain chaste.

Personally, I see the battle to confirm or deny Aelred’s spiritual friendships as resembling or contradicting modern gay love as completely pointless. Of course they were different to modern relationships – just as all other medieval relationships were different to modern counterparts. Marriage then was different in many important respects to what we have today, ordinary friendships were different – as Alan Bray argues convincingly in The Friend. Aelred was also living and writing in a specifically monastic setting, about people who had taken a vow of celibacy. Discussion of whether those monks’ intimate friendships included physical intimacy is entirely irrelevant.

Aelred and his writing do nevertheless have profound importance for modern gay men and lesbian partnerships, and raises uncomfortable questions about the Catholic church’s rule on compulsory celibacy for priests. Saints Augustine and Aquinas both described the sacramental value of two people giving themselves to each other in (heterosexual) marriage. Aelred does likewise for  same-sex emotional and spiritual intimacy in monastic same-sex relationships. In the same way, modern gay or lesbian couples can and should recognize and nurture the spiritual, sacramental value  their relationships, whether celibate (as in the monastic ideal), or otherwise (as i heterosexual marriage).

In the centuries following Aelred, his celebration of love between monks was completely undermined and replaced in monastic life and in seminary training for the priesthood by a tragic and destructive prohibition on any form of particular friendships, fostered by a growing recognition in the late medieval period of widespread homosexual practices in the monasteries. (St Peter Damian, who was one of the earliest to argue vociferously for strong penalties against homosexual acts, directed his anger primarily at priests and monks). The problem is that if priests are allowed neither physical nor emotional intimacy with another, where are they to obtain the strength and succour to sustain them in their lives?

Praising the value of clerical celibacy in his extended interview for “Light of the World”, Pope Benedict says that it “becomes possible” when priests live in community. What then, of those priests who do not, or those other gay Catholics who wish to live in conformity with orthodox teaching but are in practice expected to live alone?

St Aelred got it right. There clearly is deep spiritual value in intimate same-sex relationships, whether in monastic celibacy, or in marriage.

There are other reasons too, for us to take Aelred seriously as a patron of gay or lesbian committed relationships. His writing draws explicit attention to the nature of Christ’s own particular friendship, with the beloved disciple – describing it as a “heavenly marriage”:

“Jesus himself, is in everything like us. Patient and compassionate with others in every matter. He transfigured this sort of love through the expression of his own love; for he allowed only one – not all – to recline on his breast as a sign of his special love; and the closer they were, the more copiously did the secrets of their heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell of their spiritual chrism to their love.”
Just to rub in Aelred’s direct connection to same sex unions or marriage, take a look at the Mass readings for his feast day: Psalm 36:5-10 ;Ruth 1:15-18Philippians 2:1-4 ;Mark 12:28-34a. These all deal with love, but note especially the words from Ruth, words which are often used as readings for weddings – but which are spoken by one woman to another.
5 So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods;
return after your sister-in-law.’
16But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
So now you know. Celebrate the feast of St Aelred today – and with it, the sacramental value of same-sex unions.

Recommended Books:

Aelred of RievaulxSpiritual Friendship
Bray, Alan: The Friend


Also:
 

Related articles:

Saints Polyeuct and Nearchos, 3rd Century Lovers and Martyrs.

The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar – but should be.  John Boswell ("Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe") names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same-sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before  Sergius & Bacchus .

Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians.  The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.

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John Boswell

b. March 20, 1947
d. December 24, 1994

John Boswell was an esteemed historian who argued that homosexuality has always existed, that it has at times enjoyed wide social acceptance, and that the Church historically allowed same-sex unions.

“It is possible to change ecclesiastical attitudes toward gay people and their sexuality because the objections to homosexuality are not biblical, they are not consistent, they are not part of Jesus’ teaching; and they are not even fundamentally Christian.”

John Boswell was a gifted medieval philologist who read more than fifteen ancient and modern languages. After receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1975, he joined the history faculty at Yale University. Boswell was an authority on the history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in medieval Spain. He helped to found the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale in 1987. In 1990 he was named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History.

In 1980 Boswell published the book for which he is best known: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. In this groundbreaking study, Boswell argued against “the common idea that religious belief-Christian or other-has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people.” The book was named one of the New York Times ten best books of 1980 and received both the American Book Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981.
Boswell’s second book on homosexuality in history was The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, published in 1994. In it he argues that the Christian ritual of adelphopoiia (“brother-making”) is evidence that prior to the Middle Ages, the Church recognized same-sex relationships. Boswell’s thesis has been embraced by proponents of same-sex unions, although it remains controversial among scholars.
John Boswell converted to Roman Catholicism as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, and remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. He was an effective teacher and popular lecturer on several topics, including his life journey as an openly gay Christian man.
Boswell died of AIDS-related illness on Christmas Eve in 1994 at age 47.

Bibliography:

Selected works by John Boswell:

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Sergius & Bacchus, October 7th: Patron Saints of Gay Marriage?

Sergius and Bacchus are by a long way the best known of the so-called gay or lesbian saints – unless we include as “saints” the biblical pairs David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi.  We need to be careful with terminology though: the word “gay” can be misleading, as it certainly cannot be applied with the same connotations as in modern usage, and technically, they are no longer recognised as saints by Western church, as decreed by the Vatican – but they are still honoured by the Orthodox churches, and by many others who choose to ignore the rulings of Vatican bureaucrats. The origins of saint-making lay in recognition by popular acclaim, not on decision by religious officials.
Whatever the quibbles we may have, they remain of great importance to modern queer Christians, both for their story of religious faith and personal devotion, and as potent symbols of how sexual minorities were accepted and welcomed in the earliest days of the Christian community.
They are particularly important in the movement to marriage equality, for their significance in early rites of blessing same-sex unions in church, which may point a way to making a modern provision for something similar without necessarily changing the traditional understanding of church marriage to that between a man and a woman – with its link to child-bearing.
(And, as I have written before, I have a very special personal connection with this pair of early saints and martyrs for the faith. Like so many queer Catholics, it never occurred to me that there could even exist gay or lesbian Catholics until I heard of SS Sergius and Bacchus. Some months after first hearing of them, I read their story in John Boswell, and wondered when was their feast day. I investigated – and found by wonderful serendipity that it was that very day. That began for me a continuing exploration of the other LGBT saints, of the rest of gay history in the churches, of more general gay and lesbian theology – and  this blog. By further serendipity, I discovered this week that today, the feast day of Sergius and Bacchus, is also the birthday of  – Dan Savage, well known for his work to combat homophobic teen bullying.  If Serge and Bacchus may be regarded as patrons saints of gay adults, is Dan Savage a modern patron saint of gay teens?).
An icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus by moder...

The Lovers’ Story

Sergius and Bacchus were third /fourth century Roman soldiers, and lovers. This alone is worth noting in any discussion of homoerotic relationships and the early Christians: in the Roman world, as in most of the Mediterranean region, such relationships were commonplace. What mattered in questions of sexual ethics and social approval (or otherwise) had little to do with the gender of the partners, but with their respective social status.
They were of high social standing, good enough to have a close personal relationship with the emperor, Tertullian. This provoked jealousy. They were also Christians, which gave their enemies a useful pretext to denounce them to the Emperor. He ordered them to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, which they refused to do. Their refusal provoked the wrath of the emperor, who began to exact a series of penalties, culminating in the sentence of death. The first to be killed was Bacchus, who was flogged to death. Serge was subjected to further torture, before being killed himself. The fifth century “Passion of Sergius and Bacchus” describes many details, and also some supposed miraculous interventions, such as the dead Bacchus appearing to Sergius in a vision, where he admonished his partner for grieving, and promised that they would soon be together again:
Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken away from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shall enlarge my heart”.  
Boswell makes two points about the trial and passion of Sergius and Bacchus that are especially relevant to their significance for queer Christians: in all the legal and theological arguments over the charges against them, the matter of their relationship was simply not an issue. The complaint was that they had refused to honour pagan gods. Their sexuality was of no consequence at all. Later, when the Greek hagiographer has the dead Bacchus appear to Sergius to comfort him with the prospect of paradise, the greatest joy of the promised afterlife is to be reunited with his male lover. Neither the Roman jurists, nor the fifth century Christian writer who recorded the passion, have anything at all to say against the relationship – and the Christian celebrates the quality and value of their love.

Sergius and Bacchus & Gay Marriage

It is simply historically untrue that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, or that same-sex marriage is a modern invention. Among many counter-examples that easily disprove that belief, is the tradition of liturgical blessings, in church, of same-sex unions as described by the ground-breaking historical work of John Boswell. While these were not in any way an exact counterpart to modern marriage (nor were heterosexual unions from the same period), they do no need to be considered carefully in modern responses in faith to the questions around marriage and family equality. Sergius and Bacchus are significant here, for being mentioned by name in many of the liturgies for these rites that have survived, along with numerous other, less familiar examples of same-sex couples from church history.

There are also surviving texts of ancient and medieval hymns to the couple. Boswell quotes one from the sixth century, which has the opening verse ,

Of Serge and Bacchus,
the pair
filled with grace
,

let us sing, O ye faithful!
Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds! 

The full hymn is too long to quote here in full, but one verse in particular emphasises the importance of their mutual devotion:

It was not desire for this world
that captivated Serge for Christ,
nor the empty life of worldly affairs
[that captivated] Bacchus;
rather, made one
as brethren
in the bond of love
they called out valiantly to the tyrant,
“See in two bodies
one soul and and heart,
one will and virtue.
Take those that yearn to please God.
Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds!

The words “made brethren” in this verse are a reference to the literal translation of the greek name for the rite, that of “making brothers”.  This has been taken by some commentators as disproving Boswell’s claim that these rites have any connection to marriage, and are instead simply a joining in spiritual brotherhood. (A claim that Boswell himself anticipated and countered in the text himself).

Whatever the original connotation of the words though, that there was some concept of marriage involved is clearly shown by another hymn from the ninth century, quoted and discussed at “Obscure Classics of Latin Literature“, on a page for Carolingian poetry.

Hymn of SS. Sergius and Bacchus

– spuriously attributed to Walahfrid Strabo (c. 808 – 849 CE)

I. O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract as our voices resound with odes
And let us make manifest the gracious rewards of the Lord.
We who are below shall celebrate the saints with an illustrious hymn
From our very hearts.

II. Holy martyrs shining by virtue of your merits, Sergius and Bacchus,
As partners you wear God’s crown, you have transcended
Together the enclosure of the flesh; and now you are
Above the stars.

“O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract” seems pretty explicit, to me.

Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds!



Indeed.

(At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has a fascinating post on depictions of Sergius and Bacchus in art, featuring in particular a wonderful stained glass window of the pair, at St. Martha’s Church in Morton Grove, Illinois. This was donated to the church by its LGBT parishioners, and is believed to be the only representation of them in any United States Church).

Books

Boisvert, Donald: Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints (See all Catholic Saints Books)

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Jordan, Mark: Authorizing Marriage?: Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions

O’Neill, Dennis: Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People

O’Sullivan, Andrew: Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con: A Reader

Related articles

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St. Paulinus of Nola, bishop 22/06

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.  

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St. Joan of Arc

Among all the multitude of queer saints,  Joan of Arc is one of the most important. In her notorious martyrdom for heresy (a charge which in historical context included reference to her cross-dressing and defiance of socially approved gender roles), she is a reminder of the great persecution of sexual and gender minorities by the Inquisition, directly or at their instigation. In LGBT Christian history, “martyrs” applies not only to those martyred by the church, but also to those martyred by the church. In her rehabilitation and canonization, she is a reminder that the leaders and theologians of the church, those who were responsible for her prosecution and conviction, can be wrong, can be pronounced to be wrong, and can in time have their judgements overturned.(This is not just a personal view. Pope Benedict has made some very pointed remarks of his own to this effect, while speaking about Joan of Arc).  In the same way, it is entirely possible (I believe likely) that the current dogmatic verdict of Vatican orthodoxy which condemns our relationships will also in time be rejected.  We may even come to see some of the pioneers of gay theology, who have in effect endured a kind of professional martyrdom for their honesty and courage, rehabilitated and honoured by the Church, just as St Joan has been.

Joan of Arc Iinterrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)
Joan of Arc:  Interrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)

Joan of Arc is the best known cross-dresser in history, defying gender expectations to lead an army, and lead it to victory in the service of her country.  This much is well known, and immediately qualifies her as a trans hero (or heroine.  Take  your pick.) What of the ret of us? Well, remember her story in the church as well as the battlefield:  she was burned as a heretic, before her later rehabilitation and eventual canonization. Now recall the association of heresy and “sodomy”.

John Boswell has clearly shown that the religious opposition to homoerotic relationships was not based in scripture, nor was it deeply entrenched in the early church. Instead, the opposition of the church followed, not led, popular intolerance that grew with the decline in urbanisation after the sack of Rome.  This growth in intolerance was not only directed at homosexuals, but also at other social outsiders – jews, gypsies and “heretics”. Writers such as Mark D Jordan and Allan Bray have since shown how the very word “sodomite”, now widely used  as a pejorative epithet against gay males, was a late medieval coinage which was originally used far more loosely and indiscriminately, often including ay other form of sexual non-conformism – or heresy.

So what was the crime of “heresy” of which she was accused? Well, nominally it was based on her claim to have seen “visions” which inspired her to follow her path of resistance to the foreign invaders.  But note the nationality of her accusers:  it was not the French Church which tried and judged her, but the English Bishops:  countrymen of the army she had opposed and defeated. Was her crime to have experienced visions, or was it to have opposed the English?

Joan of Arc

Consider that which has made her most famous, iconic as an historic figure:  the cross-dressing.  This was a clear violation of her expected gender role, and may have been described by some as “sodomy” – which was closely related to heresy.  I have recently seen a claim (sadly, I have no link) that the real reason for her trial and execution was this cross-dressing.  If so, she is the first Christian martyr we know of who was executed not just executed and was gay, but executed because of her gender expression. However, there is of course a happy ending: she was later rehabilitated, and canonized. Now consider the obvious moral for us as GLBT Christians today.

Joan had a “vision”, an apparition of Mary. There are also other kinds of vision, some more mundane, more political, of the Martin Luther King “I have a dream”.  In this sense, many of us too have a vision, a dream, of proper inclusion and acceptance in the Christian churches, where we belong with everybody else, on the strength of the promises of Christ.

Joan was persecuted by the church authorities, condemned and executed.  We are not (directly) executed by the church today, but we are certainly condemned and persecuted, labelled as “fundamentally disordered”, and told that if we simply live truthfully in our god-given sexuality,we are committing “grave sin”.  Worse, by the clear failure to take a strong stand against civil laws and proscriptions, as for example the failure to sign the UN resolution on the decriminalisation of homosexuality early this year, the Church is indirectly giving support to some forces that do actively seek our death.

But in the end, she was vindicated.  We have not yet seen that development, but I am certain it will come. It is required by the Gospel of inclusion and social justice, it is also required by the internal logic of theology. James Alison has recently noted that theology will in time be forced to face up to the plain finings of science that  same sex relationships are not unnatural, just uncommon.  They have occurred throughout history, in many societies, and across the animal kingdom. Theologians will be slow to catch up, but they will, and we too will be vindicated.

St Joan of Arc and the queer community: we have a lot in common.

Further reading;

Related articles at QTC:

Related articles elsewhere:

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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Same Sex Unions in Church History

One of the delights I find in taking that “bracing walk in history” is the frequent discoveries that what we usually assume to be the “common sense” understanding of modern practices and institutions is nothing of the source, forcing us to rethink what in fact these mean. Two of these examples are of “traditional marriage”, and of priestly celibacy. Both of these I have referred to (separately) before, but never thought of combining them. Now I have come across a source that does consider them together, and presents the remarkable observation:

Indeed, the most learned authority on the subject argued forcefully that for the first thousand years Christianity required nuptial blessings only for priests; for the laity, an ecclesiastical ceremony was an honour, only permitted to those being married (to their own class) for the first time.

This statement comes from John Boswell, referring to the work of Korbinian Ritzer, in “Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe” which I am now rereading. This was one of the first books on homosexuality and the church that I ever read, but I foolishly gave it away some years ago, thinking I would soon replace it – but never did. For a long time now I’ve been feeling the need to read it, and am now delighted finally to have a replacement copy.

In rereading a book, one often gets to see different aspects to those that were apparent on first reading, and so it is here. first, for the perspective that it offers on heterosexual relationships and “marriage” in classical and medieval times, which was so different to our modern conception of what “Traditional” marriage is supposed to have looked like, and also for the aside on the priesthood. Last month I came across a question on the New Zealand blog “Liturgy”, which bothered me, because it looked so simple, but there was no clear answer. The question out by Fr Bosco Peters was simple: It is clear that in the early church ordination was possible for married men, as it is today in the Eastern church, but before the reformation, is there any evidence that priests could marry after ordination? Fr Peters seemed to think that there was no such evidence:

I have been involved in some discussions about this. The contention is that there is no evidence in the Tradition of marriage after ordination. None! There is, according to that position, not a single example of marriage after ordination until the Reformation. I find this an astonishing and fascinating claim. I would be fascinated if any reader could come up with a refutation. Or, of course, references to this being correct.

I would imagine that Boswell’s quotation from Ritzer clearly settles that question: there would be no requirement for priests to marry in church if it were nto permitted fro them to marry at all. But my primary interest in “Same sex Unions” is of course the one that has caused all the fuss.

This book, like its predecessor Christianity Social Tolerance and Homosexuality is justly famous and celebrated among gay historians, activists and Christians for bringing to light a forgotten but important part of our lost history: that for many centuries the Christian Church in the East celebrated, in church, the union of same-sex couples in a liturgical rite. Unlike the earlier book, “Same Sex Unions” has evoked bitter controversy and come under fierce attack for the suggesting that ti might be in any way comparable to conventional, heterosexual marriage. It may have been for this reason that the English scholar Alan Bray was far more cautious in his alter book on the comparable rite in the Western church. Noting that the Western rite was called simply “sworn brotherhood”, (a close equivalent to the Eastern “adelphopoeisis”, which is quite literally “making of brothers”), Bray called his book simply The Friend”, describing it as a discussion on “friendship”.

It is for this reason that I found the opening quotation above striking. Arguments over how far adelphopoesis in the East, or “sworn brothers” in the West, resemble modern marriage are completely misplaced: they should rather be compared with opposite sex relationships at comparable times, which were not necessarily blessed in church, were certainly not seen as sacramental until relatively late, and were most unlikely to have been about love or even friendship, but were essentially civil contracts to protect property and inheritance considerations.

I will leave it to the scholars to dig further into the ongoing controversy over the precise relationships conferred, and the significance of these liturgies for us today. Rather, I appreciate both these books just for reminding us of the indisputable evidence that male same sex couples in close relationships were known throughout the early church, both Eastern and Western, in both fact in in myth. In the East, Sergius & Bacchus (pictured on the cover of Boswell’s book) are the best known, but there are also Polyeuct and Nearchos, and the “two Theodores” (one of them better known to us as St George, of alleged dragon –slaying fame.”). In the Western church, for all Bray’s protestations that the “sworn brothers” signified nothing necessarily more than friendship, he cannot gloss over some key points. while some of the couples he describes were married and may well have had relationships that were not in any way erotic, that certainly does not apply to all. Just among the English kings, Edward II and Piers Gaveston, and later James I and Buckingham, had relationships that are well known were certainly more than simply platonic . Among the lesser known couples he describes, some were buried in shared graves, in a manner exactly comparable to some husbands buried with their wives. Let us also remember that an alternative word for the “sworn” brother was the “wedded” brother, united in a wedding -exactly the same as the word currently used for the celebration of a marriage. Sure, “wedding” then did not mean quite what it does today, but that is precisely the point.

A third gay Catholic medieval historian has a completely different approach to the issue, which I rather like. Blessing Same Sex Unions makes the important point that

At most church weddings, the person presiding over the ritual is not a priest or a pastor, but the wedding planner, followed by the photographer, the florist, and the caterer. And in this day and age, more wedding theology is supplied by Modern Bride magazine or reality television than by any of the Christian treatises on holy matrimony. Indeed, church weddings have strayed long and far from distinctly Christian aspirations. The costumes and gestures might still be right, but the intentions are hardly religious. Why then, asks noted gay commentator Mark D. Jordan, are so many churches vehemently opposed to blessing same-sex unions? In this incisive work, Jordan shows how carefully selected ideals of Christian marriage have come to dominate recent debates over same-sex unions. Opponents of gay marriage, he reveals, too often confuse simplified ideals of matrimony with historical facts. They suppose, for instance, that there has been a stable Christian tradition of marriage across millennia, when in reality Christians have quarrelled among themselves for centuries about even the most basic elements of marital theology, authorizing experiments like polygamy and divorce.

-Book Overview from “Google Books”