Same Sex Lovers in Church History

SS Sergius & Bacchus, Gay lovers, Roman soldires, martyrs and saints.
SS Sergius & Bacchus: Gay lovers, Roman soldiers, martyrs and saints.

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As LGBT Catholics, it is important to recognize that our counterparts have featured strongly in Church history, although modern bowdlerized versions thereof have airbrushed us out.  To redevelop a sense of our rightful place in the church, it is important that we recover and take ownership of this history.From a range of sources, I am assembling a partial roll call of same sex lovers (not necessarily genital, but certainly intimate) in the history of the Catholic Church.  There are many others. These are some that I have come across:

Biblical Lovers:

David the prophet and Jonathan, his lover (10th /11th Cent BC)

david_and_jonathan_icon The story of David and Jonathan is well known from the Hebrew bible.  It is not explicitly stated that there was a sexual relationship between them but the passionate language  is certainly that of lovers.

“And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soulof Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. “

Asher & Caleh.

Asher was a son of Solomon, Caleh a shepherd.  By some accounts these were the two lovers in the frankly erotic love poem, the “Song of Songs”, widely used as a metaphor for the love between God and humanity.   Usually presented as conventional heterosexual love, there is increasing recognition that the lovers were probably both men.

A translation by Dr Paul R Johnson directly from early texts includes the frankly homoerotic

How delightful you are Caleh,My lover-man, my other half.Your pleasing masculine love is better than wine.The smell of your body is better than perfume.Your moustache is waxed with honeycomb.Honey and milk are under your tongue.The scent of your clothing is like the smell of Lebanon.”

A review of this book, posted on the Wild Reed, notes that:

“It gets to the heart of the question of whether the Hebrews and early Christians were fundamentally homophobic, or whether, as John Boswell has maintained, homophobia was a later addition. Johnson has consulted with many Hebrew scholars, who reluctantly concede the validity of his revolutionary word-for-word translation.”

The “Song of Songs” was recommended to me by a retreat director early in  the most important, totally profound, retreat I have ever undertaken.  She made no mention of gender in the recommendation, but I immediately interpreted the texts in same -sex terms.  I believe that such reflections on this book contributed  significantly to the powerful  retreat experience that followed.  I strongly urge my male readers in particular to read and pray over this marvelous homoerotic love poem.

RuthNaomi

Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law. Some people argue that there was also a lesbian relationship between them (which is not necessarily contradicted by the legal relationship).  What really matters though, is the sheer quality of the devotion. Whether this was in any way physical, or purely emotional, is no the point. Theirs is an inspirational story of devotion and loyalty overcoming enormous difficulties fro women, which many women in our day still find helpful.   

Jesus John, the Beloved Disciple:

We cannot know precisely the nature of this relationship, but it was clearly a close one.  some people find the mere suggestion that this was a sexually intimate one positively offensive; at least one reputable biblical scholar (Kevin Jennings, in “The Man Jesus Loved” argues that it was indeed so).  I find the idea certainly plausible without being offensive, but also irrelevant.  There are other reasons for accepting that Jesus was at least gay – affirming, and that John represents a good role model.

Martha Mary - Described in the New Testament as ‘sisters’, but this may have been a euphemism for lesbian lovers.

The Roman Gay Centurion and his “pais” (= slave/lover).

Liturgical Rites of Same – Sex Union

The historians John Boswell and Alan Bray have shown for the Eastern and Western branches of the church that from the early middle ages until well into the Renaissance, there existed formal liturgies for blessing same- sex unions in church. Known as rites of “adelphopoeisis” (that is, “making brothers”) and “sworn brotherhood” in the east and west respectively, these were not exactly comparable to opposite – sex marriages – but then, no marriages from early Christian history were exactly comparable to modern marriage. There were however, some important points of similarity, in that they created legally recognized bonds of kinship between the partners, and also between their families – and were formally solemnized in church. These were much more serious than the simple buddy friendships between men, that we know today.

Some of these liturgies name as examples, couples from earlier church history to serve as exemplars, including:

The martyrs SS Sergius & Bacchus Roman soldiers and lovers,  who are both the best known lovers, and the best known saints, in gay church history. They are often adopted as symbols for gay Christian groups, and a wide range of images are commonly reproduced.  (see the picture above). Frequently named in the liturgical rites, they are sometimes promoted as suitable patron saints of (modern) same – sex marriage

The apostles Philip and Bartholomew,  who are also named in many of these early liturgies of same-sex union. The same two names recur in the modern Mass, as part of the Eucharistic prayer.

The  apostles Peter and Paul, are also sometimes named in these, but less frequently.

Other Saints and Martyrs from the Early Church

Polyeuct and Nearchos: third-century Roman soldiers who became saints. Their story is similar to that of Sergius and bBacchus, but not as  well-known.

Perpetua and Felicitas, Roman matyrs

SS Benedicta and Galla, Roman nuns and lovers. On the point of death, Galla is said to have seen St Peter in a vision, and pleaded with him that she should not have to leave her beloved lover Benedicta behind. Peter promised that Benedicta would follow within thirty days – and so she did.

SS Symeon of Emessa and John:  This pair of seventh century lovers met while travelling together on pilgrimage.  They both decided to abandon their families for each other and enter a monastery together.  They were tonsured together, and underwent a joint blessing by the Abbot, which appears to have been the rite of   “adelphopoeisis” (rite of same sex union, extensively researched by John Boswell). Leaving the Monastery, they lived together as hermits for nearly 30 years before parting.  This does not seem to have been a sexual relationship  (not unusual for religious married couples at the time), but it was clearly a committed, emotionally intimate, long-lasting partnership blessed by the church.

Paulinus of Nola, bishop and saint who wrote homoerotic poems to his lover Ausonius.

Medieval Period

SS Boris and George A Russian prince and his Hungarian lover

Bishops Ralph of Tours and John of Orleans

St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was notable for the intensity of his (chaste) relationships with this predecessor at Canterbury, and a succession of his pupils.

St Aelred of Rievaulx, who wrote a book on the spiritual value of intimate friendship between male couples

Blessed Bernardo de Hoyos, who described himself as a “spouse of Christ”

SS Bernard of Clairvaulx and Malachi

Buried together as couples:

In many older churches, we find memorial tombstones for married  couples buried together. In some churches, there are similar memorials for same – sex couples buried together. The English historian Alan Bray describes a number of these in his book “The Friend”. Similarly, archeologists have found evidence from grave stones in Macedonian Christian burial sites of a number of same – sex couples buried together, just as married couples sometimes were. There will be many more such instances. The names listed here are simply a few examples.

Faustinos and Donatos: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  4th century

Posidonia, and Pancharia: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  4th to 5th century.

Kyriakos and Nikandros: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  4th to 5th century.

Gourasios and Konstantios: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  4th to 6th century.

Euodiana and Dorothea: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  5th century.

Martyrios, presbyter, and Demetrios, lector: buried together at Edessa, in Macedonia.  5th to 6th century.

Eudoxios, presbyter, and of the sinner John, deacon: buried together at Edessa, in Macedonia.  5th to 6th century.

Droseria and Eudoxia: buried together at Edessa, in Macedonia.  5th to 6th century.

Athanasios and Chryseros: buried together at Edessa, in Macedonia.  5th to 6th century.

Alexandra and Glukeria: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  6th century

Dicul and Maelodran the wright:  buried together in the church at Delgany, County Wicklow.

Ultan and Dubthach: buried together in the church at Termonfechin, County Louth, near Drogheda.

John Bloxham and John Wyndham: buried together in Merton College Chapel, Oxford.  14th Century.

King Edward II and Piers Galveston:  well known as gay lovers, their relationship as ‘sworn brothers’ was recognised by the church.

William NevilleJohn Neville:  English knights, buried together in Galata, near Constantinople 14th Century

Nicholas Molyneux and John Winters: made a compact of ‘sworn brotherhood, made in the church of St Martin of Harfleur. 15th century.

John Finch and Thomas Baines buried together in Christ’s College Chapel, Cambridge.  17th Century.

Fulke GrevilleSir Phillip Sidney: the joint monument Greville planned for himself and Sidney in St Paul’s cathedral was never built.  But the simple intention alone indicates the natrure of the relationship, as also its recognition by the church.

Cardinal John Henry Newman and Fr. Ambrose St.John: buried together, 19th C.

Recommended Books:

Boisvert, Donald : Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints

Boisvert, Donald : Out on Holy Ground: Meditations on Gay Men’s Spirituality

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Bray, AlanThe Friend

Cleaver, Richard: Know My Name – A Gay Liberation Theology

Jordan, Mark D:The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism

O’Neill: Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People

4 comments for “Same Sex Lovers in Church History

  1. December 19, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Wow, it seems to me that you have really improved and expanded this post! I keep returning to it again and again as a reference, and it just keeps getting better. Thanks and happy holidays.

    • December 20, 2009 at 8:12 am

      Thanks, Kitt. As with all these back pages, my intention has always been to keep returning and refining, prompted by new information or corrections received, until they become a solid and reliable resource, suitalbe for use exactly as you seem to be doing.

      I’ve not done enough of this revisiting so far, but I hope to do more with my planned improvements for the New Year. Happy Holidays to you – and also a blessed Christmas.

  2. December 19, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Do we dare consider adding Jesus and the Beloved Disciple?

    • December 20, 2009 at 8:16 am

      Right, Kitt. The feast day is Dec 27th, so there will be a discussion coming up on a dedicated post. Your question has reminded me to add a summary of the post to the Lovers page. At teh same time, I will update some other pairs where I now know more.

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