Ever since I began writing for the Queer Church, one of the key themes I have been exploring has been that of the place of LGBT men and women in Christian history – recognized and unrecognised saints, martyrs for the church, some who have been martyred by the church directly or indirectly, and those who have achieved remarkable high office in the church, as popes, bishops or abbots in spite of clear homoerotic interests and activities.
As I have explored individuals and notable groups, I have been seeing the outline of a narrative thread underlying them, which I have been using to draw them together into what I hope will become a book for publication. The outline for the book I have previously published, as a synopsis, and as a reflection of the feast of All (Gay) Saints. I have now expanded this synopsis one level, which I will be posting in instalments over the coming week, under six main divisions. For a preview of these posts and the work in progress, follow the links to my “Queer Saints and Martyrs” pages here at Queering the Church, and from them to the detailed posts on individuals and groups at my satellite site, “Queer Saints and Martyrs – and others”.
Prologue: Before Christianity
Same sex relationships in other religions, in the stories of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and in the Gospels (before the disciples of Christ came to be known as “Christians”)
The Early Christians: Saints and Martyrs for the Church
From both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, a wide range of men (and fewer women). These include pairs of lovers, martyrs for the church, bishops who wrote homoerotic verse, and cross-dressing women.
Christian Homoeroticism in the Middle Ages: Saints and Others
Boswell has been criticized by more recent academics for his assertion that the Middle Ages represented a great flowering of a gay sub-culture. However, even if he overstated his case and the term “gay” for this period is subject to misinterpretation, there is no doubt that there were numerous recognized saints and other senior clergy who freely used homoerotic imagery in their spiritual writing, and others who are notable for achieving high office as popes or bishops, in spite of well-known erotic relationships with men.
The prevalence of such relationships among the clergy prompted the most important of the calls for strong penalties against “sodomy”, by Alain de Lille and St Peter Damian in particular. For a long time though, these calls were rejected by the leaders of the Church.
The Great Persecution: Martyred by the Church
The figure of Saint Joan is of central importance to queer Christians, as a cross-dressing queer saint who was first martyred by the church, and later canonized. As the Middle Ages passed into the Early Renaissance, many thousands more alleged sodomites were tried and condemned to death by the church, either directly by the Inquisition or by secular authorities at its instigation.
Ecclesiastical involvement in these trials later gave way to purely secular proceedings, but the initial pseudo-religious motivation for declaring same-sex love a capital offence remained an important factor in the retention of the death penalty in many European countries right up to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and for the export of state-sanctioned persecution by the colonial powers to societies which had previously tolerated or even celebrated sexual minorities.
As secular authorities relaxed or withdrew criminal sanctions though, religious authorities applied a form of figurative martyrdom to gay or lesbian identified people in the church, attempting to censor the writing of theologians who dissented from the orthodox prohibitions, or excluding from ministry those who were seen to be gay or lesbian.
Modern Saints, Modern Martyrs.
In the early church, it was said that the growth of the faith was fed by the blood of the martyrs. Much the same thing appeared to be happening at the close of the twentieth century and start of the twenty first. “Martyr” means one who gives witness, and the witness of the LGBT identified men and women who refused to be silenced by the Church authorities has inspired many more. Over the last few decades there has been a great flowering of writing on faith and spirituality from a queer perspective, and of explicitly queer ministry.
Epilogue: All Saints, and the Call to Witness
“Sainthood” in Christian theology is not simply a matter of those few who have been formally recognised and canonized by the Catholic Church, but is a state to which we are all called.