Valentine’s Day: Same Sex Lovers in Church History

For St Valentine’s day,we should remember the same sex lovers (a surprising number of them) who feature in Scripture and in the history of the Catholic Church.  In the list below, I do not not claim that the relationships were necessarily sexual (although some of them most definitely were, but all are deserve attention by modern queer Christians. (For fuller assessments, follow the links).
SS Sergius & Bacchus, Gay lovers, Roman soldires, martyrs and saints.

Biblical Lovers

Right at the beginning, the Hebrew Bible opens with the greatest love story of them all – that of God for humankind. Chris Glaser (“Coming Out as Sacrament”) points out that at the most literal level, this can be seen as a same-sex relationship, as God is conventionally described with a male pronoun and Adam pictured as a man. However, even if we recognize that God is more properly pictured as omnigendered, the relevance of the idea is not diminished, and even enhanced. “Adam” is more properly seen in the earliest traditions as “ ‘adam“, that is humankind, and androgynous. We can therefore view both parties to this love relationship in whatever gender terms is most appropriate to us. The important point, which we really ought to remember, is that whoever we are, God’s love for us is unconditional, and is totally free of bias to any particular biological sex, gender role, or sexual orientation. This thought should sustain us, no matter how much we may sometimes feel condemned or rejected by the Church or by secular society.
Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Glaser notes that the two longest love stories are those of same sex couples. The love of David for Jonathan “surpasses that for women”, and the words of Ruth to Naomi, although from one woman to another, are regularly used in liturgies for marriage ceremonies. The Song of Songs is not between a same sex couple (although some believe it may originally have been so. See a discussion at The Wild Reed), but is nevertheless worth consideration, for its frank celebration of physical, erotic love, without being tied to procreation or even to marriage. This is simple, joyous celebration of love on its own terms – while also standing as a metaphor for God’s love for God’s people, just as our love relationships can also have sacramental value, in mirroring God’s love.
In the New Testament, we have the celebrated example of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, whoever he was (possibly, but not necessarily, John the Evangelist). It is unclear whether there was a physical dimension to this relationship – but some scholars believe there may have been, and there was once a popular tradition that the bridal couple in the wedding at Cana were precisely Jesus and his Beloved Disciple, John. Even if we reject this idea, we should remember the entirely orthodox idea that the Mass commemorates the wedding at Cana, as the marriage of Christ and his church. For half of all Catholics, this mystical marriage is certainly  male to male .
Martha and Mary are described as “sisters”, but this could be a euphemism. In the cultural context, they could well have been a lesbian couple. Equally, the Roman centurion and his “servant” probably included a sexual element in their relationship.

The Early Church

The early Christian Church honoured as saints several pairs of same sex couples. The Roman soldiers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are the best known, with Polyeuct and Nearchos another pair of military martyrs. Felicity and Perpetua are often mentioned as a corresponding pair of female martyrs.
Saints Galla and Benedicta were a devoted pair who lived in a 6th century Roman community of religious women. At about the same time, Symeon of Emessa and John were not martyrs, but hermits in Syria.  Theirs was not a sexual relationship, but it was clearly emotionally intimate, and was formally blessed by an abbot in what appears to have been a rite of adelphopoeisis, or “making brothers”.
This rite, formally recorded with specific liturgies for blessing in church, is an important reminder that for many centuries, the church regularly blessed same sex unions in church. (These rites still exist today, and can be easily adapted for modern blessing ceremonies). In addition to celebrating same sex unions in church as they were formed, the Church also recognized special unions at their dissolution in death.  Archaeological evidence from Macedonia shows many examples from the  4th to the 6th centuries of same sex couples who were buried in shared graves.
Also from about this period of the early church, we have a bishop and saint who celebrated homoerotic love in verse directed at his lover, Ausonius – St Paulinus of Nola.  In Ireland, there is some evidence that St Patrick may have taken a young (male) lover in later life, while St Brigid had her soulmate, Drogheda.

The Middle Ages.

As in the early church, there are notable examples of saints, bishops and abbots who are remembered for their literary output – addressed to the men they loved, either in verse or in letter form: Saint Aelred of Rievaulx wrote explicitly of the value of close spiritual friendship, and addressed intimate love letters to a series of special friends of his own. One notable example of this kind of intimate (but celibate) love between clerics was that of St Bernard of Clairvaulx, and Malachi, the Archbishop of Armagh, who  after death were buried in a shared grave. Alcuin of Tours also addressed love letters and poems to his own special friends, such as this one to Arno, the bishop at Salzburg:

Love has penetrated my heart with its flame,
And is ever rekindled with new warmth.
Neither sea nor land, hills nor forest,
nor even the Alps 
Can stand in its way or hinder it
From always licking at your inmost parts, good father…

Other notable saints and senior clerics who wrote love letters or erotic verse to their colleagues included Saint Anselm of CanterburyMarbod of RiennesArchbishop Baudri of Bourgeuil, a “Spanish Monk“,  Walafrid Strabo (c. 808-849) to the cleric Lutziger, Saint Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912), and Salamo (c. 860-920), and Egbert the monk, to Saint Boniface.
There are also others who are remembered not for their sanctity, but for their notoriety. It is said that in the early 11th century, the papal reign of Benedict IX became infamous for having “turned the Vatican into a male brothel”. Later in the 11th Century, under a reforming pope, Archbishop Ralph of Tours succeeded in having his lover John appointed as bishop of Orleans, even though the younger man was well known as a former bed-partner of many highly placed men in the Church and the royal court – including a previous archbishop, and also the king of France.
In the Western Church, there was a rite corresponding to the Eastern adelphopoeisis, known as the rite of “sworn brotherhood”, which Alan Bray describes in “The Friend”, especially from the medieval and later periods . This too has an echo in modern liturgies, for another term for the “sworn brother” was – “wedded brothers”.  Same sex “weddings” in Church are not newalthough the term then referred to a contract, not to marriage in the modern sense. (These “sworn brothers” did not necessarily include a sexual relationship, although some did, often in parallel with heterosexual marriages). One high profile example of these sworn brothers was that of the English king, Edward II, and Piers Galveston. (After his execution, Edward was for a time popularly venerated as a saint).
In addition to the practice of blessing same sex unions in Church, there is also abundant evidence of same sex couples who, like SS Bernard and Malachi, were buried in shared graves.  Bray describes many of these in the Western (especially the English) church, from the medieval period right up to the 19th century (Blessed John Henry Newman and St John Ambrose).

The Renaissance Paradox

With the persecution of “Sodomites” by the Inquisition and the secular authorities at their instigation, it is not surprising that there were fewer accounts of homoerotic relationships, and less literary celebration of same sex love. However, this does not mean that they did not occur. For those with sufficient power or influence in the church, male sexual relationships continued, at the highest level.  Pope Julius III was so infatuated with a young street urchin he fell in love with, that he appointed the youngster a cardinal at the grand age of 17 – in spite of a notable lack of any appropriate qualifications whatever. Pope Paul II is said to have died of a stroke – while being sodomized by a page boy. (For more on the gay popes, see “Gay Popes, Papal Sodomites“).

The Modern Period

The best known same sex relationship among the modern clergy is that of Blessed John Henry Newman and his beloved Ambrose St John, who were famously buried in a shared grave in Birmingham Oratory. Less well known are two examples of nineteenth century women from the United States. Phebe Ann Coffin Hannaford, possibly the first woman since ancient times to be ordained in a major Christian denomination, and lived openly with her partner Anne Miles. Saint Vida Scudder, who lived in a clearly lesbian relationship with her partner Florence Converse, is recognized as a saint by the American Episcopal Church.
In the twentieth and twenty first centuries, it has become possible for countless male and female couples to declare their loves openly, and even to have them formally recognized in church – as full marriages, or as blessing of unions. I’m not going to attempt to list them, here. While we celebrate the continuing advances to marriage equality, in church and in secular society, let us also recognize and honour all those same – sex couples who have preceded us in loving partnerships – whether sexual or celibate
[Updated January 2015]
Recommended Books
Bray, Alan: The Friend
Glaser, Chris: Coming Out as Sacrament

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4 thoughts on “Valentine’s Day: Same Sex Lovers in Church History”

  1. In the modern era I would include William Stringfellow, the Harvard educated Harlem street lawyer and lay theologian (Karl Barth was a fan) and his partner Anthony.

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