When the Church Loved Gay People

I am currently reading a fascinating and disturbing book by renowned Yale historian John Boswell called Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. It is fascinating in that it not a polemic, but a careful and cautious academic study by one of the leading historians on premodern Christianity (before his untimely death), and his command of the literature is so extensive that it is exhausting and at times overwhelming to read.

It is fascinating also because it documents that the Church – prior to the 12th century – not merely permitted or tolerated same-sex unions, but actively embraced them to the point of developing various rites for their celebration. His book demonstrates that same-sex unions weren’t unknown in the ancient world nor in premodern Europe, and that these unions were described as marriages of lifelong intimacy and love. In order to establish his thesis, he walks us through marriage and family life in the ancient world, beginning in the first century and ending up in the 9th century, which is the earliest that we have such rites written down in liturgical manuals.

The fascinating part is also the disturbing part. If his thesis is correct, then the Church had no problem celebrating rites that formalized unions between same-sex people for the first thousand years of its existence. According to another scholar, Mark Jordan in his book The Invention of Sodomy, homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric didn’t really exist in the Church prior to the 11th century, and only began in earnest in the 14th century.

This would put acceptance of gay marriage (of some kind) as part of “traditional sexual ethics” which conservatives like to talk about so much. The has its critics, as every controversial books do, but as these come generally from within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which must oppose same-sex relationships, this disagreement borders on the predictable.

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