same sex unions over 500 years old in the christian church

Discussion in 'Philosophy and Religion' started by ChiefCowpie, May 20, 2004.

  1. ChiefCowpie

    ChiefCowpie hugs and bugs

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    [size=+6]3rd Millennium Gateway[/size]
    A Guide and Index to Genuine Spirituality

    Book Review:
    [size=+1]The following review is a response to the callously repressive campaign by American politicians and religious leaders against gay marriage.[/size]

    Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
    by John Boswell

    Reviewed by Dennis L. Trunk

    For those who believe that gay marriage is a ludicrous idea, an abomination, the epitome of modern moral decay, here's a surprise. Publicly recognized same-sex unions - marriages in the modern sense of the term - are nothing new in Western culture and history. More surprisingly, they are nothing new within Christian ritual and tradition.

    In his 1994 landmark book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, the late John Boswell, who was the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University, presents convincing evidence that both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches performed same-sex union liturgies which strongly resemble heterosexual marriage ceremonies and which were practiced into modern times.

    Among the evidence Boswell presents are Greek texts of the ceremonies, along with their English translations. The texts are clear. There is no doubt that the ceremonies sanction a union between two people of the same sex. Even before Boswell, historians who knew of the existence of the texts admitted as much. The accompanying prayers invoke the example of paired Christian saints of the same sex - in particular, the martyred Roman soldiers, Serge and Bacchus, who were the most famous and revered paired saints in early Christianity. Their mutual bonds of love were publicly acknowledged, and their reunion in heaven was anticipated by both saints as one of the greatest rewards expected in the afterlife. Boswell also provides a translation of a Greek text recounting the story of their dedicated love for one another and of their martyrdom for the Christian faith.

    Although there is a notable absence of paired female saints in the ceremonial prayers, which Boswell cannot account for, he notes that women were known to form same-sex unions and that paired women martyrs, such as Perpetua and Felicitas, were renowned. But in a society dominated by males, the absence of female models in the prayers might have reflected the society's general subordination of women, rather than an absence of female participants in the use of the ceremony. Alternately, he speculates, women might have devised their own personal ceremonies.

    Even though the ceremonies clearly sanction a same-sex union, whether they can be termed marriage rites is open to interpretation. That, according to Boswell, is because the meanings and purposes of marriage terms and customs varied widely from ancient to modern times and are difficult to translate accurately into modern English. Our modern ideas of marriage are not very similar to ancient ones. Consider, for example, that throughout most of the ancient Greek and Roman periods, our modern idea of a man and a woman "falling in love," leading to a consenting marriage, would have been an amusing oddity which ran contrary to the usually pragmatic purpose for heterosexual marriage - property arrangements between consenting families. Ironically, however, love between two persons of the same sex that leads to a consenting, publicly recognized, permanent union did exist in the ancient world. Although that union might not have been a marriage in the ancient sense of a property arrangement between families, it does fit our modern idea of marriage.

    However, even while admitting the same-sex unions, some historians claim that the purpose of the rites was non-sexual. And that claim raises the central question in Boswell's work. What was the purpose of the ceremonies? Boswell counters that the claim cannot be proved one way or the other, mostly because of the privacy of intimate acts. But he notes that the same lack of evidence applies to heterosexual marriage, where sexual behavior is, nevertheless, assumed even when children are not produced. Perhaps many of the same-sex unions were non-sexual. But, based on Boswell's extensive analysis, it seems highly probable that they were at least sometimes, if not usually, sexual in intent.

    One bit of supporting circumstantial evidence for their sexual intent is the poor physical state of the texts, or their absence. Some of the surviving Greek texts have been deliberately mutilated. Latin texts, on the other hand, which Boswell believes once existed where the rituals were known to be practiced, but where Greek was rarely understood, such as in medieval Ireland, are all lost. According to historians, an unexplained increase of hostility toward homosexuality arose in Western Europe from the fourteenth century onward. That hostility might explain the absence of Latin texts. But since the same attitude did not take root as early or as fully in Eastern Europe and parts of the Mediterranean, that delay might explain the survival of the Greek texts, even though in a mutilated condition. What seems clear, in any case, is that a later age did not approved of the texts, presumably because of their perceived purpose.

    But some of the most convincing evidence of sexual intent comes from the rare commentary of witnesses to the same-sex ceremony. Some of those witnesses - especially the hostile ones - seemed to assume that a sexual union was being formalized. For example, Michel de Montaigne, the famous French essayist, described having seen the church ceremony in Rome in 1578, when hostility to homosexuality had already become widespread in Western Europe. Another witness, the Venetian ambassador, was scandalized by the church ceremony, and when Roman civil authorities eventually executed many of the participants by burning them, the ambassador approved of the punishment. He and the Roman authorities obviously assumed a sexual intent in the unions.

    In answer to the central question of what was the purpose of the same-sex ceremonies, Boswell states his conclusion in the epilogue of his book: "In many ways from a contemporary point of view, the most pressing question addressed by this work is probably whether the Christian ceremony of same-sex union functioned in the past as a 'gay marriage ceremony.' It is clear that it did.... In almost every age and place the ceremony fulfilled what most people today regard as the essence of marriage: a permanent romantic commitment between two people, witnessed and recognized by the community."

    But although Boswell's evidence and analysis are convincing, both the existence and the probable purpose of Christian ceremonies for same-sex unions remain paradoxical. Why would the Eastern and Western Churches ritually sanction a union that seems historically and theologically contrary to conventional Christian attitudes toward sexual behavior? Although Boswell does not answer this question directly, he does provide some clues.

    In part, the paradox arises from the modern Western mentality, which often assumes that its intense visceral reaction against homosexuality is natural and innate and has been the normal reaction in virtually all times and places. But in fact, the popular cultural response of most of the ancient world was generally the opposite of today's popular response of judgment. Our prejudices do not fit neatly into the past. As mentioned earlier, widespread reaction against homosexuality in Western culture gained its current intensity starting in the fourteenth century for reasons that are not fully clear to historians.

    Before then, in spite of individual detractors and even particular canons of law (probably seldom enforced, according to Boswell) that penalized homosexual behavior, the cultures of the times often popularized same-sex love, whether or not it was in a clearly sexual context. Myriad examples, from the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, to the early Christian period, demonstrate that same-sex lovers, who were often soldiers, were publicly and unself-consciously accepted and honored. Consider, for example, the celebrated warrior-lovers Achilles and Patroclus in the "Iliad;" or the army called the Sacred Band of Thebes, which was composed of 150 pairs of lovers who were revered throughout the ancient world, because they could not be defeated until they were all killed by the invading army of Philip of Macedon; or Philip's son, Alexander the Great, who is renowned as the greatest conqueror in the ancient world, and who was accompanied from victory to victory by his warrior-lover; or the Christian examples of the martyrs Serge and Bacchus, and Perpetua and Felicitas. The same-sex union ceremonies seem to reflect a seamless carry-over of popular attitudes and customs of the era.

  2. ChiefCowpie

    ChiefCowpie hugs and bugs

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    Moreover, the early church's attitude toward homosexuality does not appear to have been uniform or specific in all regions and among all leaders. The sexual morality of the time was far less categorized in certain ways than our own, and homosexual behavior was not a distinct category. Although the early church, especially the Western, was notably ambivalent about the role of sexuality in the Christian life, it was suspicious of sexuality in general, not just specific behavior. Even within the context of heterosexual marriage, the early church seemed to give only grudging approval to sexual indulgence, while elevating abstinence within marriage to a higher plane of honor and merit. In a context of general antipathy towards sex, homosexual behavior might have seemed to most Christians as no better or worse an indulgence than heterosexual behavior, especially if sanctified within marriage.

    Even the supposed biblical injunctions against homosexual behavior would have stirred little concern. Our modern obsession with them is a result of their use out of context and in defense of later medieval or fundamentalist prejudices. The first time, for example, that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was interpreted as a condemnation of homosexual conduct was by Philo of Alexandria in the first century, C.E. Until that time, and even afterwards, the story was usually interpreted as a condemnation of inhospitality, just as it is today by most scriptural scholars.

    If, as Boswell's scholarship indicates, Christianity once provided pastoral care to same-sex relationships, it is more relevant now than ever. As gay leaders have often pointed out, the greatest obstacle to gay rights in America is Christianity. Unlike past civil rights struggles, this one has not received widespread support from the churches. On the contrary, many churches actively undermine gay rights and gay relationships, as if theological values should come before people. Leaders on the religious right, in particular, have even been allowed to spread a message of hate and vilification against gays, popularizing extremist views and fears as if they were mainstream Christian views. The result has been a moral vacuum for dealing with brutality or denial of rights to gays, especially to the young. But if church leaders of goodwill would speak out in a concerted media campaign against hate, mindless bigotry would be placed on the defensive overnight.

    Vintage Books, paperback
    ISBN: 0679751645
  3. HuckFinn

    HuckFinn Senior Member

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