Tuesday, May 31, 2011


This recently crossed my desk on Facebook: WHEN SAME-SEX MARRIAGE WAS A CHRISTIAN RITE

It makes the case that the Christian (Catholic, at the time) Church once supported same-sex marriages.

While the pairing of saints, particularly in the early Christian church, was not unusual, the association of these two men was regarded as particularly intimate. Severus, the Patriarch of Antioch (512 - 518 CE) explained that, "we should not separate in speech they [Sergius and Bacchus] who were joined in life". This is not a case of simple "adelphopoiia." In the definitive 10th century account of their lives, St. Sergius is openly celebrated as the "sweet companion and lover" of St. Bacchus. Sergius and Bacchus's close relationship has led many modern scholars to believe they were lovers. But the most compelling evidence for this view is that the oldest text of their martyrology, written in New Testament Greek describes them as "erastai,” or "lovers". In other words, they were a male homosexual couple. Their orientation and relationship was not only acknowledged, but it was fully accepted and celebrated by the early Christian church, which was far more tolerant than it is today.

Contrary to myth, Christianity's concept of marriage has not been set in stone since the days of Christ, but has constantly evolved as a concept and ritual.

Prof. John Boswell, the late Chairman of Yale University’s history department, discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient Christian church liturgical documents, there were also ceremonies called the "Office of Same-Sex Union" (10th and 11th century), and the "Order for Uniting Two Men" (11th and 12th century).

These church rites had all the symbols of a heterosexual marriage: the whole community gathered in a church, a blessing of the couple before the altar was conducted with their right hands joined, holy vows were exchanged, a priest officiatied in the taking of the Eucharist and a wedding feast for the guests was celebrated afterwards. These elements all appear in contemporary illustrations of the holy union of the Byzantine Warrior-Emperor, Basil the First (867-886 CE) and his companion John.


At St. John Lateran in Rome (traditionally the Pope's parish church) in 1578, as many as thirteen same-gender couples were joined during a high Mass and with the cooperation of the Vatican clergy, "taking communion together, using the same nuptial Scripture, after which they slept and ate together" according to a contemporary report. Another woman to woman union is recorded in Dalmatia in the 18th century.

Prof. Boswell's academic study is so well researched and documented that it poses fundamental questions for both modern church leaders and heterosexual Christians about their own modern attitudes towards homosexuality.

For the Church to ignore the evidence in its own archives would be cowardly and deceptive. The evidence convincingly shows that what the modern church claims has always been its unchanging attitude towards homosexuality is, in fact, nothing of the sort.

A quick run through Google turned up a couple of other pieces, one from First Things:

Ancient in origin, same-sex unions blessed in the Church occur quietly to this day. So says John Boswell, Professor of Medieval History at Yale University and the author of this new and lavishly publicized book. It may surprise readers of this journal to learn that he is probably right- depending on what the ceremony means.

This is a subject about which I have the good fortune to speak not merely as a scholar or an observer, but as a participant. Nine years ago I was joined in devout sisterhood to another woman, apparently in just such a ceremony as Boswell claims to elucidate in his book. The ceremony took place during a journey to some of the Syrian Christian communities of Turkey and the Middle East, and the other member of this same-sex union was my colleague Professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University.


The blessing of the Syrian Orthodox Church was a precious instance of our participation in the life of an ancient and noble Christian tradition. Although neither of us took the trouble to investigate the subject, each privately assumed that the ritual of that summer was some Christian descendant of an adoption ceremony used by the early church to solemnify a state-that of friendship-which comes highly recommended in the Christian tradition ("Henceforth I call you not servants . . . but I have called you friends." [John15:15]).

If this were all that Professor Boswell were claiming to have "discovered," neither I nor anyone else would be likely to dispute his findings. It seems reasonable to assume that ceremonies like the one Susan Ashbrook Harvey and I went through continue to take place in those eastern churches that preserve the rite of adoption (adelphopoiesis) for friends. In fact, scholars of the liturgy have known for years of these rituals.

But any such modest claim is not what Boswell has in mind. He claims that the "brother/sister-making" rituals found in manuscripts and certain published works are ancient ceremonies whose cryptic (or, in current argot, "encoded") purpose has been to give ecclesiastical blessing to homosexual or lesbian relationships, thus making them actual nuptial ceremonies. This startling claim is certainly far from the reality of the ceremony in which we participated nine years ago. Is it perhaps just as far from the real meaning of such ceremonies in the distant past? According to his publisher, Boswell "irrefutably demonstrates that same-sex relationships have been sanctioned and even idealized in Western societies for over two thousand years." He has also "restored" a rite that could be used in contemporary homosexual marriages, should they become legal.


All in all, then, this book does not begin to accomplish what it set out to do. (The reviews, after the early burst of hopeful publicity, have been notably skeptical-even from sources one would expect to be favorable.) Indeed, the author's painfully strained effort to recruit Christian history in support of the homosexual cause that he favors is not only a failure, but an embarrassing one.

Thomas Peters at Catholic Vote Action begins with an unflattering comparison:

Just as Dan Brown capitalized on ignorance and prejudice to sell copies of his bestselling The Da Vinci Code novel, some historians have tried to sell gay marriage by claiming that the early Christian martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are an example of Church-sponsored same-sex marriage.


...gay-marriage proponents who bring up the argument about Saints Sergius and Bacchus, like Dan Brown, are either totally deluding themselves about history because they can’t handle reality, or intentionally deceiving others about history because they stand to gain from twisting it.

The claim that Saints Sergius and Bacchus represent an example of Church-sponsored same-sex marriage was first put forward in 1994 by John Boswell in his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Boswell’s claims have been completely debunked by David Woods, Robin Young, and Brent Shaw (to name the first three authors I found during a simple internet search).

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