Tag Archives: Christianity

The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs

Prequel: Before Christianity

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 Early Christians.

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”.

Medieval Homoeroticism

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.

The Great Persecution

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.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld , Martyr

CHARLES DE FOUCAULD (Brother Charles of Jesus) was born in Strasbourg, France on September 15th, 1858. Orphaned at the age of six, he and his sister Marie were raised by their grandfather in whose footsteps he followed by taking up a military career.

He lost his faith as an adolescent.His taste for easy living was well known to all and yet he showed that he could be strong willed and constant in difficult situations. He undertook a risky exploration of Morocco (1883-1884). Seeing the way Muslims expressed their faith questioned him and he began repeating, “My God, if you exist, let me come to know you.”

On his return to France, the warm, respectful welcome he received from his deeply Christian family made him continue his search. Under the guidance of Fr. Huvelin he rediscovered God in October 1886.He was then 28 years old. “As soon as I believed in God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone.”

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land revealed his vocation to him: to follow Jesus in his life at Nazareth.He spent 7 years as a Trappist, first in France and then at Akbès in Syria. Later he began to lead a life of prayer and adoration, alone, near a convent of Poor Clares in Nazareth.
Ordained a priest at 43 (1901) he left for the Sahara, living at first in Beni Abbès and later at Tamanrasset among the Tuaregs of the Hoggar. He wanted to be among those who were, “the furthest removed, the most abandoned.” He wanted all who drew close to him to find in him a brother, “a universal brother.” In a great respect for the culture and faith of those among whom he lived, his desire was to “shout the Gospel with his life”. “I would like to be sufficiently good that people would say, “If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?”
On the evening of December 1st 1916, he was killed by a band of marauders who had encircled his house.
He had always dreamed of sharing his vocation with others: after having written several rules for religious life, he came to the conclusion that this “life of Nazareth” could be led by all. Today the “spiritual family of Charles de Foucauld” encompasses several associations of the faithful, religious communities and secular institutes for both lay people and priests.
-Vatican News Service

For a possible gay connection, through his close friend Louis Massignon, see Gay Mystic.:

Sometime ago, however,  I received a personal communication via a White Father with many years experience in North Africa, (who is normally very defensive about the church and unwilling to relate negative comments about saintly figures) that Foucauld’s  death was caused in part as revenge for his practice of entertaining handsome young Tuareg men in his hermitage in the evenings. Rumors also suggest that the 15 year old boy was something other than a guard. This source did not affirm any improprieties  on Blessed Charles’ part, (and I for one, would not believe them, if they did), but they do suggest a predilection for beautiful young males. The rumors, like swirls of dust in the desert, are difficult to credit because of Charles’ own dissolute early life and female lovers, but then, who knows? Read below of his very close connection to  the great Islamic scholar, Louis Massignon, who underwent a great psychological crisis because of his own homosexuality, and who partly attributed his conversion to Christianity to Charles de Foucauld. Blessed Charles  would later  name Massignon the executor of his will and Massignon was responsible for publishing Charles’ Rule for the Little Brothers of Jesus.

The Bible In Drag: Naming (John 20:15-16)

From “The Bible in Drag”:

       He asked her, “Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”

(Mary of Magdala) supposed it was the gardner, so she said, “Please, if you’re the one who carried Jesus away, tell me where you’ve laid the body and I will take it away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

She turned to him and said, “Rabboni!”

(John 20:15-16)

The Bible In Drag - Queering Scripture

The Resurrection of Christ: Mary Magdalene Meets the Supreme Court Plaintiffs of DOMA and Proposition 8 by Mary Button

Her heart was already broken. Her life already disrupted. What little peace remained to her was in taking care of the dead body. Yet even that little comfort had been stolen. All that was left was turmoil, tears, and bitterness.

The dynamics surrounding Mary Magdalene richly mirror dynamics felt by so many in the queer community. The frustration, the disappointment, the turmoil, the tears all express the experience of queer folk in the face of patronizing heteronormative attitudes. We seek a little peace, but even in the early dawn we are hounded by the cries lifted up against us.

– continue reading at The Bible In Drag – Queering Scripture.October 30, 2013

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Evangelical Leader: “Church Teaching on Homosexuality Like Justifying Slavery”

One of Britain’s most prominent evangelical Christian leaders has broken ranks on the issue of homosexuality describing the traditional Church teaching on he issue as dangerous and unchristian.

steve-chalke_2451748b

Rev Chalke argued that the church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality as ‘a sin or less than God’s best’ had been deeply harmful Photo: GETTY

By John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor7:30AM GMT 15 Jan 2013

The Rev Steve Chalke, a broadcaster and charity founder, likened the “dominant view” of homosexuality among evangelicals to that of those who once used the Bible to justify slavery or thought it was heretical to believe the Earth orbited the sun.

He accused Christians of treating gay people as “pariahs”, expecting them to live “lives of loneliness, secrecy and fear” and even driving some to suicide.

His comments come in an article in the magazine Christianity under the headline “The Last Taboo” which he said he felt “both compelled and afraid” to write.

Long dominant in US life, evangelicals – who place a strong emphasis on the “authority” of the Bible and believe in being “born again” – have become increasingly influential in Britain in recent years, with fast growing congregations at a time when church attendance has seen steep decline.

But although evangelicalism is often viewed as a bastion of conservative values, it also has a long-stranding association with “radical” causes dating back to the 19th Century

more at  – Telegraph.

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Gay seminarian leaves Methodist denomination to be ordained

As soon as Michael Overman announced that he was gay, the Southern Baptist church that raised him, led him to attend an evangelical Christian college and inspired him to pursue ministry left him feeling abandoned.

Michael Overman, an ordination candidate at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, withdrew from the Methodist denomination last month because of its policy requiring gay clergy stay celibate.

He stayed estranged from Christianity for about six years before eventually finding his way to Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, a congregation in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood that welcomes gays and lesbians.

Reinvigorated by the church’s acceptance, he enrolled at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston and sought ordination in his new denomination.

But the United Methodist Church does not ordain gay clergy in committed relationships. That created a predicament for Overman, who joined his partner in a civil union last spring. He knew he could try keeping his relationship private as some partnered gay clergy opt to do. But that approach made him uncomfortable.

“If I’m going to be in ministry, I’m going to be in ministry as my whole self,” said Overman, 28, who lives in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. “When I look at Christian faith, it was always Christ’s mission to restore people in the community and restore people to wholeness. It didn’t make sense to me to go into ministry as a closeted person. That felt inauthentic.”

Following a number of gay and lesbian former Methodists who find themselves unable to serve in the church that cultivated their calling, Overman withdrew from the denomination last month to seek ordination instead in the Disciples of Christ Church, which accepts openly gay clergy in committed relationships. The departure of Overman and others spotlights the internal drama in one of the last mainline Protestant denominations that require gay clergy to stay celibate. Methodist teaching states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

more at– chicagotribune.com.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam

Erasmus, born on the 27th October 1466, was a Dutch humanist and theologian,  who merits serious consideration by queer people of faith.

Born Gerrit Gerritszoon, he became far better known as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam: Erasmus was his saint’s name, after St. Erasmus of Formiae; Rotterdam, for the place of his birth (although he never lived there after the first few years of early childhood; and “Desiderius” a name he gave himself – “the one who is desired”.

Erasmus, a “gay icon”?

Some LGBT activists have hailed Erasmus as a gay icon from history. Circa Club for instance has no doubt, using that precise term and including Erasmus in it’s collection of historical gay icons. The primary basis of the claim is a series of passionate love letters he wrote to  a young monk Servatius Roger, and  allegations of improper advances made to the young Thomas Grey, later Marquis of Dorset, while employed Erasmus as his tutor.

Others are unconvinced, pointing out that the nature of friendship between men, and the form of expressions of affection between them, were very different in Erasmus’ day to ours. They also point out that there were never any direct allegations of physical relations with Grey, or with anyone else. This argument largely rests on the assumption that in a time of marked public opposition (and official persecution) of  “sodomy”, any suggestion of homosexual intercourse would have provoked strong denunciation and even prosecution. I am not convinced by either side.

Erasmus was certainly not “gay” in any modern sense. The use of the term “gay icon” for any man of the Renaissance period, and particularly for a priest, is clearly anachronistic, and inappropriate. It is also true that expressions of “love” in the letters to Servatius may be no more than expressions of Platonic affection, expressed a little more effusively (but not much more so) than was customary at the time. We cannot say for certain that he was sexually active with men.

But the absence of proof also does not disprove the hypothesis. As a priest, Erasmus was expected to be celibate. There is also no evidence of sexual relations with women, but that does not disprove that he was heterosexual. The claims that the strong climate of opposition to sodomy “would have” resulted in public exposure are also invalid. Over several centuries, thousands of “sodomites” were tried and executed – but the meaning of the term was vague and variable, including everything from “unnatural” (i,e, anal or oral) intercourse between husband and wife, to witchcraft and heresy, to treason. In post-Reformation England, it was even sometimes used interchangeably with “popery”, as Catholicism was also viewed as treason against the English monarchy. In fact, many of those convicted may have been the victims simply of malice and grossly unfair criminal procedures, and completely innocent of sexual non-conformity – and very many more who were indeed engaging in homosexual activities were left entirely unhindered.

The matter of Erasmus’ sexual activities is at best undecided – and also irrelevant. To focus on “did he or didn’t he” is to make the mistake of the homophobes, who are convinced that homoerotic relationships are all about genital sex. It is enough for me to note that whatever the physical relationship may or may not have been, there was a definite, powerful and emotionally intimate relationship between Erasmus and Serviatus.

I also like this quotation, from his “In praise of marriage”:

I have no patience with those who say that sexual excitement is shameful and that venereal stimuli have their origin not in nature, but in sin. Nothing is so far from the truth. As if marriage, whose function cannot be fulfilled without these incitements, did not rise above blame. In other living creatures, where do these incitements come from? From nature or from sin? From nature, of course. It must be borne in mind that in the appetites of the body there is very little difference between man and other living creatures. Finally, we defile by our imagination what of its own nature is fair and holy. If we were willing to evaluate things not according to the opinion of the crowd, but according to nature itself, how is it less repulsive to eat, chew, digest, evacuate, and sleep after the fashion of dumb animals, than to enjoy lawful and permitted carnal relations?

-In Praise of Marriage (1519), in Erasmus on Women (1996) Erika Rummel

Erasmus, the scholarly reformer.

It is not his sexuality that most impresses me, but his legacy as a scholar and church reformer. His career spanned the years leading up to, and after, Luther’s break with the Catholic Church that became the Protestant Reformation. Prior to the split, Erasmus had himself been fiercely critical of the Church, arguing forcefully for reform of the many and manifold abuses. He had close relationships with Luther and many other leading members of the Reformation movement, which his ideas strongly influenced. However, when the break came, he chose to remain formally inside the church structures, and not outside of it.

LGBT Christians are often attacked by others for remaining inside a religion which is seen as inimical to gay interests, and so to be siding with the enemy of gay liberation, but this is simplistic. Erasmus’ response to the reformers was that it was the abuses that needed to be destroyed, not the church itself – an argument that applies equally strongly to the situation today, in respect of sexuality. The restricted, misguided view of sexuality promoted by some claiming the authority of religion, is not inherent in the Christian religion, but has been imposed on it to promote a particular heterosexual agenda. It is this abuse that we must oppose, not Christianity.

In doing so, we should also learn from Erasmus’ methods. Among his criticisms of the Church was its heavy dependence on medieval scholastic theology, with its elaborate structure of speculative philosophy. Instead, he went back to the sources, to build his theology on a sounder structure of evidence. Recognizing the inadequacies of the Latin Vulgate bible, he devoted himself to the study of Greek, and eventually published a more reliable Latin translation (which came to replace the Vulgate, with a parallel Greek text), He also wrote a series of treatises on several of the church fathers.

Queer theologians today are doing something similar. Instead of sitting back meekly and accepting the received ideas on the Bible’s supposed condemnation of homosexuality, they have gone back to the roots of Biblical scholarship, closely studying the texts in the original Hebrew and Greek, and paying close attention to the full literary analysis and contextual considerations. They have demonstrated the weaknesses of the traditional interpretations, and have earned the concurrence of many heterosexual colleagues. This reassessment of the Biblical evidence has been one of the important factors in the present moves to greater LGBT inclusion in church, as pastors or in rites for recognizing same-sex unions. Other theologians have resisted the received opposition by ignoring scholastic monolith, and going back to the source of the Christian religion – Christ himself, as revealed in the Scriptures. Others again, emphasise the importance of a personal relationship with God, through prayer, in place of unthinking deference to the human authority of clerical oligarchs.

Erasmus, the man in the middle.

In the build-up to the Reformation, Erasmus aimed to avoid taking sides in the split. His thinking was a definite influence on the reformist cause,  and was later accused of having “laid the egg that hatched the Reformation”. His response was that he had hoped it would lay a different bird. He worked hard to retain good relationships with both sides and to keep the peace between them, but in the end, his reward was to be viewed with some suspicion and resentment by both sides. By Catholics, for having fostered the reformist thinking in the first place, and by Reformists for having deserted them at the end.

Queer people of faith will sympathise. We too aim to straddle two camps- and are frequently attacked from both sides: by some traditionalists Christians for our supposed sexual sin, and by secular gay activists for siding with the enemy,

May the example of Desiderius Erasmus sustain us in our endeavour.

Can Non-Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

It seems to me far from a given that conservative Christianity by definition will flourish. It is not as though it is only theologically liberal or socially progressive churches that have seen declines. Hence the title of this post, asking whether there is anything that would lead one to believe that conservatism gives churches more staying power. Many of the dwindling and disappearing institutional churches around Europe are profoundly conservative, and in the case of institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, one has to reckon with the reality that large numbers of adherents maintain a cultural and religious connection with that church, but feel free to individually disagree with its teachings. I hope that in the comments here we’ll see some discussion of whether and to what extent being conservative makes a religion’s persistence more likely. From my own liberal perspective, conservative churches have time and time again found themselves on the wrong side of issues, and yet seem to learn nothing from the experience, viewing the issue of women in ministry, for instance, the same way they viewed slavery, even after they have admitted their forebears were wrong about that issue. They seem not to grasp that the reason why they were wrong about that issue is intrinsically connected to their conservative approach to religion and social norms.

….

There is a version of Liberal Christianity that it is easy to get excited about. And I am excited about it. Perhaps the time has come for all of those of us who see things in this way to unite, and to take back the identity of Christianity from the loud and prominent self-proclaimed spokesmen (yes, most of them are men) who have so managed to persuade the media and popular opinion that they represent “true Christianity,” that Liberal Christianity has come to be viewed as a half-hearted, half-baked mixture of the traditional and the cultural, which does justice to neither.

But that is not how things stand at all. Those who claim to be “Biblical Christians” are more prone than anyone to conflate their culture’s values (not all of them, to be sure, but many) with “what the Bible says.” And they are prone to miss that there has been liberal Christianity from the very beginning. When Paul set aside Scriptures that excluded Gentiles on the basis of core principles of love and equality, and arguments based on the evidence of God’s Spirit at work in them, he was making and argument very similar to that which inclusive Christians make today. The fact that his argument eventually became Scripture itself should not blind us to the fact that when he made his argument, his words did not have that authority.

– full commentary by James McGrath at Patheos?.

(in  response to Ross Douthat  at NYT, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?)

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