St John, and Jesus’s Gay Wedding at Cana.

I have written before about St John, the “Beloved Disciple”. Recently, I came across a reflection on the miracel at the wedding at Cana, which added a new dimension, after I dipped into two books, and found ideas that amplified  each other with powerful effect, especially in the current context of advances for marriage equality and the bishops’ opposition. “Take Back the Word” (ed Robert Goss) is a compilation of writings on Scripture designed to take us as queer Christians beyond battles with the “texts of terror”, to an approach more in keeping with what it should be, a source of inspiration and value in our lives.  “Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body ” (ed Gerard Loughlin) is a broader and more ambitious compilation, of writing on a range of dimensions of faith from a queer perspective.
Who was getting married?
In the introduction to his book, Loughlin reflects on the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana, (John 2: 1 – 11) which we usually think of in terms of the transformation of water into wine. Immediately I thought of this as a wonderful alternative image for Goss’s “Take Back the Word”. It is one thing for us to move beyond a fear of Scripture to a point where it is the “water” of life: but how can we go beyond even that, to the “wine” of celebration?  This, I thought, is what Elizabeth Stuart does in a short piece “Camping Around the Canon”, which (as it happens) she ends with some thoughts on weddings. Stuart’s point is that we need to be able to approach Scripture with laughter, which is too often absent from religious practice. After a concise exposition of the historical and theological justification for the approach, she offers just one illustration of what she means,  discussing Ephesians, 5:21-33 (“Wives, submit to your husbands”), which is so often used at weddings, and which for women can so easily become a text of terror. Hearing it read at weddings, she says, left her “churning with anger”. But an analysis by Gerard Loughlin changed her reaction from tragic to comic, as the “heteropatriarchal” readings are
undermined and washed away in the deeper waters of the Christian symbolic, for insofar as as women are members of the body, they too are called to be Christ to others; so that they too must also act as “groom” and “husband”; to the “bride” and “wife” of the other, whether it is to a man or woman.  For it cannot be said that within the community only men are called to love as Christ does.”
-Gerard Loughlin, “Baptismal Fluid“, unpublished paper quoted by Stuar
Stuart comments:
Loughlin’s reading of the text had transformed it into a queer text. The very incongruity of this reading with the “original” reading is enough to stimulate laughter. I find it funny that this passage should be read so often and do solemnly at weddings, the great ceremony of heteropatriarchy.
-Stuart, Camping Around the Canon, in Goss “Take Back the Word
I remember a comparable insight and laughter from my own experience. Once on retreat, I found myself reflecting on the familiar image of the Church as the bride of Christ, and realized that as a gay man, I was spared the oddity (for straight men) of imagining myself as “bride”, and instead was able to picture myself in my meditation as “groom” of Christ – a meditation that became extremely powerful. Looking  back on it later, I found satisfaction and humour in the realisation that my orientation had given me a unique advantage in my prayer.
This left me with a predisposed receptivity to Loughlin’s main ideas concerning the wedding at Cana.  Instead of considering the miracle of transformation, he asks instead, “Who is it that was married?”. He answers the question in stages.
First, he points out that the story should be read as a parable, with distinct anticipation of the Last Supper,  Passion and Resurrection. The wedding takes place on “the third day” (anticipating the resurrection) after He has talked with Nathanel (John 1:43 -51), and the transformation of water into wine anticipates the transformation of wine into His blood. In a liturgical setting, the Mass recalls these three days. So, it is a standard idea that symbolically, in the church’s recollection of the story, we are all guests at the wedding, where Christ is marrying his Church.   At one level closer to the literal, it is Christ marrying his disciples. Loughlin then goes on to discuss a fascinating more literal idea from the early and medieval church – that it was indeed Christ who was married – to John, the beloved disciple. This idea was articulated in the apocryphal Acts of John, in which it is said that John broke off his betrothals to a woman to “bind himself” to Jesus. This was apparently a common strand in some German medieval thinking, right up until the Reformation, and is visually illustrated in some surviving art.  In a  “Libellus for John the Evangelist”, a painting of the wedding feast is said to feature a bearded Christ seated next to a beardless, androgynous John – whom, says Loughlin, he appears about to kiss.  In the “Admont Codex” illustrated manuscript of  St Anselm’s “Prayers and Meditations”, an illustration in two parts shows John’s story. In one, John is seen leaving his female betrothed. In the companion piece, he is lying on the ground with this head on Jesus’s breast, while Jesus himself is tenderly caressing his chin.
Is this tradition “true”? We cannot know. Like so much much else in Scripture, it is impossible to get through the mists produced by unfamiliar language, a different literary tradition, and remote historical /cultural context to get close to the literal “truth” behind the text.   No matter. Even without accepting  this idea literally, it is enough for me to know that it was once widely accepted in the mystical tradition, and to incorporate it into my reader response.
It is when Loughlin moves beyond the “meaning” of the text to its multiple ironies that the fun starts. This where, in sympathy with Elizabeth Stuart, I found myself quite literally laughing with Scripture.  For if it is true that the consecration of Eucharistic wine into Christ’s bloods is prefigured in the Cana transformation of water into wine, then we can see that in every Mass we are commemorating  Christ’s own wedding with His (male) disciples. Every Mass can be seen as a mystical gay wedding.  That Mass is celebrated by a priest who has committed himself to celibacy, and so forswears procreation himself, but is expected to preach against gay marriage or others – because homosexual intercourse, being unable to procreate, is “intrinsically disordered“. The priesthood in turn, is run by a a similarly celibate coterie in the Vatican which reproduces itself by recruitment not biological reproduction – and castigates the homosexual community for its own social, not biological reproduction.
The threat posed by gays and lesbians to family and society is often proclaimed by men – named “fathers”- who have vowed never to to beget children. The pope lives in a household of such men – a veritable palace of “eunuchs”for Christ  – that reproduces itself by persuading others not to procreate. Why us the refusal of fecundity – the celibate lifestyle – not also a threat to family and society?
-Loughlin, introduction to “Queer Theology”

“Not-a lesbian”, “Not a Saint”, Benedetta Carlini,Visionary Nun (1590 – 1661 )

Earlier this week, the Catholic Church marked the feast day of SS Martha and  Mary. In my post here, and in the comments thread for Kittredge Cherry’s corresponding post at Jesus in Love Blog, there was some attention given to the nature of their relationship. Were they literally “just” sisters? Was the word a euphemism for a different kind of relationship? Is it fair to call them “lesbians”?  Does it matter?
I believe that the very attempt to force people into sexual categories is a trap. This is what has created the myth in the first place of a normative heterosexual identity within an opposite sex, monogamous marriage. The truth is that in nature and in human societies the world over and in all periods of history, relationships and forms of sexual expression are bewildering in their diversity. Trying to apply modern words to historic patters is particularly dangerous, as the attempt risks burying the past in the baggage carried by those words. This was clearly illustrated for me when I read this morning about Bernadetta Carlini, an Italian visionary whose description as a “lesbian nun” clouds more than it illustrates – even though the one thing that is not contested in her story is that it featured regular sex with a woman (sometimes described as the earliest recorded instance of lesbianism in modern history).

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St Paul’s Celebration of God’s Gift of Sexuality.

The standard view of sex and the Bible is that sexuality must be reigned in, and restricted to the confines of marriage. The standard view, says Norwegian scholar Reidulf Molvaer (Two Making One : Amor and Eros in Tandem), is wrong.
St Paul (El Greco)
"Dominant views about sex have in most churches been distorted by centuries of negative accretions and become travesties of what we find in the Bible." – Dr. Reidulf Molvaer. In this book Dr. Reidulf Molvaer attempts to recapture the joyful, cheerful abandon in legitimate sexual relationships that we see in the Bible-yes, the Bible! From the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament to Saint Paul's advice on intimacy in the New Testament, you are presented with the real meanings of these ancient texts and learn why the Church has interpreted the Song as an allegory rather than as a description of the joyous sexual experience it truly is. Could there be any greater glorification of sex than to let ideal love between man and woman illustrate the union between the devout and the divine? Dr. Molvaer demystifies "fairytale images" of the Virgin Mary, compares biblical sexual ethics to various cultures and discusses tales of eccentrics who have been elevated to sainthood. This book rediscovers what has been misrepresented for generations and encourages Christians and others to think afresh about one of the greatest and most disputed acts of devotion found in the Holy Bible.

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Gay Bishops: How Many?

 Bishop Mary Glasspool has now been consecrated as a bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles, making her the second openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church. Some sources are describing her as the second gay bishop  in history” – but that would be pushing it, and is breathtaking in its cultural myopia.

Bishop Mary Glasspool (image Wkipedia)
Bishop Mary Glasspool (image Wkipedia)

So, for context and a refresher once again of how deeply homoerotic relationships have been embedded in the Christian church, I offer some reminders. Mary Glasspool is the first openly lesbian bishop in the Episcopal church, but not the first lesbian bishop globally: That would be Bishop  Eva Brunne, consecrated by the Swedish Lutherans last year (2009).

Eva Brunne, Bishop of Stockholm
Eva Brunne, Bishop of Stockholm 

Popular reports name Bishop Gene Robinson as the first gay bishop, but that’s oversimplifying. He was the first modern bishop in the Anglican communion to be consecrated while openly gay, but there have been others before him who came out openly after being named bishop – for example, Otis Charles, also of Utah, Derek Rawcliffe of Glasgow and Galloway in the Scottish Episcopalian church, and Mervyn Castle of False Bay (part of the Archdiocese of Cape Town in the Anglican, “Church of the Province of South Africa”).

In the days of the early church, Bishop Paulinus of Nola not only had a boyfriend, he commemorated his love in some frankly erotic love poetry. Bishop Venantius Fortunatus was another. Both of these men are canonized saints. Bishop Arno of Salzburg may not have written erotic verse, but he received some, from Saint Alcuin of Tours. (He also had a relationship with Paulinus, as did Alcuin, in some kind of clerical threesome).  Bishop Marbod of Rennes (11th century) also wrote erotic verse to a boyfriend, but was not canonized. Other early bishops also had male lovers,  but because they are not remembered as saints, and have not left memorable erotic verse, we do not know their details.

We do know about the ordination of one openly gay bishop, John of Orleans,  in the eleventh century, at the instigation of his lover Ralph, the  Archbishop of Tours, because of the scandal it caused. This scandal was not because John was both gay and famously promiscuous, but because of his youth and Ralph’s obvious nepotism. How many other openly gay bishops were consecrated at that time without the same scandal, we just don’t know.

Clouding the issue of “gay” bishops is one of terminology, especially against a background of monastic celibacy. There are strong grounds for describing another recognised saint, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, as “gay”, even if celibate, on the basis of his writing and passionate love letters to his monastic “friends”.  He  should definitely be remembered as a protector of gays, for rejecting a decision by the London synod to impose harsh penalties for homosexual actions.

Then are the succession of gay popes: Julius II, Julius IIIPaul II, and possibly John XII (r. 955-964), Benedict IX (r. 1033-1045; 1047-1048), John XXII (r. 1316-34), Paul II (r. 1464-1471), Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Julius II (r. 1503-1513) and Leo X (r. 1513-1521) (See Jesse’s Journal at Gay Today).

In the modern Catholic Church , there have been no openly gay bishops or popes, but there have certainly been many in the closet. There are credible claims that that Paul VI may have had his share of boyfriends, at least before becoming pope, and similar suggestions that the “Smiling Pope“, John Paul I, may have been gay. And on Wiki Answers, there is a claim that Pope Benedict himself is gay.

Then there are certainly hundreds of closeted gay bishops in the Catholic Church. The late Cardinal Spellman of New York was notorious in his day. Allegations have been made against Cardinal Wuerl of Washington and others who surround themselves with obviously gay fan clubs – while publicly attacking LGBT equality.

I accept that hard as it is to be openly gay as a Catholic priest, it will be obviously that much harder as a bishop. But I do wish journalists,  who undoubtedly have the required evidence, would be less reticent about outing those gay bishops who are publicly hostile. If it is too much to hope that we in the Catholic Church can expect any time soon to see bishops coming out publicly to join their Episcopal and Lutheran counterparts, perhaps the threat of involuntary outing could at least dampen their public hostility to civil rights advances.

See also:

Outing the Church: Gay Popes, Gay Bishops

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Trans Saints? Cross-Dressing Monks

The “LGBT Catholic Handbook lists an intriguing group of transvestite saints – women who took on men’s clothing in order to live as monks. The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, but the Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia however, dismisses the tales as ‘hagiographic fiction.’ The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. Still, whatever the full historic truth, it seems to me these are useful stories to hold on to as reminders of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered, in our midst. Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting our sexual identities, consider how much more challenging must be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis.
icon-of-appoliarios1
“I have treated these saints as a group as their stories are often similar. These are the large number of saints who were famous for their holy cross-dressing. All of these were women, and the stories, largely but not exclusively fictional, generally have them escaping marriage or some other dreaded end by dressing as monks. This is no short term ploy, however. The women then live their lives as men (in direct contradiction to the Levitical Law which calls cross-dressing an “abomination”), some of them becoming abbots of monasteries. In such positions it is hard to imagine that they would not perform roles such as confessor. Their biological sex is only discovered after they die. It is sometimes argued that these transvestite saints did not cross-dress because they wanted to but because they had to, and so calling them “transvestites” is wrong. It is true that we know nothing of the psychology of these women, but when they dressed as man for 20 years and became abbots of monasteries, it is hard to know in what way they were being “forced” to cross-dress. These women chose to live their Christian lives as members of the opposite biological sex – it is fair to see them as “transgendered”. There are no male saints, it seems, who dressed as women (with the possible exception of Sergius and Bacchus, who were forcibly paraded through the streets in women’s clothes). At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have “male souls”, a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women’s lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.
  • St. Anastasia the Patrician (or “of Constantinople”) March 10th ORC/ORTH
  • St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople Oct 29 ORTH
  • St. Apollinaria/Dorotheos Jan 5, 6 ORTH
  • St. Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9 ORTH
  • St. Eugenia/Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th ORTH
  • St. Euphrosyne/Smaragdus Feb 11th ORC (Sept 25 ORTH)
  • St. Marina of Sicily July 20th ORTH
  • St. Marina/Marinos of Antioch July 17th ORTH (July 20th ORC – as St. Margaret)
  • St. Mary/Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th ORTH
  • St. Matrona/Babylas of Perge Nov 9 ORTH
  • St. Pelagia/Pelagios June 9 ORC (Oct 8 ORTH)
  • St. Theodora/Theodorus of Alexandria Sept 11 ORTH
  • St. Thekla of Iconium Sept 23 ORC (Sept 24 ORTH) See also
  • St. Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th ORC d. 1188 OE: A nun who lived under the name “Brother Joseph” in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg.
  • St. Uncumber [or ] July 20th ORC A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders) She was represented as a bearded women on a cross.

Gay Saints: Do They Exist? Do They Matter?

Lovers & Martyrs?

“Sergius & Bacchus: Lovers & Martyrs?”

The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition. Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.

Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints. For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous ‘worship’ of the saints; for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints: remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regions of Europe. There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people – creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships. (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with ‘sin’.) Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness. We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe. There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate. But we in the LGBT community remain excluded – or think we are. “How great it would be”, we think, if we too could have saints of our own. It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised ‘gay saints’ in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these. Is it realistic to think of these as ‘gay saints’? Is it helpful? I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably “No”, at least not as narrowly defined. But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, “Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly.” The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic. For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem. Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as ‘gay’. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there. So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined? I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria: agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay. Nevertheless, I don’t think this is important. It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised. The “communion of saints” includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese ‘gay’. (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered ‘heterosexual’). By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many ‘gay saints’ that have gone before us, and many who still live among us. This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation – but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history. It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed ‘gay saints’.

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