Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Queer Saints day October 7 or maybe today October 8?

Over at Jesus in Love, Kitt Cherry reminds us that yesterday, 7 October, was the feast day of Sts Sergius and Bacchus, who she terms gay saints. I'm a bit reluctant to use the term 'gay' anachronistically to refer to ancient people, nevertheless Sergius and Bacchus are one of the models of same-sex love in the Christian tradition (a model sadly forgotten in the West).

Presumably yesterday's date is the one used in the Eastern Churches where the two saints are still popular and venerated. My old Roman Missal lists today, 8 October, as their feast day.

Kitt has this to say of the pair:

The close bond between the two men has been emphasized since the earliest accounts, and recent scholarship has revealed their homosexuality. The oldest record of their martyrdom describes them as erastai (Greek for “lovers”). Scholars believe that they may have been united in the rite of adelphopoiesis (brother-making), a kind of early Christian same-sex marriage.

A classic example of paired saints, Sergius and Bacchus were high-ranking young officers. Sergius was primicerius (commander) and Bacchus was secundarius (subaltern officer). They were tortured to death after they refused to attend sacrifices to Zeus, thus revealing their secret Christianity.

The men were arrested and paraded through the streets in women’s clothing in an unsuccessful effort to humiliate them. Early accounts say that they responded by chanting that they were dressed as brides of Christ. They told their captors that women’s dress never stopped women from worshipping Christ, so it wouldn’t stop them, either. Then Sergius and Bacchus were separated and beaten so severely that Bacchus died.

According to the early manuscripts, Bacchus appeared to Sergius that night with a face as radiant as an angel’s, dressed once again as a soldier. He urged Sergius not to give up because they would be reunited in heaven as lovers. His statement is unique in the history of martyrs. Usually the promised reward is union with God, not with a lover. Over the next days Sergius was tortured and eventually beheaded.

Sergius’ tomb became a famous shrine, and for nearly 1,000 years the couple was revered as the official patrons of the Byzantine army. Many early churches were named after Sergius, sometimes with Bacchus. They are recognized as martyrs by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. The pair was venerated through the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Latin America and among the Slavs. Sergius and Bacchus continue to be popular saints with Christian Arabs and now among GLBT Christians and their allies

I would also question describing adelphopoiesis as ' a kind of early Christian same-sex marriage.' In part Kitt is taking a cue from the late John Boswell, who in his groundbreaking study, Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, tried to equate these rituals with marriage, inferring they were an equivalent to marriage for same-sex relationships. However adelphopoiesis was not a form of marriage and, if you read any the rituals, is very unlike marriage. It shares with marriage the status of being a kin-making ritual but otherwise it is a very different institution indeed.

Here's what I had to say about adelphopoieisis earlier this year in my post critiquing the same sex marriage push:

In the days when capitalism was in its infancy, marriage was embedded in a broader network of relationships, biological and non-biological. As well as a network of blood-kin, a person also was part of a network of god-kin. In medieval Europe, there was also a practice of sworn friendships and sworn brotherhoods/sisterhoods. The Church rituals, that the late John Boswell and others uncovered, for making spiritual brothers or spiritual sisters were not rites for joining same sex lovers as such. I would imagine that perhaps the majority of such relationships had no clear homo-erotic component (although many would likely be homo-affectionate) but I can also imagine that many would have been. But most importantly these formalised friendships and forms of non-biological kinship meant that marriage and even parenthood was not the only or even the main significant relationship in a person's life. Marriage was a much more practical institution then, geared around the rearing of children. It was children of course who provided care and support in old age, a situation that still applies in the greater part of the world. If a husband and wife could develop a loving relationship over their lives it was considered a boon but not a requirement for a succesful marriage.

With the development of capitalism this network of relationships was progressively dismantled and done away with. The first to go in the West were the sworn friendships and rites of spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood (although they continued on in Eastern Europe, especially in the Balkans, up until the late 19th century).

One of the features of the adelphopoieisis rituals is their egalitarianism. After all, these are same sex/gender pairings and so would be a bonding of gender equals. Marriage has always been hierarchical, male over the female. Marriage is about male control of the womb and its offspring. Such control issues aren't relevant with same sex relationships and adelphopoieisis. The other interesting thing about this institution and what makes it different to marriage is that, from reading Boswell's account, it is not exclusive in the way marriage is. In other words, Boswell reprts a number of situations where a person contracted adelphopoieisis with more than one other individual. To be a spiritual sibling/cross-brother/cross-sister, appears to be for life - there doesn't seem to be any form of dissolution. So a person could, in theory, have more than one cross-sibling. Possibly this fact is because these relationships are not understood as primarily sexual, again in contrast to marriage which is all about procreation and guaranteeing the paternal lineage.

Ironically, while many adelphopoieisis relationships were no doubt contracted for reasons of status and familial affiliation, it's quite likely that more people entered into adelphopoieisis for reasons of love and affection than was the case with marriage. The modern love-match marriage is a fairly recent invention. In the past a good marriage was one in which love might eventually develop between husband and wife but love was never a prerequisite of marriage. Love, friendship, even, for some, mutual desire were more likely a hallmark of adelphopoieisis and other similar sworn friendships.

Here is an interesting account from a Greek Orthodox perspective on adelphopoieisis.

If my missal is correct then today, for us Westerners, is the day and so Happy Saints Sergius and Bacchus day to you all.

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