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?
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.
Sergius and Bacchus are by a long way the best known of the so-called gay or lesbian saints – unless we include as “saints” the biblical pairs David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi. We need to be careful with terminology though: the word “gay” can be misleading, as it certainly cannot be applied with the same connotations as in modern usage, and technically, they are no longer recognised as saints by Western church, as decreed by the Vatican – but they are still honoured by the Orthodox churches, and by many others who choose to ignore the rulings of Vatican bureaucrats. The origins of saint-making lay in recognition by popular acclaim, not on decision by religious officials.
Whatever the quibbles we may have, they remain of great importance to modern queer Christians, both for their story of religious faith and personal devotion, and as potent symbols of how sexual minorities were accepted and welcomed in the earliest days of the Christian community.
They are particularly important in the movement to marriage equality, for their significance in early rites of blessing same-sex unions in church, which may point a way to making a modern provision for something similar without necessarily changing the traditional understanding of church marriage to that between a man and a woman – with its link to child-bearing.
(And, as I have written before, I have a very special personal connection with this pair of early saints and martyrs for the faith. Like so many queer Catholics, it never occurred to me that there could even exist gay or lesbian Catholics until I heard of SS Sergius and Bacchus. Some months after first hearing of them, I read their story in John Boswell, and wondered when was their feast day. I investigated – and found by wonderful serendipity that it was that very day. That began for me a continuing exploration of the other LGBT saints, of the rest of gay history in the churches, of more general gay and lesbian theology – and this blog. By further serendipity, I discovered this week that today, the feast day of Sergius and Bacchus, is also the birthday of – Dan Savage, well known for his work to combat homophobic teen bullying. If Serge and Bacchus may be regarded as patrons saints of gay adults, is Dan Savage a modern patron saint of gay teens?).
The Lovers’ Story
Sergius and Bacchus were third /fourth century Roman soldiers, and lovers. This alone is worth noting in any discussion of homoerotic relationships and the early Christians: in the Roman world, as in most of the Mediterranean region, such relationships were commonplace. What mattered in questions of sexual ethics and social approval (or otherwise) had little to do with the gender of the partners, but with their respective social status.
They were of high social standing, good enough to have a close personal relationship with the emperor, Tertullian. This provoked jealousy. They were also Christians, which gave their enemies a useful pretext to denounce them to the Emperor. He ordered them to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, which they refused to do. Their refusal provoked the wrath of the emperor, who began to exact a series of penalties, culminating in the sentence of death. The first to be killed was Bacchus, who was flogged to death. Serge was subjected to further torture, before being killed himself. The fifth century “Passion of Sergius and Bacchus” describes many details, and also some supposed miraculous interventions, such as the dead Bacchus appearing to Sergius in a vision, where he admonished his partner for grieving, and promised that they would soon be together again:
Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken away from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, “I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shall enlarge my heart”.
Boswell makes two points about the trial and passion of Sergius and Bacchus that are especially relevant to their significance for queer Christians: in all the legal and theological arguments over the charges against them, the matter of their relationship was simply not an issue. The complaint was that they had refused to honour pagan gods. Their sexuality was of no consequence at all. Later, when the Greek hagiographer has the dead Bacchus appear to Sergius to comfort him with the prospect of paradise, the greatest joy of the promised afterlife is to be reunited with his male lover. Neither the Roman jurists, nor the fifth century Christian writer who recorded the passion, have anything at all to say against the relationship – and the Christian celebrates the quality and value of their love.
Sergius and Bacchus & Gay Marriage
It is simply historically untrue that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, or that same-sex marriage is a modern invention. Among many counter-examples that easily disprove that belief, is the tradition of liturgical blessings, in church, of same-sex unions as described by the ground-breaking historical work of John Boswell. While these were not in any way an exact counterpart to modern marriage (nor were heterosexual unions from the same period), they do no need to be considered carefully in modern responses in faith to the questions around marriage and family equality. Sergius and Bacchus are significant here, for being mentioned by name in many of the liturgies for these rites that have survived, along with numerous other, less familiar examples of same-sex couples from church history.
There are also surviving texts of ancient and medieval hymns to the couple. Boswell quotes one from the sixth century, which has the opening verse ,
Of Serge and Bacchus, the pair
filled with grace, let us sing, O ye faithful!
Glory to Him who worketh
through his saints
amazing and wonderful deeds!
The full hymn is too long to quote here in full, but one verse in particular emphasises the importance of their mutual devotion:
It was not desire for this world
that captivated Serge for Christ,
nor the empty life of worldly affairs
[that captivated] Bacchus;
rather, made one
as brethren in the bond of love
they called out valiantly to the tyrant,
“See in two bodies
one soul and and heart,
one will and virtue.
Take those that yearn to please God.
Glory to Him who worketh through his saints amazing and wonderful deeds!
The words “made brethren” in this verse are a reference to the literal translation of the greek name for the rite, that of “making brothers”. This has been taken by some commentators as disproving Boswell’s claim that these rites have any connection to marriage, and are instead simply a joining in spiritual brotherhood. (A claim that Boswell himself anticipated and countered in the text himself).
Whatever the original connotation of the words though, that there was some concept of marriage involved is clearly shown by another hymn from the ninth century, quoted and discussed at “Obscure Classics of Latin Literature“, on a page for Carolingian poetry.
I. O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract as our voices resound with odes And let us make manifest the gracious rewards of the Lord. We who are below shall celebrate the saints with an illustrious hymn From our very hearts.
II. Holy martyrs shining by virtue of your merits, Sergius and Bacchus, As partners you wear God’s crown, you have transcended Together the enclosure of the flesh; and now you are Above the stars.
“O ye heavens, draw up the marriage contract” seems pretty explicit, to me.
Glory to Him who worketh through his saints amazing and wonderful deeds!
(At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has a fascinating post on depictions of Sergius and Bacchus in art, featuring in particular a wonderful stained glass window of the pair, at St. Martha’s Church in Morton Grove, Illinois. This was donated to the church by its LGBT parishioners, and is believed to be the only representation of them in any United States Church).