Category Archives: Christian

Queer “Saint”, Ethiopian Nun Walatta Petros

In a useful report at qspirit of an early African saint with a female partner,  Kittredge Cherry provides material that as well as being an intriguing report of an Ethiopian queer saint,  is also a reminder that:

  • Christianity was well-established in Africa more than a thousand years before the arrival of the colonial missionaries.
  • Same-sex relationships were common in Africa before the colonial period
  • Ethiopia had a literary tradition and written script before the colonial period
  • Ethiopia was never colonised by missionaries
  • “Saints” are not exclusively those formally honoured by the Vatican.

Introducing her post, Cherry writes:

Walatta Petros is a 17th-century Ethiopian nun and saint who had an intense lifelong friendship with another nun and led a successful movement to drive out foreign missionaries. Her feast day is Nov. 23.

Her biography, written by her disciples just 30 years after her death, is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in sub-Saharan Africa. That section was censored until 2015, when the first English translation was published.

Cherry’s source is a 2015 translation by Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner, of a 17th-Century African Biography by by Galawdewos.  Acknowledging that the story is “controversial”, for more background on the story, she includes a link to Belcher’s webpage.




Continue reading Queer “Saint”, Ethiopian Nun Walatta Petros

Victim 0001, the Saint of 9/11: Father Mychal Judge

The body of Mychal Judge was tagged with the designation “Victim 0001” — the first official casualty of 9/11. In the famous Shannon Stapleton/Reuters photo, he is being carried out of the lobby of the North Tower, where he had been killed by debris from the collapsing South Tower. He was a Catholic priest of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, assigned to the monastery at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in Manhattan. He was also a chaplain with the New York Fire Department (NYFD) and one of the first responders to the attack on the twin towers. He was a recovered alcoholic… and he was gay.”

Although some conservative Catholics deny that Fr Judge was gay, insisting that the claim is nothing but a hoax by gay activists, the truth seems clear. A number of people who knew him personally, attest that he had confided to them that he was. He was also a long term supporter of Dignity USA.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, there were numerous calls within the Catholic Church for his canonisation as a mark of his heroism on the day and a well-known life of service. This was initially supported by Cardinal Edward Egan,  New York’s archbishop at the time. However, once it began to be reported that Fr Judge was gay, Cardinal Egan withdrew his support, and the formal push for canonisation stalled.  However, less formally there have been many groups who regard him as a de facto popular saint. There have also been some claims of miracles attributed to his intercession – one of the formal requirements for canonisation.

More recently, after Pope Francis added as a criterion for sainthood, the act of saving someone from certain death, there have been renewed calls for a formal process.  At Bondings 2.0, Frank DeBenardo writes:

Fr. Judge is lovingly remembered by many as “The Saint of 9/11.” Now is the time to make that title official by working to canonize him in the church.

New Ways Ministry has been in touch with Fr. Luis Fernando Escalante who works with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  Fr. Escalante is gathering testimonies that are part of the first step toward canonization.  He needs to hear first-person accounts from people who knew Fr. Judge and whose lives were touched by his ministry.

Dignity member and professional filmmaker Brendan Fay produced a documentary about Fr Judge, called simply, “The Saint of 9/11”.




Blessed John of La Verna, Kissed by Jesus

The name “La Verna” is special to Franciscans, as referring to the site where St Francis of Assisi received the stigmata. Kevin Elphick, a Franciscan scholar who has written on queer Franciscan saints for Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus in Love blog, has an extensive post on Blessed John of La Verna, Franciscan friar who lived in Italy from 1259-1322.

(In addition to the inherent interest of his subject, even the title has a particular resonance to me. “La Verna” is also the name of a Franciscan retreat house outside Johannesburg, where a few years ago I experienced an especially intense directed retreat, which I described at Queering the Church as “six days that changed my life”.)

Here’s the opening paragraphs of Elphick’s post. Read the whole piece at Jesus in Love

Hidden in musty libraries and on the sagging shelves of convents and monasteries are countless lives of the saints and blessed, gathering dust, and in many cases forgotten. With thousands of lives of the saints in existence, it is inevitable that some of these are our stories, the stories of LGBTQ saints and blesseds throughout the ages. One of the purposes of the genre of saints’ lives, “hagiographies,” is to ensure that the contemporary faithful might find examples from the past with which to identify, and personally recognizable models of sanctity to emulate. As such, the time is overdue for the LGBTQ communities to name and claim our patron saints.

A stone wall surrounds the place where Jesus and John embraced in front of a chapel on Mount La Verna (Photo by Kevin Elphick)

One such candidate is Blessed John of La Verna (also called Giovanni della Verna, Blessed John of Fermo and Giovanni da Fermo), a Franciscan friar who lived in Italy from 1259-1322 C.E. While “gay” and “lesbian” are contemporary categories and not appropriate to use as accurate labels of historical figures,  still our collective gaydar is often attuned enough to detect our kinfolk and LGBTQ ancestors even across the centuries. John of La Verna is one such figure that should attract our attention.

Queer Saints and Martyrs for December

December features a number of notable dates of significance for queer Church history. Unless otherwise stated, all links in the listing below are to my own posts, here at Queer Saints, Sinners and Martyrs, or elsewhere.

Inclusion below does not imply that those named are “gay”, “lesbian”, or “trans”, or even “saints” in any narrow, modern sense – but all deserve attention by LGBT people of faith, for illustrating how sexual and gender minorities have been a constant presence in the life of the Church, at all levels.

An (incomplete) listing for December includes, among others worth considering, the following:

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”

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

Sergius and Bacchus are by a long way the best known of the so-called gay or lesbian saints – unless we include as “saints” the biblical pairs David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi.  We need to be careful with terminology though: the word “gay” can be misleading, as it certainly cannot be applied with the same connotations as in modern usage, and technically, they are no longer recognised as saints by the Western* church, as decreed by the Vatican – but they are still honoured by the Orthodox churches, and by many others who choose to ignore the rulings of Vatican bureaucrats. The origins of saint-making lay in recognition by popular acclaim, not on decision by religious officials.

A modern icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus by...

 
Whatever the quibbles we may have, they remain of great importance to modern queer Christians, both for their story of religious faith and personal devotion, and as potent symbols of how sexual minorities were accepted and welcomed in the earliest days of the Christian community. Continue reading Sergius & Bacchus, October 7th: Patron Saints of Gay Marriage?

SS Galla (5 October) and Benedicta (6 May): Roman nuns – and lovers?

One of the curiosities of the Catholic tradition of honouring our saints and martyrs, is how hagiography seamlessly combines historical biography, myth with collective amnesia. The stories of Saints Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, for instance, are replete with well-known legends that have absolutely no verifiable foundation in historical fact, and the delightful story of St Wilgefortis (aka Uncumber), the crucified bearded woman, turns out to have a much more plausible basis in reality. For many other saints, the distortions of hagiography are not just the accretions that are added by popular imagination, but the important details that are so often omitted in the transmission down the ages. St Paulinus, for instance, is widely honoured for his missionary work and for the impressive quality of his Latin devotional poetry. The standard Catholic sources on the saints, however, discreetly omit any reference to his other poetic legacy – equally fine homoerotic verse addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius.

The story of Saints Galla and Benedicta of Rome may be another example of this selective memory.  

 

Neither of these is particularly well-known, and Benedicta is even less-so than Galla, but I start with her. There are references to her scattered across the internet, but they all seem to come down to a few lines similar to these, from Catholic Online:

Mystic and nun. Benedicta lived in a convent founded by St. Galla in Rome. Pope St. Gregory the Great states that St. Peter appeared in a vision to warn her of her approaching death.

This seems innocuous enough, until it is set against the parallel warning of imminent death that St Gregory also gave to the better known St Galla.

From a large selection of on-line sources, Wikipedia sums up the key uncontested points of her story, those widely reported elsewhere:

Galla was the daughter of Roman patrician Symmachus the Younger, who was appointed consul in 485. Galla was also the sister-in-law of Boethius. Her father, Symmachus the Younger, was condemned to death, unjustly, by Theodoric in 525. Galla was then married but was soon widowed, just over a year after marriage. It was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage. Being wealthy, she decided to retreat to theVatican Hill, and found a hospital and a convent, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Galla is reputed to have once healed a deaf and mute girl, by blessing some water, and giving it to the girl to drink. Galla remained there for the rest of her life, tending to the sick and poor, before dying in 550, of breast cancer. 

 Notice, please, that little sentence tucked away in the middle, and its cautious qualifier: “it was  believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage.” This strategy of a holy woman, to grow a beard to avoid marriage, is precisely that adopted by Wilgefortis. Her legend appears to have a much more mundane explanation. I have no knowledge of any firm evidence to either corroborate, or to contradict, Galla’s legendary beard. What interests me is the rest of Galla’s story, and its treatment in hagiography.

An article at Catholic Culture is a good example. It seizes on the beard, and uses it as a moral fable, encouraging us to “dare to be different”.  Catholic Culture, however, claims that the beard story was only a threat, and the beard never did grow.

A story about St. Galla of Rome, illustrating the importance to not follow the crowd, but to be oneself. Legend says that St. Galla, after becoming a widow, grew a beard to avoid any offers of remarriage.

Not only girls who want to be nuns, but girls who just want to be good have to ignore a marvelous lot of nonsense from those who “follow the pack.” Life will pass you by, they say, and you won’t have any fun if you don’t do as we do! About as fast as St. Galla grew her beard, it will!

 So, then dare to be different – the cause of following holiness. But there’s one little detail also included in the  same article, which they do not comment on – a detail that has been omitted from all the other accounts I have seen about Galla. These all tell how, as reported by St Gregory, St Peter appeared to Galla in her final illness to predict the date of her imminent death. The other reports omit the crucial detail that the deaths of Galla and Benedicta were directly linked – at Galla’s express request to Peter:

One night she saw St. Peter standing before her between two candlesticks and she asked him if her sins were forgiven her. St. Peter nodded and said, “Come, follow me.” But Galla asked if her dear friend Benedicta might come too. Yes, she might, said St. Peter, after thirty days — and that is precisely what happened. St. Galla and another holy woman departed this life for heaven three days later, and Benedicta thirty days after them.

 As Censor Librorum at  Nihil Obstat noted in her reflection on Galla last December, a woman who first grows or threatens to grow a beard to avoid marriage, and then implores Saint Peter to allow her female beloved to accompany her into heaven, is not displaying a conventional heterosexual orientation.

I have no hesitation in hesitation in adding Saints Galla and Benedicta to my collection of queer saints and lovers.

St Paulinus of Nola: Bishop, Poet, Saint – and Gay: (June 22nd )

Although some would dispute the description of Paulinus as ‘gay’, the description seems to me entirely appropriate to his sensibility. Although history records no evidence of physical expression of his same sex attraction, nor is there any evidence against it.  Given the historical context he was living in (4th/5th century Roman empire) , when sex with either gender was commonplace for men at at all levels of society, inside and outside the Christian church, the absence of written records of private activities after 15 centuries is completely unremarkable.  Nor is the fact that he was married particularly significant – for Romans, marriage and sex with men were entirely compatible.
What is known is that he was married, but also passionately in love with a man, Ausonius, to whom he addressed exquisitely tender love poetry.   This is of sufficient quality and gay sensibility to be included in the Penguin book of homosexual verse:

“To Ausonius”

I, through all chances that are given to mortals, And through all fates that be, So long as this close prison shall contain me, Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven, Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken, And from the earth I shall have gone my way, Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me, There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me, Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee; Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin, Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections, Hold them as dear as life itself to be, Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.

[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]

It is surely entirely clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call “Gay”.  Paulinus’ feast day was on Monday of this week (June 22nd).  It is fitting that we remember him, and the multitude of other LGBT saints in the long history of the church.

Further reading:

For more  online, see Paul Hansall’s invaluable LGBT Catholic handbook, or the Catholic Encyclopedia(Note though that the latter’s entry on Paulinus is an excellent case study on how official Church history scrupulously edits out our LGBT history.  In a reasonably lengthy entry, Ausonius and the verses addressed to him are noted – but the essential facts that the relationship was passionate, or that the verses were clearly love poetry, are carefully filtered out.)

In print, see  John Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”, pp133 – 134.

Anselm of Canterbury: Gay Bishop, Gay Protector. 21/04

Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 – 1109, is important for the evidence he represents that the hostility of some Christians to homoerotic relationships has not always been typical of the institutional church. He has two claims in particular to attention from modern gay and lesbian Catholics. First, he is one of a band of notable medieval clerics who although personally celibate, exhibited a clear homoerotic sensibility, whose affectionate letters to his band of intimate male friends contribute to what John Boswell has described as a “medieval flowering” of a gay subculture, which was not again equalled until the latter part of the twentieth century.    He reminds us also, that just as there was then a homoerotic culture  deeply embedded in the catholic clergy, exactly the same applies today, as Mark Jordan has clearly shown (“The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism “).
St Anselm

Read some of these letters in Boswell, or read then on-line at Rictor Norton’s Best Beloved brother, extracts from his book: My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries.  

However, he is also important as an early protector of gay men from the rising tide of intolerance that came to dominate the later medieval and renaissance periods, intolerance that persevered today, and is widely mistaken for something which is somehow inherent to the Christian faith.  

From the Calendar of LGBT Saints: (April 21):

The Council of London in 1102 wanted to enact ecclesiastical legislation which declared – for the first time in English history – that homosexual behaviour was a sin, and they recommended that offending laymen be imprisoned and clergymen be anathematized.
But Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited the publication of their decree, advising the Council that homosexuality was widespread and few men were embarrassed by it or had even been aware it was a serious matter; he felt that although sodomites should not be admitted to the priesthood, confessors should take into account mitigating factors such as age and marital status before prescribing penance, and he advised counselling rather than punishment.



See Also:


The Medieval Flowering of Homoerotic Christianity
The Homoerotic Catholic Church


Books:


Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century


Jordan,Mark D: The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism
Norton, Rictor: My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries.  

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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.

Biblical Lovers

Right at the beginning, the Hebrew Bible opens with the greatest love story of them all – that of God for humankind. Chris Glaser (“Coming Out as Sacrament”) points out that at the most literal level, this can be seen as a same-sex relationship, as God is conventionally described with a male pronoun and Adam pictured as a man. However, even if we recognize that God is more properly pictured as omnigendered, the relevance of the idea is not diminished, and even enhanced. “Adam” is more properly seen in the earliest traditions as “ ‘adam“, that is humankind, and androgynous. We can therefore view both parties to this love relationship in whatever gender terms is most appropriate to us. The important point, which we really ought to remember, is that whoever we are, God’s love for us is unconditional, and is totally free of bias to any particular biological sex, gender role, or sexual orientation. This thought should sustain us, no matter how much we may sometimes feel condemned or rejected by the Church or by secular society.
Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Glaser notes that the two longest love stories are those of same sex couples. The love of David for Jonathan “surpasses that for women”, and the words of Ruth to Naomi, although from one woman to another, are regularly used in liturgies for marriage ceremonies. The Song of Songs is not between a same sex couple (although some believe it may originally have been so. See a discussion at The Wild Reed), but is nevertheless worth consideration, for its frank celebration of physical, erotic love, without being tied to procreation or even to marriage. This is simple, joyous celebration of love on its own terms – while also standing as a metaphor for God’s love for God’s people, just as our love relationships can also have sacramental value, in mirroring God’s love.
In the New Testament, we have the celebrated example of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, whoever he was (possibly, but not necessarily, John the Evangelist). It is unclear whether there was a physical dimension to this relationship – but some scholars believe there may have been, and there was once a popular tradition that the bridal couple in the wedding at Cana were precisely Jesus and his Beloved Disciple, John. Even if we reject this idea, we should remember the entirely orthodox idea that the Mass commemorates the wedding at Cana, as the marriage of Christ and his church. For half of all Catholics, this mystical marriage is certainly  male to male .
Martha and Mary are described as “sisters”, but this could be a euphemism. In the cultural context, they could well have been a lesbian couple. Equally, the Roman centurion and his “servant” probably included a sexual element in their relationship.
 

The Early Church

The early Christian Church honoured as saints several pairs of same sex couples. The Roman soldiers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are the best known, with Polyeuct and Nearchos another pair of military martyrs. Felicity and Perpetua are often mentioned as a corresponding pair of female martyrs.
Saints Galla and Benedicta were a devoted pair who lived in a 6th century Roman community of religious women. At about the same time, Symeon of Emessa and John were not martyrs, but hermits in Syria.  Theirs was not a sexual relationship, but it was clearly emotionally intimate, and was formally blessed by an abbot in what appears to have been a rite of adelphopoeisis, or “making brothers”.
This rite, formally recorded with specific liturgies for blessing in church, is an important reminder that for many centuries, the church regularly blessed same sex unions in church. (These rites still exist today, and can be easily adapted for modern blessing ceremonies). In addition to celebrating same sex unions in church as they were formed, the Church also recognized special unions at their dissolution in death.  Archaeological evidence from Macedonia shows many examples from the  4th to the 6th centuries of same sex couples who were buried in shared graves.
Also from about this period of the early church, we have a bishop and saint who celebrated homoerotic love in verse directed at his lover, Ausonius – St Paulinus of Nola.  In Ireland, there is some evidence that St Patrick may have taken a young (male) lover in later life, while St Brigid had her soulmate, Drogheda.
 

The Middle Ages.

As in the early church, there are notable examples of saints, bishops and abbots who are remembered for their literary output – addressed to the men they loved, either in verse or in letter form: Saint Aelred of Rievaulx wrote explicitly of the value of close spiritual friendship, and addressed intimate love letters to a series of special friends of his own. One notable example of this kind of intimate (but celibate) love between clerics was that of St Bernard of Clairvaulx, and Malachi, the Archbishop of Armagh, who  after death were buried in a shared grave. Alcuin of Tours also addressed love letters and poems to his own special friends, such as this one to Arno, the bishop at Salzburg:

Love has penetrated my heart with its flame,
And is ever rekindled with new warmth.
Neither sea nor land, hills nor forest,
nor even the Alps 
Can stand in its way or hinder it
From always licking at your inmost parts, good father…

Other notable saints and senior clerics who wrote love letters or erotic verse to their colleagues included Saint Anselm of CanterburyMarbod of RiennesArchbishop Baudri of Bourgeuil, a “Spanish Monk“,  Walafrid Strabo (c. 808-849) to the cleric Lutziger, Saint Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912), and Salamo (c. 860-920), and Egbert the monk, to Saint Boniface.
 
There are also others who are remembered not for their sanctity, but for their notoriety. It is said that in the early 11th century, the papal reign of Benedict IX became infamous for having “turned the Vatican into a male brothel”. Later in the 11th Century, under a reforming pope, Archbishop Ralph of Tours succeeded in having his lover John appointed as bishop of Orleans, even though the younger man was well known as a former bed-partner of many highly placed men in the Church and the royal court – including a previous archbishop, and also the king of France.
In the Western Church, there was a rite corresponding to the Eastern adelphopoeisis, known as the rite of “sworn brotherhood”, which Alan Bray describes in “The Friend”, especially from the medieval and later periods . This too has an echo in modern liturgies, for another term for the “sworn brother” was – “wedded brothers”.  Same sex “weddings” in Church are not newalthough the term then referred to a contract, not to marriage in the modern sense. (These “sworn brothers” did not necessarily include a sexual relationship, although some did, often in parallel with heterosexual marriages). One high profile example of these sworn brothers was that of the English king, Edward II, and Piers Galveston. (After his execution, Edward was for a time popularly venerated as a saint).
In addition to the practice of blessing same sex unions in Church, there is also abundant evidence of same sex couples who, like SS Bernard and Malachi, were buried in shared graves.  Bray describes many of these in the Western (especially the English) church, from the medieval period right up to the 19th century (Blessed John Henry Newman and St John Ambrose).

The Renaissance Paradox

With the persecution of “Sodomites” by the Inquisition and the secular authorities at their instigation, it is not surprising that there were fewer accounts of homoerotic relationships, and less literary celebration of same sex love. However, this does not mean that they did not occur. For those with sufficient power or influence in the church, male sexual relationships continued, at the highest level.  Pope Julius III was so infatuated with a young street urchin he fell in love with, that he appointed the youngster a cardinal at the grand age of 17 – in spite of a notable lack of any appropriate qualifications whatever. Pope Paul II is said to have died of a stroke – while being sodomized by a page boy. (For more on the gay popes, see “Gay Popes, Papal Sodomites“).

The Modern Period

 
The best known same sex relationship among the modern clergy is that of Blessed John Henry Newman and his beloved Ambrose St John, who were famously buried in a shared grave in Birmingham Oratory. Less well known are two examples of nineteenth century women from the United States. Phebe Ann Coffin Hannaford, possibly the first woman since ancient times to be ordained in a major Christian denomination, and lived openly with her partner Anne Miles. Saint Vida Scudder, who lived in a clearly lesbian relationship with her partner Florence Converse, is recognized as a saint by the American Episcopal Church.
In the twentieth and twenty first centuries, it has become possible for countless male and female couples to declare their loves openly, and even to have them formally recognized in church – as full marriages, or as blessing of unions. I’m not going to attempt to list them, here. While we celebrate the continuing advances to marriage equality, in church and in secular society, let us also recognize and honour all those same – sex couples who have preceded us in loving partnerships – whether sexual or celibate
[Updated January 2015]
 
Recommended Books
Bray, Alan: The Friend
Glaser, Chris: Coming Out as Sacrament


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