Tag Archives: Church history

Gay Lovers in Church History

At a time when some Catholic bishops are actively intervening in the political process to prevent gay marriage and gay adoption, it could be helpful to remember that in the long history of the Christian faith, outright hostility to same sex relationships has not always been inevitable. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and in the early, medieval and modern church, there have been numerous examples  of Christian recognition of same sex relationships, both as formal rites and procedures, and by personal example.

SS Sergius & Bacchus, Gay lovers, Roman soldires, martyrs and saints.
SS Sergius & Bacchus: Gay lovers, Roman soldiers, martyrs and saints.

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In Scripture:

  • God & Adam:  Chris Glaser (“Coming out As Sacrament“) has observed that the very first love story in the Bible, and certainly the most important, can be viewed as between two “males” – that between God and Adam. Yes, it is completely false and simplistic just to accept the conventional pronoun and to think of God in purely masculine terms, but the point is an important one. Whoever we are, male female or neither, we know that God loves us. We may think of God in whatever gendered terms we like – and that could certainly include a same-sex relationship.



  • David & Jonathan: Many people protest that there is no evidence that the relationship between these two took physical form, but a more compelling argument is that there is also no evidence that it did not – and there is substantial evidence of its emotional intensity. It is also one of the two relationships which represent the longest love stories in the Bible. The other is another which is about a same sex pair – Ruth and Naomi.
  • Ruth & Naomi Here too there are naysayers arguing that this is “just” a family relationship, but this misses the point. Whatever else it is, this is clearly a story of a deep emotional love and mutual commitment between two women.
  • Jesus &  the Beloved Disciple:  We cannot know precisely the nature of this relationship, but it was clearly a close one. We also do not know for certain the identity of the Beloved Disciple, although many people assume it is John the Evangelist. (There was even a long standing tradition in some parts of the Church, that the couple being married at Cana were Jesus and John). Others disagree, suggesting Lazarus, among other possibilities.
  • Martha & Mary – Described in the New Testament as ‘sisters’, but this may have been a euphemism for lesbian lovers.
  • Philip and Bartholomew:  Included in the Apostles, cited together in the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, these were frequently named as a couple in the early liturgies of same-sex union.
  • The Roman Centurion and his “pais” (= slave/lover) represent the clearest possible evidence that Christ himself did not reject people in same -sex relationships, and was even willing to go into the home of the Roman  – an extraordinary thing for a Jew to do, in the  context of the deep resentment against the Roman military occupation.
  • St Paul and Timothy are sometimes named as possibly having a relationship that was more than just spiritual.
  • Euodia and Syntyche of Phillippi were a missionary couple active in the early church , mentioned in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:2-3)
  • Tryphaena and Tryphosa were a further missionary couple active in the early church, mentioned in in Rom 16.

The Early  & Medieval Church

In the early church, many saints and martyrs are remembered as pairs of lovers. The church also created and used formal rites for church blessing couples committing to each other in same sex unions. In addition to liturgical recognition of these unions at their start, some couple also achieved church recognition at their dissolution in death, by being buried together in church tombs, in a manner exactly comparable to that widely used for conventionally married couples.

Here are some examples:

  • SS Sergius & Bacchus, Roman soldiers, lovers, martyrs and recognised as saints by popular acclamation, are by a long way the best known of the so-called “gay saints” (although I prefer to use the descriptor “queer”).
  • SS Polyeuct and Nearchos, are not as well known as Sergius and Bacchus, but like them were Roman soldiers and martyrs who became recognized as saints. They are frequently named together in the liturgical rites of same-sex union.
  • St Paulinus of Nola was a Bishop who also wrote homoerotic poetry to his male lover, Ausonius

Other paired saints who were often named in these rites and other liturgies (including, in some cases, the Mass) are

  • The  ‘two Theodores’, one a foot soldier martyred in the fourth century, and the other a general invented in the ninth century to form a pair, are often depicted with their arms around one another, and they are paired together with Serge and Bacchus in Kievan icons dating from before the twelfth century.
  • Peter and Paul
  • Peter and Andrew
  • Jacob and John
  • Philip and Bartholomew
  • Cosmos and Damian
  • Cyrus and John
  • Marcellus and Apuleius
  • Cyprian and Justinus
  • Dionysius and Eleutheris
  • George and Demetrius.

Some couples who were found by archaeologists to have been buried together in Macedonia in the 4th to the 6th centuries were:

  • Faustinos and Donatos (at Phillippi),
  • Posidonia, and Pancharia,
  • Kyriakos and Nikandros,
  • Gourasios and Konstantios,
  • Euodiana and Dorothea (at Phillippi),
  • Martyrios, a presbyter, and Demetrios, a lector (at Edessa),
  • Eudoxios, presbyter, and John, a deacon described as “the sinner” (at Edessa),
  • Droseria and Eudoxia (at Edessa),
  • Athanasios and Chryseros: buried together at Edessa, in Macedonia.  5th to 6th century.
  • Alexandra and Glukeria: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  6th century
  • St Patrick of Ireland:  after his escape from early slavery, Patrick worked for time as a male prostitute. A recent history of Irish homosexualilty suggests that he may have taken a male lover in later life
  • St Brigid of Ireland may have had a female lover, Darlughdach – although, as with many of the early saints, the historical details of her life are sketchy and unreliable.
  • Several Bishops of the medieval church are known to have have had male sexual partners. Archbishop Ralph of Tours even got his boyfriend John, who had a well-deserved reputation for promiscuity, named as bishop of Orleans. Other bishops were renowned for the poetry and love letters they wrote to their boyfriends. (SeeThe Homoerotic Flowering of the Medieval Church)

It was not only the Eastern church that sometimes buried same sex couples in shared tombs. The historian Alan Bray (“The Friend“) has described the shared tombs of the Irish and English couples

  • Dicul and Maelodran the wright (Delgany, County Wicklow);
  • Ultan and Dubthach (Termonfechin, County Louth);
  • John Bloxham and John Wyndham (Merton College Chapel, Oxford,  14th Century);
  • William Neville & John Neville:  English knights, buried together in Galata, near Constantinople 14th Century.
  • Nicholas Molyneux and John Winters: made a compact of ‘sworn brotherhood, made in the church of St Martin of Harfleur. 15th century.

Renaissance to Modern

  • John Finch and Thomas Baines were buried together in Christ’s College Chapel, Cambridge (17th Century).
  • Fulke Greville & Sir Phillip Sidney: the joint monument Greville planned for himself and Sidney in St Paul’s cathedral was never built.  But the simple intention alone indicates the natrure of the relationship, as also its recognition by the church.
  • Cardinal John Henry Newman and Fr. Ambrose St.John were buried together, 19th C. There is no suggestion that their deep love was anything but celibate, in keeping with their vows. All the same, reflection on this relationship raises important questions about the response of the Catholic Church to same sex relationships in our own day.

The Church’s Changing Tradition.

The CDF’s famous (or infamous) letter “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”  makes the claim “Thus, the Church’s teaching today is in organic continuity with the Scriptural perspective and with her own constant Tradition” , and later states “Scripture bids us speak the truth in love”.  This is the image that the established church so likes to proote – of an authoritative, unchanging tradition “speaking the truth” for all time.  The image favoured by the church, howeer, is a false one.

In the context of current arguments about the papacy and its authority, it is worth recalling just how false is this proposition: for the tradition has not been “unchanging”,  nor has it always spoken “truth”. Indeed, the only constant over 2000 years of church history has been that of constant change.

Josephus at “Salus Animarum” has been posting on reflections prompted by reading of Alan Bray‘s “The Friend”, and sharing thoughts on church history. This is a useful point then to remind readers of just how much church practice concerning same sex relationships has changed over two millenia.  The present intransigent attitude of the church against “gay marriage”, or even against civil partnerships, obscures the fact that in other times and places the church has sanctioned some form of same sex relationships, and even provided them with liturgical recognition.




John Boswell was the first scholar to establish in his research that the early church included a liturgical rite of “adelphopoeisis”, or “making of brothers”.  This he identified as having some of the characteristics pertaining to the marriage forms of his day.  In his two books, he also drew attention to the number of prominent churchmen and women in earlier times who are known to have had intimate same sex relationships in their own lives.  Bernadette Brooten has extended this research into same sex relationships in early Christianity with a particular focus on women, while Alan Bray approached the topic from a different angle:  in “The Friend”, he examined a number of instances of English and other churches where tombstones and church records tell of same sex couples buried in single graves, in exactly the same way that married couples sometimes were.  Like Boswell, he too finds evidence in the early church of a rite of “adelphopoeisis”. Like Bray, in tun, Valerie Abrahamsen has examined evidence of same sex burials – from Macedonia in the 6th Century.

Scholars, of course, differ amongst themselves about the precise significance of these findings – in particular, whether these relationships can be thought of as  resembling marriage rites, or even if there is likely to have been any erotic implications to them at all.  I do not wish to go into these nuances – it is enough for my purpose simply to show that liturgical practice concerning same sex relationships has changed.  Today they are vigourously opposed in any form, but in earlier times, from the early church in Rome and Byzantium, to much more recent periods in Western Europe, the Church has provided liturgical recognition for some form of same sex relationships at their formation, and at their dissolution at death.

Many other examples of changes in church teaching and practice could easily be produced – priestly celibacy was not required for the first millenium of history, marriage was not recognised as a sacrament, the church before modern times endorsed slavery and the inferior position of women (in its practice, it still does – but I am not going to venture down that path at present).

But most important, is to recognise that the papacy and the institution of papal power have themselves been subject to constant change.  It is worth remembering that the origins of  the current fuss lie exactly in the repudiation by the SSPX of the Second Vatican Council – a council notable, among other things, for its attempt to recast the balance of power within the Church, with a much enhanced role for the laity. Even the doctrine of papal infallibility, so widely known but so widely misunderstood, is of relatively recent origin.

Even the institution itself does not extend back to the earliest days of the church.  Before there was a pope, the Bishop of Rome was just one among many, then one of 5 patriarchs of equal stature.  After the rise of Islam placed the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandra under Muslim domination, just two patriarchs, of Rome and Constantinople, remained. In time, the Bishop of Rome acquired special status and power in the Western church, while that of Constantinople did so in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

I have come across a fascinating series of articles by Tom Lee in the Australian internet forum “Catolica”, which has been tracing in weekly instalments, the story of the first 500 years of the Christian church and “the invention” of the papacy.  I have found the early chapters riveting reading, for the insightful picture they paint of the historical setting for the Gospels, and the beginnings of the spread of the Christianity.  I look forward to reading the rest.

As we continue to watch, fascinated, the extraordinary machinations in Vatican City over SSPX, or despair at ongoing stupidities on sexuality, we can perhaps take comfort from the changing past.  The one thing we know for sure is that the papacy and its teachings, as we now know them will certainly change.  What we don’t yet know, is how – or when.