Category Archives: Bible

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”

Martha and Mary, July 29th

The household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus is well known to us from the Gospels, where they are described as “sisters” and their brother Lazarus. They are also known to us as Jesus’ friends, and their home as a place he visited for some rest and hospitality.  The problem is, that the story is perhaps too familiar: we are so used to hearing of them and their home since childhood, that we automatically accept the words and visualize the family in modern terms, just as we did as children.  To really understand the significance of this family, we need to consider the social context.

 In the modern West, we are accustomed to a wide range of family and household types. Although the socially approved ideal remains the nuclear family, with one husband, one wife, children and pets, we recognize many others as well: single person households; communal living, especially for young adults; same sex couples; and siblings (or other family members) sharing a home.  In the Biblical world, economic and social conditions dictated that just one model was nearly universal. A patriarchal male established a household, and controlled within it wives, concubines, sons, daughters and slaves. Sons remained within their father’s household and its economic basis until they had the resources to set up on their own. Daughters remained with their families until they were married off by their fathers, to submit to their new husbands. Their entire existence was dependent on the men who controlled them – fathers, brothers, or husbands. A single woman living independently of men was remarkable. Two women living together would have been exceptional. They are described as “sisters”, but that may not be in the literal sense – the term was commonly used to describe what we would describe as a lesbian relationship. This may or may not have included sexual intimacy, but it was most certainly a household in open defiance of the standard gender expectations for women, and so I have no hesitation in describing them as “queer”.

We should also pause a moment, and consider briefly their brother Lazarus. He is best known to us in the story of his rising from the dead, but in the context of the household, he appears to be a minor figure. Although Hebrew families were dominated by the males, with sons taking control of the women after a father’s death, in a household of siblings, we would normally expect that with one brother and two sisters, the man should be the master of the household: but that is emphatically not the picture of Lazarus that comes across from the Gospel. He too can be described as “queer” on that basis alone, although there is a lot more that could be said about Lazarus as a possible lover of Jesus.

This week though, the Church celebrated the feast of Martha and Mary, and so it is on the sisters that I want to concentrate.

When I reflect on the story of Martha and Mary as I have grown up with it since childhood, the image that sits with me indelibly is of the hospitality that they offered. Hospitality should be a core Christian value. In the traditional Hebrew desert community, hospitality to travellers was a primary virtue: without it, they could easily die, and at one time or another, anyone could find himself a traveller in the desert, dependent himself on the hospitality of strangers. The family itself, with its total interdependence, can be seen as a model of mutual, reciprocal hospitality. Through the institution of marriage, creating linkages between households and family networks binding the entire society, hospitality between households was the social glue binding the entire society.

 As we know to the present day, the most powerful element and symbol of hospitality is the shared meal. It is not for nothing that the Mass is constructed around the commemoration of a meal. Hospitality and community go to the heart of the Christian ideal: this certainly is how I understand the concept of God’s Kingdom on earth. Where we have full, mutual hospitality and community, love inevitably grows, and there can be no possibility of injustice.

 The challenge must be to make  certain that the hospitality really does extend to all. We as gay men an women know to our cost that very often it does not apply to us, and we must continue to work to secure that hospitality for ourselves: but we must likewise ensure that we too, offer hospitality, both within our community and beyond it. Let us never forget that the clearest symbol of hospitality in the Gospels is seen in a queer household.  Let us strive in our modern queer community to model and embody the spirit of hospitality to the wider world.

See also :

Jesus in Love BlogMartha and Mary: Sisters, or Lesbian Couple?, in Kittredge Cherry’s excellent, continuing  series on LGBT saints

 

 

The (Gay) Roman Centurion and his “Boy”

In Catholic tradition, March 15th is the feast day of “Longinus”,  the name given to the Roman centurion at the crucifixion who pierced Christ’s side with his spear.  Some writers, like Paul Halsall of the LGBT Catholic Handbook, also identify him with the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his “beloved boy”, who was ill. It is this second person that I am interested in here.  In this persona, he is one of my personal favourites, as his story shows clearly how the Lord himself is completely not hostile to a clearly gay relationship, and also because we hear a clear reminder of this every time we attend Mass – if only we have ears to hear.
It may be that you do not recall any Gospel stories about a gay centurion and his male lover, but that is because cautious or prudish translators have softened the words of the text, and because the word “gay” is not really appropriate for the historical context. You are more likely to know as the story as the familiar one of the Roman centurion and his “servant” – But this is a poor translation. Matthew uses the word “doulos“, which means slave, not a mere servant.  Luke uses quite a different word, “pais“, which can mean servant boy – but more usually has the sense of a man’s younger male lover – or “boyfriend”.Whichever of the two words or their senses was intended by the authors, the conclusions we should draw are the same. If “pais”  was intended here to indicate a lover, the conclusion is obvious.  If the intended meaning was either “slave ” or “servant” – the conclusion does not significantly change. To see this, let us consider the cultural context. For three centuries before Christ, the Jews had been under foreign military occupation, first by the Greeks (which is why demotic Greek had become lingua franca across the region, and was the language of the New Testament), then by Romans. These military overlords were about as well liked as any other military invaders anywhere – which is not at all.  The Jews hated them – but will have been quite familiar with Greek and Roman cultural (and sexual) practices.

continue reading

St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ascension Day: Jesus Returns to God” (Jesus in Love Blog)

“As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” — Acts 1:9 (RSV)

A male couple seems to dance skyward in a vision of the Ascension from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Doug Blanchard, a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Churches celebrate the Feast of the Ascension today (May 9).

Ascension, 22 J Returns To God.

The loving couple seems to dance in a mystical homoerotic union. Jesus, shirtless and wearing blue jeans, swoons in the arms of a dance partner who appears to be a hunky angel. But they both have crucifixion wounds on their wrists. Jesus is embraced directly by God! The position of their arms suggests a ballroom dance, perhaps a waltz, with God’s hand planted firmly on Jesus’ buttocks.

Detail from “Jesus Returns to God”

Beams of white light stream from God’s head in a bright sunburst, almost obliterating the blue sky. His wings look muscular, as if God must work hard to lift the dead weight of Jesus up from the earth. The wounds in Jesus’ wrists and feet were dark before, but now they glow like hot-pink jewels. Dissolving into white at the top, this is the lightest painting in Blanchard’s Passion series, contrasting with the pitch-black panel of “Jesus Among the Dead.” Now the misty clouds even spill over the frame on the lower left. The Bible and creeds make it clear where the dancing couple is headed. Soon Jesus will sit at the right hand of God.

– continue reading at Jesus in Love Blog

Esther and Vashti

Queen Esther, a role model for LGBTQ people, helped save the Jews from destruction in ancient Persia, an event commemorated today in the Jewish festival of Purim (Feb. 23-24 this year). LGBT Jews see her as an inspiration for coming out. A possible lesbian love story between Biblical queens Esther and Vashti has fired the imagination of a lesbian playwright, while a scholar says both queens are role models for gay and lesbians in ministry.

Queen Esther by Jim Padgett, Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing (Wikimedia Commons)
Queen Esther by Jim Padgett, Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing (Wikimedia Commons)

Esther hid her Jewish identity in order to become the next queen of Persia. Later she “came out” as Jewish to the king, thereby saving her people from a planned massacre. Their story is told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament). Vashti was a Persian queen who refused to obey a summons from her drunken husband, the king.

The Washington Post article Gay Jews Connect Their Experience To Story of Purim reports that some see Purim as an unofficial LGBT Pride Day. Esther is traditionally considered the heroine of the story, but independent-minded Vashti has been reclaimed by feminists and now LGBT people.

Lesbian playwright Carolyn Gageimagined a love story between the two queens in her play “Esther and Vashti.” Gage describes her play as “a fast-paced, high-action drama where the love story of two women of different cultures and class backgrounds plays itself out against a backdrop of anti-Semitism and the sexual colonization of women.” Her “radical feminist retelling” fills in the blanks of scripture. In her version, Esther, a radical Jewish lesbian living in exile, and Vashti, a Persian woman of privilege, were lovers before Vashti married the king. The plight of the two women coincides with their successful effort to stop the impending massacre of the Jews.

-continue reading at Jesus in Love blog

Enhanced by Zemanta

Three Queers from the East: Thoughts for the Epiphany

Earlier in the week, I wrote that some Bible stories are so familiar, we do not stop to consider their significance. I could also add, that some others are so familiar, we do not stop to ask if they are accurate. A case in point is that of today’s feast of the Epiphany, which we routinely celebrate as the visit of the three kings of the East to the infant Jesus – but the Gospel text does not specify that there were three, nor that they were kings.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
 

It is the term “magi” that has been traditionally adapted to “wise men”, or corrupted in popular imagination to “kings”. Astrologer-magicians, in the Zoroastrian religion, would be a more accurate translation. (Note the obvious linguistic connection between “magus” and “magic”). Kittredge quotes Nancy Wilson and Virginia Mollenkott, to suggest that the Magi were probably either eunuchs, or trans.

David the Prophet & Jonathan, His Lover

The story of David and Jonathan is one of those most frequently quoted in any discussion of biblical same sex relationships. As with the stories of Ruth & Naomi, or of Jesus and John (the “beloved disciple”), it is similarly bedeviled by discussion over the degree of physical intimacy involved (was there or wasn’t there?), and the impossibility of knowing for certain.
Personally, I see these questions as something of a distraction, just as I do with the other cases. Gay men are frequently accused of being “obsessed” with genital sex. If we only accept as “gay” those men for whom we know there was this genital activity, we are simply reinforcing the stereotype. I prefer simply to recognize that there was clearly a deeply intimate emotional relationship here, and to ignore the degree of physical expression. (Chris Glaser has pointed out that whatever the nature of the relationships, the stories of David & Jonathan, and of Ruth and Naomi, are the two longest love stories told in the Bible – longer than any obviously heterosexual love stories. Marriage in Biblical times was not about love. See “Coming Out as Sacrament“)
However, for those who are determined to dig deeper, there is a reference by John McNeill (in Sex as God Intended) which is worth thinking about.

Read more »

Enhanced by Zemanta

St John the Evangelist, the “Beloved Disciple”: December 27th

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

Read more »

Let Us Remember, for Dec 17th

The Three Young Men in the Burning Fiery Furnace

Lazarus of Bethany: Jesus’ beloved disciple?

We are probably all familiar with the story of Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary – but probably forget that all three were particularly close friends of Jesus. Some even believe that Lazarus of Bethany was the “beloved disciple” of Jesus — and maybe even his gay lover.

Van Gogh, Raising Lazarus

– more at Jesus in Love

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...