Sergius and Bacchus are by a long way the best known of the so-called gay or lesbian saints – unless we include as “saints” the biblical pairs David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi. We need to be careful with terminology though: the word “gay” can be misleading, as it certainly cannot be applied with the same connotations as in modern usage, and technically, they are no longer recognised as saints by Western church, as decreed by the Vatican – but they are still honoured by the Orthodox churches, and by many others who choose to ignore the rulings of Vatican bureaucrats. The origins of saint-making lay in recognition by popular acclaim, not on decision by religious officials.
Whatever the quibbles we may have, they remain of great importance to modern queer Christians, both for their story of religious faith and personal devotion, and as potent symbols of how sexual minorities were accepted and welcomed in the earliest days of the Christian community.
They are particularly important in the movement to marriage equality, for their significance in early rites of blessing same-sex unions in church, which may point a way to making a modern provision for something similar without necessarily changing the traditional understanding of church marriage to that between a man and a woman – with its link to child-bearing.
(And, as I have written before, I have a very special personal connection with this pair of early saints and martyrs for the faith. Like so many queer Catholics, it never occurred to me that there could even exist gay or lesbian Catholics until I heard of SS Sergius and Bacchus. Some months after first hearing of them, I read their story in John Boswell, and wondered when was their feast day. I investigated – and found by wonderful serendipity that it was that very day. That began for me a continuing exploration of the other LGBT saints, of the rest of gay history in the churches, of more general gay and lesbian theology – and this blog. By further serendipity, I discovered this week that today, the feast day of Sergius and Bacchus, is also the birthday of – Dan Savage, well known for his work to combat homophobic teen bullying. If Serge and Bacchus may be regarded as patrons saints of gay adults, is Dan Savage a modern patron saint of gay teens?).
The Lovers’ Story
Sergius and Bacchus were third /fourth century Roman soldiers, and lovers. This alone is worth noting in any discussion of homoerotic relationships and the early Christians: in the Roman world, as in most of the Mediterranean region, such relationships were commonplace. What mattered in questions of sexual ethics and social approval (or otherwise) had little to do with the gender of the partners, but with their respective social status.
They were of high social standing, good enough to have a close personal relationship with the emperor, Tertullian. This provoked jealousy. They were also Christians, which gave their enemies a useful pretext to denounce them to the Emperor. He ordered them to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, which they refused to do. Their refusal provoked the wrath of the emperor, who began to exact a series of penalties, culminating in the sentence of death. The first to be killed was Bacchus, who was flogged to death. Serge was subjected to further torture, before being killed himself. The fifth century “Passion of Sergius and Bacchus” describes many details, and also some supposed miraculous interventions, such as the dead Bacchus appearing to Sergius in a vision, where he admonished his partner for grieving, and promised that they would soon be together again:
Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken away from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shall enlarge my heart”.
Boswell makes two points about the trial and passion of Sergius and Bacchus that are especially relevant to their significance for queer Christians: in all the legal and theological arguments over the charges against them, the matter of their relationship was simply not an issue. The complaint was that they had refused to honour pagan gods. Their sexuality was of no consequence at all. Later, when the Greek hagiographer has the dead Bacchus appear to Sergius to comfort him with the prospect of paradise, the greatest joy of the promised afterlife is to be reunited with his male lover. Neither the Roman jurists, nor the fifth century Christian writer who recorded the passion, have anything at all to say against the relationship – and the Christian celebrates the quality and value of their love.
Sergius and Bacchus & Gay Marriage
It is simply historically untrue that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, or that same-sex marriage is a modern invention. Among many counter-examples that easily disprove that belief, is the tradition of liturgical blessings, in church, of same-sex unions as described by the ground-breaking historical work of John Boswell. While these were not in any way an exact counterpart to modern marriage (nor were heterosexual unions from the same period), they do no need to be considered carefully in modern responses in faith to the questions around marriage and family equality. Sergius and Bacchus are significant here, for being mentioned by name in many of the liturgies for these rites that have survived, along with numerous other, less familiar examples of same-sex couples from church history.
There are also surviving texts of ancient and medieval hymns to the couple. Boswell quotes one from the sixth century, which has the opening verse ,
Of Serge and Bacchus, the pair
filled with grace, let us sing, O ye faithful!
Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds!
The full hymn is too long to quote here in full, but one verse in particular emphasises the importance of their mutual devotion:
It was not desire for this world
that captivated Serge for Christ,
nor the empty life of worldly affairs
[that captivated] Bacchus;
rather, made one
as brethren in the bond of love
they called out valiantly to the tyrant,
“See in two bodies
one soul and and heart,
one will and virtue.
Take those that yearn to please God.
Glory to Him who worketh through his saints amazing and wonderful deeds!
The words “made brethren” in this verse are a reference to the literal translation of the greek name for the rite, that of “making brothers”. This has been taken by some commentators as disproving Boswell’s claim that these rites have any connection to marriage, and are instead simply a joining in spiritual brotherhood. (A claim that Boswell himself anticipated and countered in the text himself).
Whatever the original connotation of the words though, that there was some concept of marriage involved is clearly shown by another hymn from the ninth century, quoted and discussed at “Obscure Classics of Latin Literature“, on a page for Carolingian poetry.
I. O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract as our voices resound with odes And let us make manifest the gracious rewards of the Lord. We who are below shall celebrate the saints with an illustrious hymn From our very hearts.
II. Holy martyrs shining by virtue of your merits, Sergius and Bacchus, As partners you wear God’s crown, you have transcended Together the enclosure of the flesh; and now you are Above the stars.
“O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract” seems pretty explicit, to me.
Glory to Him who worketh through his saints amazing and wonderful deeds!
(At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has a fascinating post on depictions of Sergius and Bacchus in art, featuring in particular a wonderful stained glass window of the pair, at St. Martha’s Church in Morton Grove, Illinois. This was donated to the church by its LGBT parishioners, and is believed to be the only representation of them in any United States Church).
Although some would dispute the description of Paulinus as ‘gay’, the description seems to me entirely appropriate to his sensibility. Although history records no evidence of physical expression of his same sex attraction, nor is there any evidence against it. Given the historical context he was living in (4th/5th century Roman empire) , when sex with either gender was commonplace for men at at all levels of society, inside and outside the Christian church, the absence of written records of private activities after 15 centuries is completely unremarkable. Nor is the fact that he was married particularly significant – for Romans, marriage and sex with men were entirely compatible.
What is known is that he was married, but also passionately in love with a man, Ausonius, to whom he addressed exquisitely tender love poetry. This is of sufficient quality and gay sensibility to be included in the Penguin book of homosexual verse:
I, through all chances that are given to mortals, And through all fates that be, So long as this close prison shall contain me, Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven, Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken, And from the earth I shall have gone my way, Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me, There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me, Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee; Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin, Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections, Hold them as dear as life itself to be, Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.
[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]
It is surely entirely clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call “Gay”. Paulinus’ feast day was on Monday of this week (June 22nd). It is fitting that we remember him, and the multitude of other LGBT saints in the long history of the church.
For more online, see Paul Hansall’s invaluable LGBT Catholic handbook, or the Catholic Encyclopedia. (Note though that the latter’s entry on Paulinus is an excellent case study on how official Church history scrupulously edits out our LGBT history. In a reasonably lengthy entry, Ausonius and the verses addressed to him are noted – but the essential facts that the relationship was passionate, or that the verses were clearly love poetry, are carefully filtered out.)
Among all the multitude of queer saints, Joan of Arc is one of the most important. In her notorious martyrdom for heresy (a charge which in historical context included reference to her cross-dressing and defiance of socially approved gender roles), she is a reminder of the great persecution of sexual and gender minorities by the Inquisition, directly or at their instigation. In LGBT Christian history, “martyrs” applies not only to those martyred by the church, but also to those martyred by the church. In her rehabilitation and canonization, she is a reminder that the leaders and theologians of the church, those who were responsible for her prosecution and conviction, can be wrong, can be pronounced to be wrong, and can in time have their judgements overturned.(This is not just a personal view. Pope Benedict has made some very pointed remarks of his own to this effect, while speaking about Joan of Arc). In the same way, it is entirely possible (I believe likely) that the current dogmatic verdict of Vatican orthodoxy which condemns our relationships will also in time be rejected. We may even come to see some of the pioneers of gay theology, who have in effect endured a kind of professional martyrdom for their honesty and courage, rehabilitated and honoured by the Church, just as St Joan has been.
Joan of Arc: Interrogation by the Bishop of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)
St Aelred, whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott. He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:
St Aelred, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12th Century. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott. He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron.
St Aelred, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott. He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron.
Others point to his work as insisting on chastity, and believe that his well-recognised male friendships were entirely non-sexual. Whatever the genital truth, we should remember and honour Aelred as a reminder of the important place of intimate (emotionally, if not sexually) relationships between same-sex couples in the history of the church.
How Aelred Made it to the American Book of Common Prayer by Louie Crew, founder of Integrity, [email: lcrew@ANDROMEDA.RUTGERS.EDU]
Aelred was not in ECUSA’s calendar until a Roman Catholic head of history at Yale, John Boswell, wrote about him powerfully in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality Boswell dwelt at length with the lesbigay positive evidence. That spurred Integrity member, the late Howard Galley, one of the major architects of the 1976 Prayer Book, to initiate the actions which finally led to Aelred’s inclusion: using Aelred’s own texts, Galley shaped the readings which appear in THE LESSER FEASTS AND FASTS, including this collect:
Pour into our hearts, O God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred, draw many to your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who livers and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN
Catholic Encyclopedia – entry on Aelred (available online)
Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. Mary Eugenia Laker, (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications 1977), see esp. p. 21 on Aelred’s homosexual attractions.
Boswell, John, CSTH, 221-20
McGuire, Brian P, “Monastic Friendship and Toleration “, in Monks, Hermits and the Ascetic Traditions, Studies in Church History 22, ed. W.J. Shiels, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985) pp. 147-160
McGuire, Brian P, “Looking Back on Friendship: Medieval Experience and Modern Context”, Cistercian Studies 21:2 (1986), pp. 123-142
McGuire, Brian P., Brother and Lover: Aelred of Rievaulx, (New York: Crossroad, 1994)
In his earlier articles, McGuire, the foremost expert on early Cistercian bonding, professed to find explanations of Aelred as homosexual as “one-dimensional”, but in this book he more forthrightly identifies Aelred as homosexual.
McGuire, Brian Patrick, “Sexual Awareness and Identity in Aelred of Rievulx (1110-67)”, American Benedictine Review 45(1994): 184-226
This probably the best work of its kind out on Aelred. It is the most comprehensive, and actually covers more ground than Brother & Lover.
Russell, Kenneth C., “Aelred, the Gay Abbot of Rievaulx”, Studia Mystica 5:4 (Winter 1982), 51-64
The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar- but should be. John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before Sergius & Bacchus .
Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians. The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.
John Boswell was an esteemed historian who argued that homosexuality has always existed, that it has at times enjoyed wide social acceptance, and that the Church historically allowed same-sex unions.
“It is possible to change ecclesiastical attitudes toward gay people and their sexuality because the objections to homosexuality are not biblical, they are not consistent, they are not part of Jesus’ teaching; and they are not even fundamentally Christian.”
John Boswell was a gifted medieval philologist who read more than fifteen ancient and modern languages. After receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1975, he joined the history faculty at Yale University. Boswell was an authority on the history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in medieval Spain. He helped to found the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale in 1987. In 1990 he was named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History.
In 1980 Boswell published the book for which he is best known: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. In this groundbreaking study, Boswell argued against “the common idea that religious belief-Christian or other-has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people.” The book was named one of the New York Times ten best books of 1980 and received both the American Book Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981.
Boswell’s second book on homosexuality in history was The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, published in 1994. In it he argues that the Christian ritual of adelphopoiia (“brother-making”) is evidence that prior to the Middle Ages, the Church recognized same-sex relationships. Boswell’s thesis has been embraced by proponents of same-sex unions, although it remains controversial among scholars.
John Boswell converted to Roman Catholicism as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, and remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. He was an effective teacher and popular lecturer on several topics, including his life journey as an openly gay Christian man.
Boswell died of AIDS-related illness on Christmas Eve in 1994 at age 47.