Monday, 9 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”

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