Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.
The Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include into their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships as well as the books of the prophets who were eunuchs.
The Christian Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality which may have included some male love interest. However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example , which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds.
After the Gospels, the most important Christian writings are the letters of Paul, who has a reputation as strongly condemning same sex behaviour – but a more careful consideration of his life as well as his letters, in their own context, can offer a different perspective.
The cultural context of the early was one where they were political and even social outcasts, in a society of a bewildering range of attitudes to sexuality, ranging from substantial sexual licence for Roman citizens, to negligible freedom of sexual choice for slaves, to sexual abstemiousness for those influenced by Greek stoicism. The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of martyred Roman soldiers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions), cross-dressing monks.
In addition to the examples of individuals who were honoured as saints, there are also important examples from Church practice. Evidence from archaeology and written records shows clearly that from the late Roman period onwards, the Church made liturgical provision for the recognition of same sex couples. From Macedonia, there is extensive evidence of Christian same sex couples who were buried in shared graves. More telling evidence for church recognition of same sex couples comes from the existence of formal liturgical rites for blessing their unions. In the Eastern Church, these rites (known as “adelphopoeisis”) date from the late Roman period. In the Western Church, where the evidence begins a little later, they were known as making of “sworn brothers”.
The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.
This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.
By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections.
It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops.
However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy. Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.
Symbolically, the great change can be seen as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc – martyred not for the Church, but by the Church, for reasons that combined charges of heresy with her cross-dressing. A combination of charges of heresy and “sodomy” were also the pretext for the persecution and trials of the Knights Templar – masking the naked greed of the secular and clerical powers which profited thereby. The same confusion of “sodomy” and heresy led to an expansion of the persecution from the Templars to wider group, and also the expansion of the methods and geographic extent, culminating in the executions of thousands of alleged “sodomites” across many regions of Europe. This persecution was initially encouraged or conducted by the Inquisition, later by secular authorities alone – but conducted according to what the church had taught them was a religious justification. Even today, the belief that religion justifies homophobic violence is often given as a motivation by the perpetrators – and the fires that burned the sodomites of the fifteenth century had a tragic echo in the gay holocaust of the second world war.
Yet even at the height of the persecution, there was the paradox of a succession of popes, who either had well-documented relationships with boys or men, or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture. This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally.
Modern Martyrs, Modern Revival
The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century). From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods. In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.
In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.
Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members. However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity, refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.
Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.
November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognized and canonized saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For queers in Church, it is especially a day for us to remember our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church – and that we, too, are called to martyrdom, in its literal sense: to bear witness, in our lives, to our truth.
Epilogue: All Saints
(Note: The synopsis as written above is an outline of the history as I presently understand it, written in a sitting for overall continuity. It includes assertions that I have not checked, and impressions that will surely alter as I continue to explore, research, and reflect. There will certainly be errors, and I welcome any submissions from readers to point them out.
This post will be subject to regular correction and moderate expansion as a whole, and of the links that in contains. I will also embark on a series of expansions, with additional links, for specific periods – which should ultimately become the main divisions of the envisaged book which I hope will be the end-product).