Sunday, 27 December 2009

John the Evangelist. the "Beloved Disciple"

In the catalogue of "gay saints", or pairs of supposedly "gay lovers" in Scripture, the coupling of John the Evangelist (the "beloved disciple") and Jesus himself is surely the most controversial. Many people, including some of my friends from the LGBT Soho Masses, find the whole idea that this may have been a "gay", sexually active relationship, highly offensive. Others argue the opposite case.

In an explosive book, "The Man Jesus Loved", the reputable biblical scholar Theodore Jennings mounts an extended argument that Jesus himself was actually gay and that the beloved disciple of John's Gospel was Jesus' lover. To support this provocative conclusion, Jennings examines not only the texts that relate to the beloved disciple but also the story of the centurion's servant boy and the texts that show Jesus' rather negative attitude toward the traditional family: not mother and brothers, but those who do the will of God, are family to Jesus. Jennings suggests that Jesus relatives and disciples knew he was gay, and that, despite the efforts of the early Church to downplay this "dangerous memory" about Jesus, a lot of clues remains in the Gospels. Piecing the clues together, Jennings suggests not only that Jesus was very open to homosexuality, but that he himself was probably in an intimate, and probably sexual, relationship with the beloved disciple.

-Daniel Helminiak, Sex and the Sacred


I find Jennings' argument (as summarised by Helminiak) fascinating, and look forward to reading the full exposition, and other views. Personally, I agree that Jesus was certainly "queer", in the sense that he was plainly a sexual non-conformist who did not conform to the social expectations of the time. It must be true that, as "fully human", he must have experienced sexual feelings. Even in Jewish society, if he had indeed given expression to these with another man, this would not have been exceptional: as long as he did not contravene that Leviticus prohibition on lying with a man "as with a woman" - i.e. with anal penetration. I also take it is true that he was clearly gay - friendly, as is clear from the story of the centurion, his words abut Eunuchs, and (possibly) his friendship with Martha Mary and Lazarus. So, to say Jesus and John were possibly sexually intimate lovers is to me not shocking, indeed possible - but also irrelevant.

The significance for us of John as "the disciple Jesus loved", goes way beyond the possibility of genital activity. Love is primarily an emotional relationship, not a physical one. The English language does us a disservice in using "lovemaking" as a euphemism for the physical act, even without any deep emotional significance. "Loving", in its full sense is more important than mere "lovemaking" as a physical act. In this sense, we know without any possible doubt that the words "whom Jesus loved" are true. How do we know it? Because they are true for all the disciples, as they are for each of us, and for all others.

One of the reasons I believe it is helpful to reflect on the saints is to see them as role models, that is, to try to imagine ourselves in their place, to try to follow their example. If we do this, actively imagining ourselves in the place of John, the beloved disciple, we may more easily see ourselves as we really are - beloved ourselves.

This is important fo all followers of Christ, but is even more important for us as lesbigaytrans Catholics and other Christians, who so often find ourselves under attack by those in the churches who really should know better. When we find ourselves under attack, on the receiving end of hate it is important to remember that this comes from human institutions, not from Christ himself - for whom we are all "the disciple(s) whom he loved."

There is one more reason to look to John as a role model. In addition to the beloved disciple, he is more widely recognized as an evangelist: and a very special evangelist. Now, evangelism is not just a task that ended with the writing of the Gospels, nor is it a task that we can leave to the missionaries and professional clergymen (or women). We all have a responsibility to assist in the evangelization process, spreading and interpreting God's word as proper to our circumstances. We should use the example of St John as inspiration to us to do just that. Now note more important feature. As an evangelist, John is the outsider. The other three wrote the synoptic Gospels, largely in narrative format, and largely agreeing with each other. John wrote something different, something more reflective and interpretative, not the "same old story" as the others. As gay men and lesbians, we too are outsiders. As outsiders, we necessarily see things a little differently, and it is not surprising that so many of us have made names as artists: in literature, music or visual arts. Artists are widely recognized as interpreters of society, so it is not far-fetched to see John in this sense as the "artist" among the evangelists. We do not need to see Jesus and John as being "gay lovers" to find value thinking of John, at least, as "gay", as the artist, the outsider.

If also, we find the idea of their (possible) physical lovemaking helpful to our own personal prayer life, that is good too. But if it does not lead to richer prayer, discard it as irrelevant.




Thursday, 3 December 2009

Not Dead Yet: St Sebastian as Role Model

Writing about St Joan of Arc recently I observed that she carries a particular importance for us as gay men, lesbians and transsexuals in the church, as her martyrdom at the hands of church authorities can be seen as a powerful metaphor for the persecution we receive from parts of the church, just for being honest about ourselves, for refusing to renounce our God-given identity. I've been thinking further along these lines, and in fact all the Christian martyrs can similarly seen as role models - although the others were not typically executed by the church itself. One martyr in particular has been closely identified as a gay (male) icon - St Sebastian.

This is strictly speaking inappropriate, because there is not anything about Sebastian or his martyrdom that is particularly gay . The main reason quite frankly, that he has acquired this cult status is that painters for centuries have made striking images of his martyrdom, featuring half naked, desirable young men pierced with arrows: soft porn masquerading as inspirational religious art. ( The Independent newspaper has an excellent analysis, still available on-line, on just how this association developed through the art works.) Now, I have no problem with gay men enjoying pictures of St Sebastian, but have had some trouble seeing him as a specifically gay saint. However, I have come across one particular painting, quite different from the original, which immediately put me in mind of a concept I have written about before as a possible model for us in negotiating a proper relationship with the church. Here's the picture:


"St Sebastian and the Emperor Maximien Hercules


Gustave Rodolphe Boulanger, 1877


This is how I wrote about his death earlier this year:

Ordered to be executed, he was tied naked to a column and shot with arrows. Widely represented in art, it was not this, however, that killed him. He was left for dead, but was nursed back to life. After recovering, he intercepted the Emperor and denounced him for his cruelty to Christians. Enraged, the Emperor once again ordered his execution. This time, he was beaten to death, on 20th January 288. How many others have achieved martyrdom twice in one lifetime?

The image shows Sebastian pierced by arrows but "not dead yet", confronting the Emperor Maximilian after the first attempted execution.

So, what's the connection? Recall Michael B Kelly's concept of the walk back from Emmaus , the idea that as lesbigaytrans people in the Catholic church, we have a need, even an obligation, to walk away from the church - and hen to return , to confront the institutional leaders of the church with the reality of the risen Lord, and of his real message to the world. When I saw this image, I suddenly saw it as representing all queer people confronting the emperors of the church with the evidence of their attempted martyrdom. In spite of all the efforts of the ecclesiastical mechanism, through the misrepresentation of Scripture, the characterisation of us as "gravely "disordered, the active opposition in the political sphere to equal civic rights, and the failure to oppose criminalization, and hence the tacit support given to active bullying, violence and murder -- not to mention actual execution by burning at the stake, in earlier years- we too, are not dead yet.


Following the example of Sebastian, the challenge facing us to do more than simply mope about our pain, satisfied with mere survival. We too, must return to the church, showing them with the evidence of our pain-then negotiate with them a process of reconciliation.

For a look at some of the extraordinary range of representations os Sebastian in art, just look at the results of a Google Image search, or go to "Iconography of Saint Sebastian (painting)", which has an immense collection of links to art images, usefully arranged chronologically and by artist. I particularly like some of the images by 20th century artists, which seemed to me to go beyond the soppy sentimentality to something real and relevant. This one is startling - Sebastian as a self-portrait by a female artist. And why not?



Self-portrait As St Sebastian: Gaela Erwin




Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Epaminondas: Military Hero, Democrat, Cultiured Statesman. Gay.


Epaminondas lived before the Christian era, outside the Jewish tradition, and has no claim whatsoever to be treated as a “saints in any literal sense. However, taking the term much more loosely, including those we might consider as role models, he clearly fits the bill. If that doesn’t suit you, think of him as included in the “others” of my title.

Together with his lover Pelopidas, Epaminondas was one of the celebrated “Sacred Band of Thebes”, a military company of 150 pairs of lovers. That’s right, an army band where it was compulsory to be gay – and partnered. We usually think of the Spartans as the most military of the Greek cities, and with good reason. While Athens (and some other cities following them) valued democracy, philosophy and intellectual life generally, young Spartans were educated for one thing only – war. After Sparta had convincingly beaten Athens and her allies in the Peloponnesian War, the victors extinguished democracy in the vanquished cities, and placed their allies in command as local despots.
In the case of Thebes, they met strong resistance from the defenders of democracy, in the form of the band of male lovers. Founded initially by Georgidas, on the principle that men never fight more bravely than when fighting to protect and support their loved ones alongside them, the founding proposition was soon confirmed. In their first engagement with the Spartan enemy, victors in the recent Peloponnesian war, the new company of Theban lovers overcame a Spartan army of two to three times their number, and were able to reinstate democracy in their city.
Epaminondaswas initially somewhat hidden in the shadow of his friend Pelopidas, who succeeded Georgidas as leader just a year after the band was founded. Together, they won many famous victories. Later, overshadowing his friend, he found the more enduring fame, and for many notable qualities beyond his illustrious military career.
After assisting in the re-establishment of democracy in Thebes, he developed a career as an orator and statesman as well as a soldier. Although he was instrumental in defeating Sparta in establishing Thebes as the dominant geek power, he refused to use this power to to subject other cities to Theban domination and pillage, so that he was known as a military liberator, not a conqueror. Many scholars have described him as Greece’s greatest warrior-statesman. Diodorus Siculus wrote that he excelled all the others in valour and military shrewdness – but also in “eloquence of speech, elevation of mind, contempt of lucre, and fairness…”.
The Romans also admired him, although less enthusiastic about his cultural achievements. Cornelius Nepos included him in his Book o Great Commanders, but found it necessary to excuse his reputation as a musician and dancer on the grounds that the Greeks had a fondness for these pursuits. He “praises without reservation Epaminondas’ intellectual and athletic prowess, and finds he meets roman standards of temperance, prudence and seriousness….. and was such a lover of truth that he never lied, even in jest.” .
He died in 362, in a battle which once again defeated the Spartans, but also ended Epaminondas’ own life.
This could be my kind of guy – accomplished, virtuous, a democrat and liberator – and good-looking. Except that he lived about two millennia too soon, he could easily be seen as a great Renaissance man. My only objection? Surely he’s just too good to be true. Yet this is the picture that comes down to us from the ancients.
And to think that men of this calibre are not permitted to serve openly in the US army.
(Source: The material above condenses a passage from “Homosexuality & Civilization” by Louis Crompton, which makes an excellent and stimulating introduction to the history of homosexuality.)

Friday, 20 November 2009

Trans Martyrs

Today, November 20th, is the 9th annual day of Remembrance, a day set aside in memory of trans people who have been murdered for their honest expression of their gender identity. (Thanks, here, to Kittredge Cheery, who alerted me to this at Jesus in Love blog). I am certain that there will be other bloggers out there in the wider queer community who will be writing about the well-known examples, most of whom are modern Americans. I will leave these to the other writers, who for many reasons are closer to the subject than I. Instead, I want to look at the memory of trans saints in Catholic and Orthodox tradition. By definition, those who die for their faith are known as “martyrs”, from the Greek for “to bear witness”. In this extended sense, one can give witness, and thus be a “martyr” without undergoing actual death – but given the courage it must take to live publicly a trans identity, I suggest that all openly trans people, of whatever form, are constantly giving witness, and are in a sense living martyrs, so we should also recognise and honour the living, courageous trans people around us, and in he wider world.
I start with Joan of Arc, visionary, cross-dressing military hero, burned as a heretic, and now a recognized martyr and canonized saint, who is remembered annually on My 30th. (note that although burned as a “heretic”, the words for heresy and sodomy were often used interchangeably at that time. Some scholars believe that the specific heresy for which she was accused and sentenced was precisely her cross-dressing.

Then there are a lengthy list of cross-dressing women .saints, who passed as men in order to be admitted to male monasteries. Their stories are eclectic not always agreed. Some are accepted by the Eastern Orthodox church, but no the Western Romans, some are frankly fanciful, with little relation tot eh historical record. I have no desire here to encourage any kind of cult of the saints, with invocations to saints as some kind of pseudo-magical ritual to guarantee the granting of wishes. Some of them too, have become cross-dressers not out of some deep-seated gender conflict that needed to be resolved, but simply to gain access to institutions that would otherwise have rejected them. Why then, do I suggest we pay them any attention at all? Simply because, in the very presence in church records, they show that in times past the church was willing to recognise and pay honour to a group of people who set aside standard gender expectations to live a life of their own choosing. There is also a lesson here for the rest of us: when these people recognised that as women they were seen as second class-citizens in the eyes of the chruch, they indulged in a little trickery to claim a place that they saw as rightfully theirs. For us today, as queer Catholics or other Christians, we too are often seen as second class, not to be properly accepted in the main body of the Church. Perhaps, as Virginia Mollenkott recommends, we also need to becomes God’s Tricksters.
Here are some of the monastic transvestites:

St Apollinaria / Dorotheos, Jan 5th /6th (4th?)
icon-of-appolinaria
St Mary /Marinos the monk.
“She was the daughter of a wealthy Christian, Paphnutius, who with his wife brought up Euphrosyne in piety. Not wishing to marry, she secretly fled her home and its wealth, dressed herself in men's clothing and entered a monastery using the name of Smaragdus. There she lived in asceticism for thirty-eight years. She only revealed her identity on her death bed. Her father Paphnutius became a monk in the same monastery, and entered into repose ten years after his daughter. “
St Theodora / Theodorus of Alexandria Sep 11th
“While a young married woman, she committed adultery with another man. Seized by remorse, she fled her husband's house, dressed herself as a man, renamed herself Theodore, and entered a men's monastery, pretending to be a eunuch. "Theodore"'s fasts, prayers, vigils and tears amazed "his" brethren. Her secret was only discovered after her death. She had spent nine full years devoting her life to repentance for one sin. During her life she showed herself to be a wonderworker, taming wild beasts and healing sicknesses. Her husband came to her funeral, then lived until his death in the cell of his former wife.”
St Eugenia / Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th
“This Martyr was the daughter of most distinguished and noble parents named Philip and Claudia. Philip, a Prefect of Rome, moved to Alexandria with his family. In Alexandria, Eugenia had the occasion to learn the Christian Faith, in particular when she encountered the Epistles of Saint Paul, the reading of which filled her with compunction and showed her clearly the vanity of the world. Secretly taking two of her servants, Protas and Hyacinth, she departed from Alexandria by night. Disguised as a man, she called herself Eugene [Eugenios -ed.] while pretending to be a eunuch, and departed with her servants and took up the monastic life in a monastery of men. Her parents mourned for her, but could not find her. After Saint Eugenia had laboured for some time in the monastic life, a certain woman named Melanthia, thinking Eugene to be a monk, conceived lust and constrained Eugenia to comply with her desire; when Eugenia refused, Melanthia slandered Eugenia to the Prefect as having done insult to her honour. Eugenia was brought before the Prefect, her own father Philip, and revealed to him both that she was innocent of the accusations, and that she was his own daughter. Through this, Philip became a Christian; he was afterwards beheaded at Alexandria. Eugenia was taken back to Rome with Protas and Hyacinth. All three of them ended their life in martyrdom in the years of Commodus, who reigned from 180 to 192.”
( Remember also Protus & Hyacinthus, eunuch slaves of Eugenia, who were martyred alongside her.)
“She was from Perga in Pamphylia, and married very young, to a youth named Domitian, to whom she bore a daughter. The couple settled in Constantinople. Matrona became so constant in attending all-night vigils in the city's many churches that her husband suspected her of infidelity and forbade her to go out. This was unbearable to Matrona, who fled the house with her daughter. Determined to embrace monastic life, she gave her daughter into the care of a nun named Susanna, disguised herself as a eunuch, and entered the monastery of St Bassian (October 10) under the name of Babylas.”
(Later, she was found to be female, and was forced to leave the monastery – but instead was helped to form a women’s counterpart, and founded a strong community of monastic women
A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders)
She was represented as a bearded women on a cross
This one, to be fair, has limited historical validity, but is fun to remember all the same. The legend ahs it that she was a woman, sworn to holy virginity, who grew a beard to avoid being forced into the marriage her father had arranged for her. Furious, he had her killed, so that she is remembered as the crucified bearded lady. History suggests, however, that the legend is based on some very simple errors of interpretation.
And Others:
  • St Mary / Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th
  • St Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th, A nun who lived under the name "Brother Joseph" in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg
  • St. Anastasia the Patrician (or "of Constantinople") , May 10th
  • St Pelagia / Pelagios June 9
  • St Marina /Marinos of Antioch, July 17th
  • St Marina of Sicily July 20th
  • St Thekla of Iconium Sept 23rd
  • St Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9th
  • St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople, , Oct 29th

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

St. Aelred of Rievaulx, Abbot 12/01

St Aelred, 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.

St Aelred, 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.

Others point to his work as insisting on chastity, and believe that his well-recognised male friendships were entirely non-sexual. Whatever the genital truth, we should remember and honour Aelred as a reminder of the important place of intimate (emotionally, if not sexually) relationships between same-sex couples in the history of the church.

From the Calendar of LGBT Saints:

How Aelred Made it to the American Book of Common Prayer
by Louie Crew, founder of Integrity, [email: lcrew@ANDROMEDA.RUTGERS.EDU]

Aelred was not in ECUSA's calendar until a Roman Catholic head of history at Yale, John Boswell, wrote about him powerfully in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality Boswell dwelt at length with the lesbigay positive evidence. That spurred Integrity member, the late Howard Galley, one of the major architects of the 1976 Prayer Book, to initiate the actions which finally led to Aelred's inclusion: using Aelred's own texts, Galley shaped the readings which appear in THE LESSER FEASTS AND FASTS, including this collect:

Pour into our hearts, O 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 to your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who livers and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN

Select bibliography (From the Calendar of LGBT Saints)

Catholic Encyclopedia - entry on Aelred (available online)

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. Mary Eugenia Laker, (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications 1977), see esp. p. 21 on Aelred's homosexual attractions.

Boswell, John, CSTH, 221-20

McGuire, Brian P, "Monastic Friendship and Toleration ", in Monks, Hermits and the Ascetic Traditions, Studies in Church History 22, ed. W.J. Shiels, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985) pp. 147-160

McGuire, Brian P, "Looking Back on Friendship: Medieval Experience and Modern Context", Cistercian Studies 21:2 (1986), pp. 123-142

McGuire, Brian P., Brother and Lover: Aelred of Rievaulx, (New York: Crossroad, 1994)
In his earlier articles, McGuire, the foremost expert on early Cistercian bonding, professed to find explanations of Aelred as homosexual as "one-dimensional", but in this book he more forthrightly identifies Aelred as homosexual.

McGuire, Brian Patrick, "Sexual Awareness and Identity in Aelred of Rievulx (1110-67)", American Benedictine Review 45(1994): 184-226
This probably the best work of its kind out on Aelred. It is the most comprehensive, and actually covers more ground than
Brother & Lover.

Russell, Kenneth C., "Aelred, the Gay Abbot of Rievaulx", Studia Mystica 5:4 (Winter 1982), 51-64

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Polyeuctus and Nearchus, Martyrs 09/01

John Boswell ("Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe") names Polyeuctus and Nearchus as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church. (The others are Sergius & Bacchus and Felicity and Perpetua). 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.


"Polyeuctus and Nearchus were fellow-officers and close friends, serving in the Roman army at Miletene in Armenia. Nearchus was a Christian. Polyeuctus, though abundant in virtues, was still imprisoned in idol- worship. When the Emperor Decius' persecution broke out (239-251), an edict was issued requiring all soldiers to show their loyalty by making public sacrifice to the gods. Nearchus sadly told Polyeuctus that because of the decree they would soon be parted. But Polyeuctus, who had learned about the Christian faith from his friend, answered that Christ had appeared to him in a vision, exchanging his military uniform for a shining garment and giving him a winged horse. Polyeuctus took the vision as a sign that he was to embrace the Faith, and that he, with Nearchus, would soon be lifted up to heaven. Almost immediately, he first tore down the Emperor's edict in front of a startled crowd, then smashed the idols being carried in a pagan procession. He was quickly arrested and subjected to beating and scourging for sacrilege, but he only proclaimed more forcefully that he was a Christian. When the persecutors saw that Polyeuctus' patient endurance was bringing other idolaters to the faith, they condemned him to death."
Select bibliography

Boswell, John, Same Sex Unions, 141-44





Sunday, 15 November 2009

Three Young Men, Dec 17th


The "Three Young Men" are the companions of Daniel in the lions' den during the Babylonian captivity. Like Daniel himself, their significance for us as gay men, lesbians or transsexuals, is that it is likely they were eunuchs, and so at minimum were members of a notable sexual minority.

Paul Halsall at the Calendar of LGBT Saints writes:

Byzantine commentators were quite aware, as Kathryn Ringrose has recently shown, that Daniel and the three young men would have been take to Babylon as court eunuchs. Eunuchs are by far the most discussed sexual minorities in both the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament. It is interesting to note that while eunuchs were excluded from the community of Israel by Deuteronomy, Third Isaiah and Wisdom both specifically include them in God's blessing. The Bible talks to itself! Isaiah rejects then provision of the law which reject the eunuch. He expands the definition of God's people beyond the patriarchal family that characterized the early history of Israel. The following passages affirms that the lord offers salvation to all, not just those in conventional heterosexual family life.

Isaiah 56:1-8

Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil. Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people. The Lord GOD which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.

Wisdom 3:13-14

Blessed the barren women...Her fruitfulness will be seen at the scrutiny of souls. Blessed too the eunuch...For his loyalty special favour will be granted him, a most desirable portion in the temple of the Lord.

Select bibliography

Helminiak, Daniel, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, (San Francisco: Alamo Square Press, 1994)

Ringrose, Kathryn, "Living in the Shadows: Eunuchs and Gender in Byzantium", in Gilbert Herdt, ed., Third Sex, Third Gender, (New York: Zone, 1994), 85-110

Swidler, Leonard, Biblical Affirmations of Women, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), 121-123

Thursday, 12 November 2009

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”


Sunday, 8 November 2009

Cross-Dressing Monks

The “LGBT Catholic Handbook lists an intriguing group of transvestite saints - women who took on men's clothing in order to live as monks. The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, but the Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia however, dismisses the tales as 'hagiographic fiction.' The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and 'transvestite' is not to be confused with 'transgendered'. Still, whatever the full historic truth, it seems to me these are useful stories to hold on to as reminders of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered, in our midst. Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting our sexual identities, consider how much more challenging must be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis.
icon-of-appoliarios1
“I have treated these saints as a group as their stories are often similar. These are the large number of saints who were famous for their holy cross-dressing. All of these were women, and the stories, largely but not exclusively fictional, generally have them escaping marriage or some other dreaded end by dressing as monks. This is no short term ploy, however. The women then live their lives as men (in direct contradiction to the Levitical Law which calls cross-dressing an "abomination"), some of them becoming abbots of monasteries. In such positions it is hard to imagine that they would not perform roles such as confessor. Their biological sex is only discovered after they die. It is sometimes argued that these transvestite saints did not cross-dress because they wanted to but because they had to, and so calling them "transvestites" is wrong. It is true that we know nothing of the psychology of these women, but when they dressed as man for 20 years and became abbots of monasteries, it is hard to know in what way they were being "forced" to cross-dress. These women chose to live their Christian lives as members of the opposite biological sex - it is fair to see them as "transgendered". There are no male saints, it seems, who dressed as women (with the possible exception of Sergius and Bacchus, who were forcibly paraded through the streets in women's clothes). At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have "male souls", a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women's lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.
  • St. Anastasia the Patrician (or "of Constantinople") March 10th ORC/ORTH
  • St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople Oct 29 ORTH
  • St. Apollinaria/Dorotheos Jan 5, 6 ORTH
  • St. Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9 ORTH
  • St. Eugenia/Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th ORTH
  • St. Euphrosyne/Smaragdus Feb 11th ORC (Sept 25 ORTH)
  • St. Marina of Sicily July 20th ORTH
  • St. Marina/Marinos of Antioch July 17th ORTH (July 20th ORC - as St. Margaret)
  • St. Mary/Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th ORTH
  • St. Matrona/Babylas of Perge Nov 9 ORTH
  • St. Pelagia/Pelagios June 9 ORC (Oct 8 ORTH)
  • St. Theodora/Theodorus of Alexandria Sept 11 ORTH
  • St. Thekla of Iconium Sept 23 ORC (Sept 24 ORTH) See also
  • St. Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th ORC d. 1188 OE: A nun who lived under the name "Brother Joseph" in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg.
  • St. Uncumber [or ] July 20th ORC A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders) She was represented as a bearded women on a cross.

Gay Saints: Do They Exist? Do They Matter?

 

Lovers & Martyrs?

“Sergius & Bacchus: Lovers & Martyrs?"

The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition. Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.

Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints. For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous 'worship' of the saints; for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints: remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regions of Europe. There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people - creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships. (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with 'sin'.) Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness. We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe. There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate. But we in the LGBT community remain excluded - or think we are. "How great it would be", we think, if we too could have saints of our own. It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised 'gay saints' in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these. Is it realistic to think of these as 'gay saints'? Is it helpful? I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably "No", at least not as narrowly defined. But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, "Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly." The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic. For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem. Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as 'gay'. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there. So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined? I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria: agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay. Nevertheless, I don't think this is important. It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised. The "communion of saints" includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese 'gay'. (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered 'heterosexual'). By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many 'gay saints' that have gone before us, and many who still live among us. This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation - but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history. It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed 'gay saints'.