February is LGBT History month in the UK. 2012 is also the diamond jubilee year of Queen Elizabeth, who this week marked the 60th anniversary of her accession to the British throne. The jubilee will be the theme of this year's Quest annual conference, "SIXTY GLORIOUS YEARS," for which the two speakers will consider changing attitudes to homosexuality over this period in British society - and in the churches. The second of these, I will present, under the title "Blessed are the Queer in Faith - for they shall inherit the Church". To coincide with LGBT History month, I want to begin preparing for my conference address by exploring the material for it, in a series of posts here at QTC.
Before looking too closely at the last sixty years though, it is necessary to consider briefly the preceding two thousand. There have always been prominent lgbt people in the church - at any rate, people that today we might characterise with the terms gay, lesbian, and trans, although the words and even the concepts would have been totally unfamiliar in their own day. More appropriately, we should simply describe them as "queer". However, the response of the Church to these people, and their place within it, have seen major changes over this long period. To understand these, with gross oversimplification, I break down these past years into four major eras. The past sixty years may be seen as the start of a fifth, a new era that we are only just entering.
The first era I identify is the period "Before Christianity", the years of the Gospels (before the ideas of Christ had been institutionalised as a religion called "Christianity") and of the Hebrew bible. The remarkable thing here, against a background of a people surrounded by cultures in which same - sex relationships were commonplace, and sexual or gender minorities were often seen as blessed with unique spiritual gifts, is the nearly complete absence of Biblical references to same - sex activities. There are none at all pertaining to lesbians, none at all in the Gospels, and in the Old Testament, only the two verses in Leviticus. There are, however, several same- sex relationships described, and any number of eunuchs. Going back to the earliest roots of Judaism, and in other faith traditions, sexuality was specifically honoured, with temple prostitutes, queer shamans, gods and goddesses who had same - sex love affairs and gender bending gods, and even some divine patrons of homoerotic love.
The second era, is that of the early Church - roughly, the period of the Roman Empire. It was during this time, that Christian thinker began to write disparagingly of all sexuality, including homoerotic sexuality, even within marriage. In the early years of this period, Christians were viewed with suspicion by the state, and at times met serious persecution. The faith survived, and was nourished by the blood of the martyrs. As we began to honour as saints individuals who were thought to have led exemplary lives or deaths, these saints and martyrs we recognized included notable queer examples: the soldier pairs Sergius and Bacchus and Polyeuct and Nearchos, the Roman nuns Galla and Benedicta , the martyrs Felicity and Perpetua , and a number of transmen, cross-dressing monks who were biologically female, but lived as men in male monasteries.
The third era, the medieval period, is one in which John Boswell describes a "flowering" of a notable gay sub-culture. Other historians have disputed the description, and I accept that he may have overstated the case. It is undeniable though that, in Church history, this period included several saints and bishops who wrote of the spiritual value of intimate friendships between male couples, or wrote passionate letters to their own intimate friends, or wrote poetry on the theme of homoerotic love. As these men were monks and expected to be celibate, these intimate friendships were not necessarily sexual. Other male friendships involving bishops and popes definitely were - such as the examples of the Bishops Ralph of Tours and John of Orleans, or Pope John II. It was the widespread belief that sex between monks was widespread in the monasteries, that led St Peter Damian to write the first major polemic against "sodomy".
The turning point that marked the start of the fourth era, which I describe as "The Great Persecution" that followed, may be symbolized by the twin events of the destruction and burning of the Knights Templar, allegedly for "sodomy" and heresy, and Joan of Arc, for heresy - and living in the role and in the clothing of a man. During the centuries that followed, right up to the middle of the twentieth century, several thousand people were executed. In the beginning, this was directly by the Church, in both Catholic and Protestant versions, and later by the state, in the name of religion - culminating in the Nazi gay holocaust. Using the word "martyr" in its literal sense of "to bear witness", we may think of these victims as martyrs, just like those of the early church, except that these were martyred not for the Church, but by it. (Even during these dark years, there were notable exceptions. In a great paradox, this time of persecution is also the time of the best known gay popes. Those who held high office in the Church or the state, or who enjoyed their protection, were generally able to indulge their sexual preferences fairly openly, with impunity).
By the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this physical execution and martyrdom ended in much of the world, as one by one, states ended their major criminal penalties, and then totally decriminalized homosexuality. Persecution in the churches continued. Total opposition was unspoken, but simply assumed. As Bishop Charles Otis has noted, at the time of his ordination in 1951, it was simply impossible to be both Christian, and openly homosexual. Queers in the church continued to exist, but were invisible. It was as if having killed off thousands of individuals, the Great Persecution had also killed off the whole collective body of queer people in the Church.
It was not so. Just as the early martyr Saint Sebastian had been left for dead after his initial martyrdom, but in fact was not quite dead and revived to harangue the emperor on his wickedness, Queer Christianity at the start of Elizabeth II's reign, was not dead yet. Beginning around this time, we began to enter what I believe is the start of a brighter new era, which I think of as the "Modern Resurrection" of queer Christianity. It is undeniable that in recent years, we have been seeing a remarkable transformation in religious responses to lgbt inclusion and visibility, and to homoerotic relationships.
Later, I will explore the separate strands that constitute and contribute to this transformation. Thereafter, I will consider the challenge it presents to us, as participants and protagonists in this transformation, and to what may lie ahead. It is at least possible that we may be moving beyond mere inclusion, to a time when, as it was in the beginning, sexual and gender outsiders will again be honoured in faith, for their special spiritual gifts and insights, to a time when we may even recognize a preferential option for the queer.
Recommended Books (Christian History):
Jordan, Mark D: The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology
Nissinen, Marti: Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective
Recommended Books (General History):
Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization
Greenberg, David F: The Construction of Homosexuality
Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality