Category Archives: History

Holocaust Memorial Day

Let us remember, today, Holocaust Memorial Day, which in 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp. The BBC will mark this with a memorial program, and there will be many memorial events around the United Kingdom.

Most of the attention, quite appropriately, will be focussed on the Jewish Holocaust, but without wishing to detract from that tragedy, we must not forget that there were other victims, too – for example, with particular relevance  to lgbt peopIe, gay men and lesbians. I offer for your consideration, a posts on this theme that I have published previously, and another by Kittredge Cherry, at Jesus in Love.

The Priest With the Pink Triangle.

For the first post in my “queer modern heroes” series, I begin with someone most people have never heard of. (I’m not sure anyone even knows his name.) I begin with him because he represents a double martyrdom, martyred for his orientation, and also martyred for his faith. I choose him also precisely because he is anonymous, reminding us that in our own way, we are all called to our own heroism in the face of persecution, all called to be “martyrs” in the true, original sense – as witnesses to truth. I read this story in John McNeill’s “Taking a Chance on God“: McNeill got the story from Heinz Heger. These are McNeill’s words:

“I would like to end this reflection on the mature life of faith with the eyewitness account of a gay priest who was beaten to death in a German concentration camp during World War II because he refused to stop praying or to express contempt for himself. The story is recounted by Heinz Heger in his book “The Men With the Pink Triangle“, in which he he recalls what took place in the special concentration camp for gay men in Sachsenhausen (Sachsenhausen was a “level 3″ camp where prisoners were deliberately worked to death):

continue reading.

pink_triangle-2

(also at Queering the Church, on a related theme: Lest We Forget: Remember the Ashes of Our Martyrs)

 

This day is commemorated on different dates in the UK, and the USA. From the other side of the Atlantic, for the American remembrance day in April, Kittredge Cherry reminded us at Jesus in Love:

 

Holocaust Remembrance: We All Wear the Triangle

 

Holy Priest Anonymous one of Sachsenhausen
By William Hart McNichols ©

On Holocaust Remembrance Day we recall the genocide of 6 million Jews in state-sponsored extermination by Nazi Germany during World War II. The Nazis also murdered millions of people in other groups, including thousands of gay men and lesbians. Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Yom HaShoah, is April 11 this year.

One of those killed was an anonymous 60-year-old gay priest who died at the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, Germany in 1940. Heinz Heger gives an eyewitness account in his book, “The Men with the Pink Triangle.” The priest was brutally beaten and tortured, and yet there was a moment of grace when a narrow beam of sunlight shone on the priest’s face. For a detailed account, visit:
http://queering-the-church.blogspot.com/2010/01/priest-with-pink-triangle.html

The gay priest is honored in the icon above, “Holy Priest Anonymous one of Sachsenhausen” by Father William Hart McNichols, a renowned iconographer and Roman Catholic priest based in New Mexico.

It is in recognition of the significance of this gay holocaust in our collective memory, that the pink triangle has become such a potent symbol of our continuing struggle for full equality and inclusion in society – and why I developed, as my own symbol of the struggle for inclusion and equality in church, this adaptation:
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Pope Francis, Gay Marriage – and Africa.

In the Philippines, Pope Francis made some observations about marriage when addressing a gathering of families, that have been widely interpreted as an attack on gay marriage, urging people to resist pressures to “colonize” the family. (Read the full text here)

At Bondings 2.0, Frank DeBenardo has a thoughtful reflection on the Pope’s message, which he describes as “problematic”. I have not yet read the actual text, or detailed reports of it, so withhold comment on the message itself, concerning marriage. Read instead, DeBenardo’s thoughts.  However, he does include a useful observation on the word “colonization” that this may have been prompted by the concerns of African bishops at the family synod. As an African myself, this struck me as important.  Continue reading Pope Francis, Gay Marriage – and Africa.

Blessed Are the Queer in Faith……

…… for they shall inherit the Church!

 

Follow this link for a presentation I did for the Quest Conference of United Kingdom gay and lesbian Catholics in 2012. In the Queen’s diamond jubilee year, this conference looked back on 60 years of queer history.  My contribution looked specifically at 60 years of queer church history – in the UK, and elsewhere.

 

The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs

Prequel: Before Christianity

Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity  has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.

The Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include into their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships  as well as the books of the prophets who were eunuchs.

The Christian Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality which may have included some male love interest. However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example , which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds.

After the Gospels, the most important Christian writings are the letters of Paul, who has a reputation as strongly condemning same sex behaviour – but a more careful consideration of his life as well as his letters, in their own context, can offer a different perspective.

The Early Christians.

The cultural context of the early was one where  they were political and even social outcasts, in a society of a bewildering range of attitudes to sexuality, ranging from substantial sexual licence for Roman citizens, to negligible freedom of sexual choice for slaves, to sexual abstemiousness for those influenced by Greek stoicism. The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of martyred Roman soldiers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions), cross-dressing monks.

In addition to the examples of individuals who were honoured as saints, there are also important examples from Church practice. Evidence from archaeology and written records shows clearly that from the late Roman period onwards, the Church made liturgical provision for the recognition of same sex couples. From Macedonia, there is extensive evidence of Christian same sex couples who were buried in shared graves. More telling evidence for church recognition of same sex couples comes from the existence of formal liturgical rites for blessing their unions. In the Eastern Church, these rites (known as “adelphopoeisis”)  date from the late Roman period. In the Western Church, where the evidence begins a little later, they were known as making of “sworn brothers”.

Medieval Homoeroticism

The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.

This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.

By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops  and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections.

It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops.

However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy. Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.

The Great Persecution

Symbolically, the great change can be seen as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc – martyred not for the Church, but by the Church, for reasons that combined charges of heresy with her cross-dressing. A combination of charges of heresy and “sodomy” were also the pretext for the persecution and trials of the Knights Templar – masking the naked greed of the secular and clerical powers which profited thereby. The same confusion of “sodomy” and heresy led to an expansion of the persecution from the Templars to wider group, and  also the expansion of the methods and geographic extent, culminating in the executions of thousands of alleged “sodomites” across many regions of Europe. This persecution was initially encouraged or conducted by the Inquisition, later by secular authorities alone – but conducted according to what the church had taught them was a religious justification. Even today, the belief that religion justifies homophobic violence is often given as a motivation by the perpetrators – and the fires that burned the sodomites of the fifteenth century had a tragic echo in the gay holocaust of the second world war.

Yet even at the height of the persecution, there was the paradox of a succession of  popes, who either had well-documented relationships with boys or men,  or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture. This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally.

Modern Martyrs, Modern Revival

The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century). From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods.  In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.

In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.

Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members. However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity,  refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.

Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other  – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.

November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognized and canonized saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For queers in Church, it is especially a day for us to remember our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church – and that we, too, are called to martyrdom, in its literal sense: to bear witness, in our lives, to our truth.

Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzus: Doctors of the Church

Two of the most notable saints deserving special attention by queer Christians are St Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and his dear friend St Gregory “the theologian”, Bishop of  Nazianzus, whose relationship was of such great intimacy that they are frequently described as having shared “one soul in two bodies”. Today, January 2nd, the Church celebrates their joint feast day.

 “Then not only did I feel full of veneration for my great Basil because of the seriousness of his morals and the maturity and wisdom of his speeches, but he induced others who did not yet know him to be like him…. The same eagerness for knowledge motivated us…. This was our competition: not who was first but who allowed the other to be first. It seemed as if we had one soul in two bodies”

(The phrase was used by Gregory  himself, after the death of his friend Basil, and has been regularly repeated across the sixteen centuries since by many others,  including Pope Benedict).

Both are regarded by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches as Doctors of the Faith, and the Eastern Orthodox churches  have further honoured them, together with John Chrysostom, with the title “Great Hierarch”.

Continue reading Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzus: Doctors of the Church

Queer Saints and Martyrs for January

Throughout Jewish and Christian history there have undoubtedly been numerous leading churchmen, including popes,cardinals, bishops, abbots and saints who have had sex with men, or protected those who did, or who commissioned frankly homoerotic artworks. Many others, who as priests or monks kept to their vows of celibacy but had notable emotionally intimate relationships with men, or wrote of the value of such relationships, for the spiritual gifts they could bring. It would be wrong to describe these men as “gay”, which has modern connotations which are inappropriate for earlier times, (especially for those who have taken vows of celibacy), or to describe their female counterparts as “lesbian”.

“Queer”, on the other hands, has a broader range of meanings and connotations, including at the most literal level, simply “strange”. In church history, where the place of women has been so often undervalued, it is also appropriate to draw attention to those women in history who contradict the modern marginalisation of women in ecclesiastical power structures, as ordained deacons in the early church, or as powerful abbesses in the Medieval period. In the list below, there is no suggestion that all were involved in same – sex physically erotic relationships (although some may have been). However, all deserve some consideration by LGBT Christians for the lessons we can learn from their lives or writings, about the place of sexual or gender minorities in our history, or about the spiritual value of our relationships.

The origins of the Christian custom of honouring our saints lay in the state sponsored persecution of the early Christians, with recognition given to those who had died for their faith. The word “martyr” has its roots in the Greek for “to bear witness”, and in later centuries, it can be applied in a quite different sense, to men and women who have been persecuted not for their Christian faith, but for attempting to live honestly as gay, lesbian or trans men and women — persecuted not for the Church, but by the Christian community.  In some cases, this persecution has taken the form of actual murder or judicial execution, in others, it has driven individuals to suicide. Continue reading Queer Saints and Martyrs for January

Three Young Men in the Burning Fiery Furnace

Today, the church celebrates the feast of three young men, Shadrack, Mesach and Abednego, the companions of Daniel the prophet: they are important for highlighting a much neglected group in the church – the transgendered.

We are probably all familiar with the stories of Daniel in the lion’s den, and of his three companions in the burning fiery furnace. What they don’t tell us in Sunday School, is that as slaves captured and taken to service in the king’s court in Babylon they were almost certainly eunuchs – castrated males. This was the standard fate of slaves in the royal court, as Kathryn Ringrose has shown, and as anticipated by Isaiah:

And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.

-Isaiah 39:7
If there is any group more likely to have the bible-pumping conservatives frothing at the mouth more than gay and lesbian Christians, perhaps it is the trans community. Yet this is entirely misplaced, as Isaiah makes clear elsewhere:

4For this is what the LORD says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.

-Isaiah 56: 4- 5
The three young men, forcibly castrated as slaves, are clearly not directly comparable to the modern trans community, but there are nevertheless lessons to be learnt, from them and from others in Christian (and non-Christian) history. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

The Babylonian slaves were clearly among those who have been made so by others. Those who made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven may be a reference to the common religious practice in the societies surrounding the Jews of men who castrated themselves to serve as priests, especially in the cult of Cybele , and also in some other religions. (Some commentators believe that is this practice of castration that is meant by the words mistranslated in some of the clobber texts as “homosexuals”, lines which more accurately refer to castrated gentile priests. In this view, it is the association with pagan idolatry, not the sexual practices themselves, which made them taboo). The idea of making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of God later led some early Christians to adopt the practice, notably the early theologian Origen, who castrated himself in. Metaphorically, it is the same idea of emasculation which underlies the Catholic church’s insistence on compulsory celibacy for priests in the Roman rite.
Modern trans people are also not directly comparable to this third group – but they are arguably included in the first group:  made so by birth. Less directly, some scholars argue that the biblical term “eunuch” is the closest parallel in biblical language to the modern term “homosexual”, and so the welcome promised by Isaiah may be said to apply to all who are queer in church –

a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters; 

I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever

Even if we reject this connection, there remains a fundamentally important lesson for us all in the story of the three young men, a story that has relevance and resonance for us today that goes way beyond the children’s illustrated Bible pictures of men who could not be burned by the flames. To see this, remember why it is that they are commemorated. They were commanded by the king to eat the forbidden meat – to conform. It was for their refusal to knuckle under and give in to the pressure to abandon their fundamental religious identity that they were sentenced to death by burning.
But in their faith and loyalty, they were protected from the flames. Centuries later, it was the Christian Church that again turned to burning as a punishment for those who refused to conform, either to orthodox religious belief, or to heteronormative sexual standards. We continue to live with the legacy of that prejudice, which masquerades as religious obligation. Like the three men in the Babylonian fire, we too must stand firm in our commitment to the truth. In our steadfastness, the flames of prejudice and religious bigotry will likewise be unable to destroy our queer Christian community.
(The image used is a window by John Piper as a memorial to Benjamin Britten, whose “Burning Fiery Furnace” told the story of the three young men as one of his three “parables for church performance” – one act operas, although Britten himself avoided the term).

Related articles

Queer Saints and Martyrs for December

December features a number of notable dates of significance for queer Church history. Unless otherwise stated, all links in the listing below are to my own posts, here at Queer Saints, Sinners and Martyrs, or elsewhere.

Inclusion below does not imply that those named are “gay”, “lesbian”, or “trans”, or even “saints” in any narrow, modern sense – but all deserve attention by LGBT people of faith, for illustrating how sexual and gender minorities have been a constant presence in the life of the Church, at all levels.

An (incomplete) listing for December includes, among others worth considering, the following:

Nov 1st: Feast of all (Queer) Saints

An important part of Catholic tradition is a strong interest in S & M – and that’s not Sadism and Masochism (although some would say that to be a Catholic, and especially a gay Catholic, it helps to be a masochist), but “Saints and Martyrs”. For today’s feast of All Saints, it is worth remembering that the multitude of saints and martyrs in Church history also includes many queer saints and martyrs. For this great feast, I republish here an address I gave originally for the Quest 40th anniversary conference, in July 2013.

QuestLogo

I know that some people find the term “queer” offensive, but the primary meaning is just “strange”.  Some of our queer saints and martyrs are very queer. or strange,  indeed.

Many of you will know about Sergius and Bacchus, the best known of the gay saints:  Roman soldiers, lovers and Christian martyrs.  But are they saints? They are no longer listed in some major reference books on Catholic saints, and in others are listed, but with a note that their “cult” was suppressed in 1969. I’ve since come across claims that they were not in fact lovers, but just “good friends” – and even that modern scholars don’t believe they ever existed, in the first place.

 

This  rather sums up any attempt to grapple fully with the story of gay saints in Christian history: I have no doubt at all that there really were and still are many gay, lesbian and trans saints, but it’s not always easy to classify saints by orientation, there are ambiguities in what constitutes sainthood, and some of the historical details are distinctly unreliable. (The best known “facts” about St Patrick are that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, and used the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity. At least one of those is definitely not true, the other is dubious).

In the same spirit, I can assure you that of the saints I’m about to discuss, at least some of the facts are true.

Let’s return to Sergius and Bacchus, and their removal from the saintly canon in 1969. There are some gay activists who see conspiracy in this, but its much simpler. In the early church, there was no formal canonization process – the saints were those who were popularly acclaimed as such. In 1969, the Vatican went through the records, and removed a large number that were doubtful. There’s a converse – “saints” are not only those who have been canonized. There’s still a place for saints by popular acclamation.

At about the same period as Sergius and Bacchus, and also in Rome, there were Galla and Benedicta,  two nuns in a 5th century Roman convent, devoted to God, and to each other. When Galla fell seriously ill, St Peter appeared to her in a vision, and told her to prepare for her imminent death. Galla quite welcomed the idea of proceeding to heaven, but pleaded with Peter that she should not have to leave behind her beloved Benedicta. The saint duly promised that Benedicta too, would die soon after Galla, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m not sure how many of us would pray for the death of our loved ones  – but then, we’re not saints.

In the Eastern Church, there were a number of women who disguised themselves as men to live and pray in male monasteries (the earliest trans saints). The oddest trans saint of all is Wilgefortis, whose feast day was last Saturday. Some statues of her show a crucified, bearded woman. She was a beautiful royal princess, who was commanded by her father to marry a prince he had selected for her. She, on the other hand, did not want to marry, but to devote her life to God as a virgin. So, she prayed to God to be freed from the evil of marriage. Miraculously, she woke up with a thick beard, whereupon the prince refused to marry her, and the wedding fell through. Her father was furious, and had her crucified for her disobedience. That’s the story. The probable truth is less dramatic, possibly based on a conventional crucifix showing Christ in a tunic, rather than the more usual loincloth. Mistaking the tunic for a dress, people invented the myth of the bearded woman, to explain what appeared to be a crucified bearded woman. Even so, some people treasure her as a patron of trans or intersex people. She is also known by a range of other names, including Uncumber, and in Spanish “Liberada” – liberated. Under that name, she is regarded as a patron for liberation from male domination. I like to think of her as a possible patron for liberation from all manner of sexual or gender stereotypes and enforced roles.

 

On the other side of the Roman Empire, we have a completely orthodox, historically reliable 4th century Spanish bishop and saint, Paulinus of Nola, highly regarded for his missionary work, and also for his excellent liturgical verse. What the standard Catholic histories don’t tell you, is he is also respected by Latin scholars for his erotic verse addressed to a male lover, Ausonius. What is truly extraordinary, is that he is only one of a number of canonized saints, bishops and abbots, mostly medieval, whose poetry is included in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. But here it gets more tricky. Some of the frankly homoerotic language is no more than a literary device, not intended to represent any actual, real life male love interest.

What we do know is that there were numerous examples of pairs of bishops and saints who had close relationships which were intimate emotionally, if not physically:  St Aelred of Rievaulx wrote an important book on the spiritual value of these relationships. Just one example from this diocese, is that of the Saint Richard, bishop of Chichester, who had a close, emotionally intimate relationship with  Archbishop Edmund of Canterbury. While these relationships were expected to be celibate, and many were, this was because as monks, they had taken vows of celibacy. (Before becoming a monk, Aelred himself had  a relationship which probably was physical with the young son of the Scottish king). Those of us who have not chosen celibacy, could learn from Aelred about the spiritual value of our own relationships.

As I’m focusing on saints and martyrs, I won’t say too much about the many notable examples of other abbots,  bishops and even popes who definitely had sex with men, but consider a special class of gay martyrs – those martyred by the church, on account of their sexuality, during many centuries of direct persecution that began with the Inquisition, and continued by civil governments on behalf of the Church.

What I find most fascinating about the Renaissance period, is that at just the time when the inquisition was actively hunting down and burning “sodomites”, there was a succession of popes and cardinals who were themselves having sex with men, or who were patrons of artists producing frankly homoerotic art – Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel being the best and well – known example. Less well known, is that one of these Popes also commissioned Michelangelo to paint a more explicitly erotic work for the papal bedroom.

In modern times, there would seem to be no gay or lesbian saints. That changes when we remember the important distinction between formally canonized saints, and popular saints. One candidate for sainthood by acclamation is Fr Mychal Judge, chaplain to the New York Fire Department, the saint of 9/11, who died in the twin towers and was carried out, formally identified as victim 0001. Immediately, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York and other prominent Catholics began calling for his canonization. Those calls ended abruptly when it became known that he was an active member of Dignity, and identified openly as gay. Another is the American layman Tom Dooley, who started as a Naval doctor, before devoting his life to missionary work in Africa. There is a formal cause open in favour of his canonization, and a website to promote it – but there’s a difficulty. The reason he left the Navy was that he was found to have engaged in a sexual relationship with a man, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence.

If the Catholic Church has an inbuilt bias against celebrating lay people as saints , that does not apply to other denominations. Lutherans and Anglicans do not have the elaborate procedures for canonization that we do, but they do nevertheless have a comparable form of recognition for holy men and women. It is among these, that we can find some more easily identifiable gay, lesbian and trans saints. The Episcopal Church in the USA has allocated a feast day to Vida Scudder, a social reformer of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century, who is known to have lived in a lesbian relationship. Just last year, the Episcopal Church added to its “Book of holy men and women”, Rev Pauli Murray, the first African American female ordained a priest. Although physically female, Murray saw himself, and lived, as a man attracted to women. The Lutherans include in their own calendar of saints, the United Nations Secretary General, Dag Hammerskold, who is believed to have been gay. But the most interesting of these Anglican / Lutheran saints is –

Michelangelo. The Vatican freely acknowledges the spiritual value of his work, including the male nudes and near nudes in the Sistine Chapel, but ignores the man. Anglicans and Lutherans know that the work cannot exist without its creator – and so they honour the man as well as the work. (The next time you men spend hours poring over Michelangelo’s hunky nude men, you could try claiming piously that you were doing so for their spiritual value, while praying to the saint who created the images).

sistine-chapel-last-judgment

What lesson can we draw from these queer saints and martyrs? First, to use the old cliché, we are not alone. There have always been what we call gay men and lesbians, in the Church, and among the saints, as there are everywhere else.

Second, I suggest we can include ourselves among the saints and martyrs. Accepting that “saints” refers to all holy men and women, not just those formally canonized, it is perfectly orthodox to say that we should all aspire to sainthood. Collectively, we as gay men and lesbians have all suffered martyrdom by the church – if no longer by physical execution, then certainly by emotional and spiritual abuse. But the word “martyrdom” derives from the word for “witness”. The early martyrs for the church were so called, because in the face of persecution, they witnessed to the truth of their faith.

And so I call on all of you, in the same spirit, to witness to the truth of both your faith, and the nature of your personal sexual or gender identity. Live with integrity, even in the face of continuing persecution by the Church. I ask you then  to drink a toast, to yourselves – to the assembled saints and martyrs of Quest.

 

 

Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints

Today is the feast of All Saints.  For us as gay men, lesbians in the church, this begs the obvious questions: are there gay saints?  Does it matter?
Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they wer gay because we do not know that they were sexually active.  Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question.
Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?
All Saints Albrecht  Dürer
All Saints : Albrecht Dürer

Richard McBrien gives one response, at NCR on-line:

There are many more saints in heaven than the relatively few who have been officially recognized by the church.
“For every St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima there are thousands of unknown and long forgotten mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, nurses, teachers, manual laborers, and other individuals in various kinds of occupations who lived holy lives that were consistent with the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Although each is in eternal glory, none of their names is attached to a liturgical feast, a parish church, a pious society, or any other ecclesiastical institution. The catch-all feast that we celebrate next week is all the recognition they’re ever going to receive from the church.”
“The church makes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments, of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.
Two things are important here, especially at this feast of “all” saints: the category of saints is far larger than just those who have been recognised by a formal process; and the reason for giving them honour is to provide role models. It is not inherent to the tradition of honouring the saints that they should be miracle workers, or that we should be praying to them for special favours – although officially attested miracles are part of the canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church:  it was only in the 11th or 12 the century that saint making became the exclusive preserve of the Pope.
It now becomes easier to make sense of the gay, lesbian and transvestite saints in Church history, and their importance for the feast of All Saints.

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