Tag Archives: LGBT

The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs: Synopsis

Synopsis

Prequel: Before Christianity

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 Early Christians.

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”.

Medieval Homoeroticism

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.

The Great Persecution

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.

Modern Martyrs, Modern Revival

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

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The Gospels’ Queer Values

 

Jesus & Family
                            Jesus & Family                              (Stained glass Image, Tiffany Glass Company)

The opponents of gay same-sex marriage and of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is), like to claim that their opposition is rooted in traditional family values, “as found in the Bible.”   This claim is so completely spurious, is is remarkable how seldom it is challenged.  Just a little thought and reflection shows not only how the Gospel values have little to d with modern Western conceptions of the “traditional” family, but they are so far removed from it, that the real values espoused can certainly be described as “queer”,if not quite as specifically gay.   Continue reading The Gospels’ Queer Values

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard’s name is one to be reckoned with. Although today we usually use the term “Renaissance Man” to indicate one with a wide range of learning to his credit, perhaps we should also recognize in a similar way some extraordinary medieval women -such as Hildegard, and others who entered convents and applied themselves with distinction to learning over many fields.
Even in some distinguished company, Hildegard stands out. Her music is highly regarded, as are her literary output and her mystical writings – which of course is what makes her particularly honoured inside the church. To round out her skills, she was also recognized as a notable poet, artist, healer and scientist.  What makes her of particular interest at this site, is that she also had an intense attachment to a fellow nun, Richardis, who may have inspired some of her finest writing.
I have known a little (very little) about Hildegard for some time, and have come across suggestions of her possible lesbianism, but have not had enough knowledge to write about her myself. I was delighted then to find that my colleague Kittredge Cherry has done some digging, and produced a wonderful extended post on this great woman. As one of Kitt’s readers put it in a comment,

 

This is my favorite post of the year!! Imagine trying to get the help of a Pope to prevent a lesbian split up LOL.

What an inspiration, and her music is incredible too. We need to build a lesbian chapel in her honor somewhere, and fill it with paintings!

A truly great woman, indeed.

This are some extracts from Kitt’s post:

St. Hildegard of Bingen was a brilliant medieval German mystic, poet, artist, composer, healer and scientist who wrote with passion about the Virgin Mary. Some say she was a lesbian because of her strong emotional attachment to women, especially her personal assistant Richardis von Stade. Her feast day is today (Sept. 17).
She had visions throughout her life, starting at age 3 when she says that she first saw “the Shade of the Living Light.” She hesitated to tell others about her visions, sharing them only with her teacher Jutta.

When she was 42, Hildegard had a vision in which God instructed her to record her spiritual experiences. Still hesitant, she became physically ill before she was persuaded to begin her first visionary work, the Scivias (Know the Ways of God).

In 1151, Hildegard completed the Scivias and trouble arose between her and her beloved Richardis. An archbishop, the brother of Richardis, arranged for his sister to become abbess of a distant convent. Hildegard urged Richardis to stay, and even asked the Pope to stop the move. But Richardis left anyway, over Hildegard’s objections.
Richardis died suddenly in October 1151, when she was only about 28 years old. On her deathbed, she tearfully expressed her longing for Hildegard and her intention to return.

Hildegard’s grief apparently fueled further artistic creation. Many believe that Richardis was the inspiration for Ordo Virtutum(“Play of Virtues”}, a musical morality play about a soul who is tempted away by the devil and then repents. According toWikipedia, “It is the earliest morality play by more than a century, and the only Medieval musical drama to survive with an attribution for both the text and the music.”

In an era when few women wrote, Hildegard went on to create two more major visionary works, a collection of songs, and several scientific treatises. She was especially interested in women’s health. Her medical writings even include what may be the first description of a female orgasm.

Impressed? Now go across and read Kitt’s full, thoroughly researched post atJesus in Love Blog, in her series on LGBT saints. (Hildegard’s feast day was yesterday, September 17th.)

All Will be Well, and All Shall Be Well: Julian of Norwich, 8th May

There is no way that we should be thinking of Julian as gay or lesbian, but we should certainly think of her as queer (and as, she was undoubtedly female, in spite of her name). There are two reasons for including her here. The first is her pioneering unequivocal feminism. These are shown by her gender bending references in her book to God as mother – and even to Jesus as “mother Jesus”, which are habits for us too to acquire in our prayer. In her own career, she was remarkable for producing the first book to be written in English by a woman. Can we think of her as the first feminist theologian?

“The Mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven with inner certainty of endless bliss.

The second is the fundamental nature of her spirituality, which was centuries ahead of her time, and can be especially valuable to those who, like the LGBT community, feel threatened by an accusatory and hostile  institutional Church.  Here, it is important to note that her optimistic spirituality, as indicated in the well-known quotation in my headline, is not simply a Panglossian, mindless “always look on the bright side”. There is a very sound theological basis for it, made clear in an expanded formulation of the idea:

“And so our good Lord answered to all questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortably: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well”.

All will be well – because God has promised to make them well. Hope is a virtue – and optimism a theological obligation.

Julian (not her birth name) was born in 1342. At the age of 30, she fell dangerously ill, coming close to death. At this time, she experienced a series of mystical visions on the Passion of Christ and on the love of God. After her recovery, she became an anchoress, and recorded her experiences which she described as “showings”, in her book. She is renowned for her insistence in these on God’s unbending love and care for Her people, which was unusual for a time when religion was seen in much stricter, more judgemental terms of avoiding eternal damnation.

Read “The Showing Of Love” on-line

The “Umilta” website has an astonishing collection of links to scholarly work on Juliana and her times ( including this useful one : Equally in God’s Image  Women in the Middle Ages

Friends of Julian describes itself as the  “official” Julian website. I don’t know on what authority they make the claim, but the site is at least attractive and informative.

Remembering Peter Gomes: Black, Gay, Baptist Pastor

Peter Gomes, who died a year ago today, was an anomaly in the growing ranks of out and open gay or lesbian clergy: he was raised Catholic, but became a Baptist pastor. He was also African American, and a Republican. Not, in short, an obvious fit with the popular image of an American gay man. But (and this is important) he was able to recognize and publicly acknowledge his sexuality, and to reconcile it with his faith. This is an important reminder for us that there is no conflict at all between a gay or lesbian orientation and religious faith, or with conservative political philosophy. The only conflict is with those influential people in some churches and in some political circles who seek to impose their own interpretations of Scripture, or their own political prejudices, on everybody else – in disregard of the fundamental Gospel message of inclusion and justice, and the conservative principle of non-interference in private lives. He is also a potent reminder that advocates for equality and sexual justice are no longer found only among liberals, but also include many important conservatives: Republicans in the US, and (some of) David Cameron’s  Tories in the UK. Nor are the advocates for full inclusion in church all liberal or mainline Protestants: they also include Baptists, Mormons – and Catholics.
Gomes was renowned for the power of his preaching: Time magazine named him in 1979 as one of the outstanding preachers in America and he was widely sought after as a speaker and preacher in both the U.S. and Europe. He was equally renowned for his scholarship:  he was a member of both the Divinity School faculty and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, at Harvard, and an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.
This scholarship is important, to appreciate his full significance as an advocate for LGBT inclusion and equality (Read more at Queering the Church)
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Remembering Marcella Althaus – Reid, "Indecent Theologian"

Theologian Marcella Althaus – Reid died February 20th 2009, after a theological journey that began with the study and practice of liberation theology in the slums of Argentina under the military junta, and ended as Professor of Contextual Theology at Edinburgh University, where her interests included Liberation Theology, Feminist theology and Queer Theology. I have an instinctive personal response to this trajectory – my own journey in faith was strongly coloured by my experience of the Catholic Church under apartheid South Africa as an important force campaigning for justice and peace.  As in Argentian, liberation theology was an important influence in the South African Catholic Church, where it transformed into Black theology – and later contextual theology. Like Althaus- Reid, my conviction that Christianity must stand on the side of justice and inclusion for the marginalized has led me to a conviction that this must also include justice in the church, and justice also for the sexually marginalized of all shades: gay, lesbian, trans, bi- or simply queer (in either meaning – sexually non-conformist, or just “strange”). And like her, I too have migrated from a land of southern sun to British damp and cold. So – I could be biased.
As a theologian, her work was undoubtedly influential – but also highly controversial. Just the titles of her two major books illustrate this: “Indecent Theology”, and “The Queer God”. I love the title and concept “Indecent Theology” (which I have not read), which suggests for me two distinct concepts: that theology should not shrink from tackling concepts that are too often avoided as “indecent”, and simultaneously that in tackling conventional themes, it need not automatically adopt a reverential, deferential submission to received, supposedly authoritative opinion.  Her thorough grounding in liberation theology left Althaus – Reid with a firm commitment to the value of base communities, in which ordinary people in small groups can do theology by talking about the influence and impact of God in their lives, in their unique circumstances. The formal, accredited theologians have greater training and academic understanding of the theory of God – but the base communities have real – world experience of their own lives. Both methods of doing theology deserve attention and respect.
For her admirers, she was a pioneer in the transformation of gay liberation theology into queer theology. See for instance, Jay Emerson Johnson of the Pacific School of Religion, in a commemorative reflection after her death:
Hardly anyone has a neutral reaction to the word “queer.” People either love it or hate it. I used to belong to that latter camp until a wiry, effervescent, brilliant Latin American liberation theologian converted me. That theologian’s name was Marcella Althaus-Reid, who passed away on February 20 – far too young and with many more theological and spiritual insights left to offer to a world that desperately needs them.
“Queer theology” has been bubbling up in some quarters for a while now, but not quite as long as “queer theory.” Both spark considerable controversy, and sometimes for similar reasons. Usually the word “queer” is enough to send an otherwise congenial dinner party of LGBT people rocking with impassioned disclaimers, hurled history lessons, and proffered pleas for tolerance. In religious circles, gay and lesbian people have been working for decades to carve out a “place at the table” in faith communities that they so rightly deserve. The work can be slow and arduous, which the word “queer” – some strenuously insist – can derail. A few years ago I attended a national gathering of LGBT-affirming ministries where a well-known gay Christian author practically begged his audience of several hundred to refrain from using “that word” in their advocacy work. It simply perpetuates the assumption that we’re different, he explained.
That’s exactly the point, as Marcella Althaus-Reid would have chimed in had she been there. We are different. And the only way to do Christian theology is from that place of difference. The “we” for Althaus-Reid didn’t mean only lesbian and gay people, nor the ones so quickly added on later, like bisexuals and transgender folks. “We” are all those who don’t fit the regulatory regimes of both state and church marked by gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and economics. For her, “queer” maps out a space of resistance to those regimes, not just to oppose but creatively to construct, re-imagine, and envision a different kind of world.
Johnson doesn’t spell it out, but her understanding of “queer” was emphatically not restricted to lesbian, gay and trans – it very much included bisexual (which she was herself), and all the varieties of sexual non-conformity – she was one of the few queer theologians to include discussion of S/M  sexuality.
For her detractors, there are many counterarguments. A good friend, who knows far more about the Catholic Church and theology than I do, once described her to me quite simply as a “nutter”. Her writing has far more the character of post-modern philosophy or literary criticism than of conventional theology. Her sources are secular writing more often than they are scriptural, or based on earlier theologians. (When I read “The Queer God”, I was baffled at times by the style and the dense, sometime impenetrable writing – but equally stimulated and excited by other passages of brilliance and insight). Some would even argue that her theology is post-Christian, not Christian. For example, Rollan McCleary:
In reality, Marcella Althaus-Reid constitutes one of the strangest phenomena in the long and diverse history of Christian thought. To judge from her published works this lecturer in “Christian ethics” who dismissed the Ten Commandments as “a consensus” reflecting “elite perspectives” (2003:163) was less a spokesperson for the “indecent” or disruptive she is supposed to represent and that might have had it uses, than an unusual kind of atheist and blasphemer whose written wit and reportedly frequent laughter in person barely disguised the extent of the game she must have known she was playing. Within the increasingly effete, too often irrelevant world of theological and Queer studies she found opportunity. Her admirers, and in her last years she had them on an international scale, have been deceived or perhaps never really understood what she wrote – whole chunks of it admitted to be dense, difficult, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary based. Those who truly understood might have to be considered infidels towards the religion they profess.
But even her detractors agree on some undeniable lasting value in her work. McCleary concedes in his post,
…. even if Marcella hadn’t returned right answers she had raised pertinent questions based on experiences not to be ignored.

Valentine’s Day: Same Sex Lovers in Church History

For St Valentine's day,we should remember the same sex lovers (a surprising number of them) who feature in Scripture and in the history of the Catholic Church.  In the list below, I do not not claim that the relationships were necessarily sexual (although some of them most definitely were, but all are deserve attention by modern queer Christians. (For fuller assessments, follow the links).
SS Sergius & Bacchus, Gay lovers, Roman soldires, martyrs and saints.

Read more »

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

The Conversion of St Paul

Today, the Church celebrates the feast of the conversion of St Paul. Just in that title, there is encouragement for LGBT Christians: just as Saul of Tarsus, scourge of the early Christians found God and became instead a great champion of their cause, it is possible that the institutional churches, which are so widely seen by the queer community as their persecutors, could likewise meet God and undergo a similar change of heart, to become our champions – turning to what Jenni at Queering the Church described a few days ago as a “preferential option for the queer“. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem: there has already been a most extraordinary transformation of religious responses to homoerotic relationships over the last half century, and an increasing number of influential churchmen and women are becoming enthusiastic straight allies, champions of our cause.

I am working towards an extended post on this theme (which will be the basis of an address I will be giving to the Quest annual conference in September), so will not go over the evidence here. Meanwhile, in honour of Paul, I reproduce below a post I wrote in 2010.

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There is much that is paradoxical in the figure of Paul. In his dual persona as Saul / Paul, he is renowned as both a one-time feared persecutor of Christians, and as the greatest of all the early missionaries, who spread the word far beyond it s original geographic compounds, and author of by far the most influential Christian texts outside the Gospels themselves. In the same way, as the author of the most infamous New Testament clobber texts, he is widely regarded as strongly condemning homoerotic relationships – and yet  Paul Halsall lists him in his Calendar of LGBT Saints:

There is considerable debate over those anti-gay “proof -texts”, but whatever the conclusions, there is much, as Anglican Bishop of Newark John Spong has pointed out, which leads one to suspect Paul might have been “queer” in some way. The fact he was never married, unusual for a Jew of his time, his companionship with a series of younger men, especially St. Timothy, his mention of an unnamed “thorn in the flesh”. and, possibly, his disdain for some types of exploitative homosexual relationship in his period, all raise questions, questions which cannot be answered it must be admitted, about his sexuality.

What are we to make of this?

Conversion of St Paul
(Andrea Meldolla, more often known in English as Andrea Schiavone or Lo Schiavone c. 1510/1515)

First, let us dismiss the idea that Paul’s writing is anti-gay: it isn’t, and further, much of his message is precisely the opposite, arguing for full inclusion of all. For a counter to the standard view of Paul as anti-gay, anti-sex, see Reidulf Molvaer, Sex & St. Paul the Realist

St. Paul was, in many ways, an ascetic and happy to be so, but he refused to make asceticism a general model or ideal for Christians – most people cannot live by such principles, especially in the area of sex. In the seventh chapter of his first letter to Corinth, he rejects any appeal for his support of sexual abstinence as ethically superior to active sexual relations. He sets limits, but does not limit legitimate sexual relations to marriage. In his day, it was commonly believed that homosexual practice, more easily than heterosexual relations, could bring people into harmony with the unchangeable nature of God. This Paul strongly rejects in the first chapter of his letter to Rome. Otherwise he does not write about “natural” homosexuality. In fact, it is a logical inference from the principles he sets forth in his letter to Corinth that loving, lasting homosexual relations are ethically as valid as heterosexual relations. Dr. Molvaer maintains that insight into contemporary ideologies can be a help to understanding what the New Testament says about these matters. Today, as in the early Church, extraneous influences in these areas can easily distort genuine Christian moral concerns as they are stated by Christ and St. Paul.

Then, consider his person. Astonishingly little is known for certain of Paul the man, but Bishop Spong is not the only one to have suggested that Paul may have had same close same -sex relationships  of his own. Gay Catholic blogger Jeremiah Bartram, who recently spent time on a pilgrimage “in the footsteps of St Paul” has reflected deeply on the life and writign of Paul, and concluded that on balance, the suggestion is sound.

In the absence of hard evidence, personally I am happy to leave this discussion to others with greater scholarship and expertise behind them. My interest in the queer saints is in the lessons they hold for us today, and here I think there is one clear message, which lies in the best known story of al about Paul, his conversion on the road to Damascus. This has entered language as a “Damascene Conversion”, and therein lies hope. For if Saul, the renowned persecutor of Christians, could undergo such a complete change of heart and become instead active as the most famous proselytizer,  so too is there hope for the religion -based persecutors of sexual minorities today. Not only is there hope, but there is already abundant evidence from the very many Christians in the modern world who have experienced just such Damascene conversions, going from direct, outright condemnation of same sex relationships, to actively advocating full inclusion in church.   These changes of heart, usually coming after intensive study of Scripture and extensive discussions with gay and lesbian church members, have already been responsible for changes of policy in several denominations, and a more welcoming atmosphere in many local congregations. This process will continue.

For those Catholics who like to pray to the saints, you can freely include St Paul in you prayers. This is not because he was queer (although he may have been), but because his own conversion experience provides a useful model for all those modern day conversions that we need among the bigots who use religion as a cloak for prejudice and discrimination.

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


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