Do Not Forget
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
25 June 2006
When the DaVinci Code first came out it was a wild success because so many people were intrigued by its claims about church history. We’ve just been through another round of intense discussion of these topics as the film was released. I’ve always been excited by these conversations because it got people asking questions that they largely did not care about before. Before this book, I rarely had anyone ask about the canonization process. No one ever asked me about the role of Mary Magdalene. And I can’t remember very many questions about the Gnostics. But since this book came out, I’ve been asked about these things many times. I’m glad for the energy.
Readers were shocked that there might be elements of the Christian story that they were not familiar with, particularly related to the roles of women and the teachings on sexuality. The funny thing is that there is much in the DaVinci Code that is simply fable. The historical record may be even more shocking than what Dan Brown conceived. For instance, I think it continues to undermine Mary Magdalene to claim that she is the wife of Jesus, because it continues to make her a sexual object. There is a great deal of scholarly consensus these days that Mary was, in fact, the leader of the women disciples in much the same way that Peter was the leader of the men. As such, she probably had a very prominent role in the early days of the church.
How might the historical record of the Christian story be even more shocking than Dan Brown conceived? One way is that there is a queer side to the story that few people are familiar with.
Take, for instance, the destruction of the Order of the Knights Templar. In the novel, Dan Brown says that this very powerful medieval order was destroyed by the church because it possessed a secret that could undermine the church. What we do know is that European rulers, especially the French King Philip, were jealous of the Templars’ wealth and power and destroyed the order so that they could take control of Templar property. Among the many charges levied against the Templars were that they were idolaters, that they denied Christ, and that they were homosexuals. Now, these charges were pretty commonly levied against anyone who the church or state wanted to get rid of. So, it is not clear that the Templars were really gay or that this was the reason for their being disbanded. But it is part of the historical record. Also of interest, they were most protected in England who was ruled at that time by King Edward II, whom the historical record is pretty clear about being gay.
Last week the Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson, the Senior Pastor of the Cathedral of Hope, was on Larry King Live. Larry King’s program was a panel discussion of gays in the church with seven panelists. I thought Jo did very well, especially having to go up against the likes of Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
There was one point that Mohler and the others on the show who oppose gay equality kept making over and over again,which really bothered me. They kept saying that the 2,000 year teaching of the church has been clear on the issue of homosexuality. Only Jo took a stab against this claim, but it went largely unrefuted.
Fortunately, I had planned on talking about this very topic today!
Today’s Psalm passage is a strong cry for God to remember and save the oppressed. It firmly states that YHWH is a stronghold for the oppressed; then it calls on God to rise up and judge the nations. At the center of the passage is this claim, YHWH “does not forget the cry of the afflicted.”
Often in a psalm or a prophetic speech, a Jewish writer would remind God of God’s work in the past on behalf of the people and then call upon God to once again do the same. It is a recurring image in the Old Testament. So, I was excited when I saw that this text, with this line was one of the lectionary texts for Pride Sunday. What better message this week, but to remind us of our history within the church.
Then, once I saw the Larry King show, this sermon took on added importance, because the claims of Mohler and the others are simply not true. There is not one, clear, 2,000 year old teaching of the church about same-sex relationships. To claim that there is only one, clear teaching is to reveal one’s ignorance. But I understand why they are ignorant, most of us are too. It is only in recent years that I’ve become acquainted with even some of our past. It remains hidden from mainstream consciousness, yet it is there. So, today, I’m calling upon God and even upon us to not forget our past.
Though there have always been voices against same-sex relations, the church’s record is actually far more complicated. I highly recommend to you John Boswell’s groundbreaking book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. The book is a scholarly read, though not dense. But if you are really interested in knowing the details of how the church’s position evolved over time, Boswell is the historian to read. In his book you discover that many of the passages currently used to denounce gay people were not used through many centuries of the church. In fact, many anti-gay theologians didn’t use the same passages people use today, clearly indicating that contemporary conservatives have developed readings of some texts that were not held by conservatives in the early church.
Same sex relationships were accepted in much of Roman culture, though in the later years of the Empire there was a move to a more rigid morality in both pagan and Christian writers. This reflects the social change and eventual chaos of the period.
Early Christians took varying positions. St. John Chrysostom was strongly against. St. Augustine, who was opposed, recorded having had same-sex relationships in his youth. Prior to his conversion he was promiscuous with women and men, it seems. St Basil considered it natural, but warned those monks who had taken vows of chastity to beware. Chrysostom seems to attack same-sex relationships so violently because they were so prominent. He accuses high church officials and city leaders of Antioch of being gay and accepting it. Boswell concludes about this period:
Not only does there appear to have been no general prejudice against gay people among early Christians; there does not seem to have been any reason for Christianity to adopt a hostile attitude toward homosexual behavior. Many prominent and respected Christians – some canonized – were involved in relationships which would almost certainly be considered homosexual in cultures hostile to same-sex eroticisim.
An example is the passion expressed by Ausonius for St. Paulinus, Bishop of Niola:
I shall hold you fast, grafted onto my being, not divided by distant shores or suns, everywhere you shall be with me, I will see with my heart and embrace you with my loving spirit.
The Roman Empire was conquered by the Germanic tribes and in the process, city life was basically destroyed. Europe was more rural and less educated. Very little evidence of a gay culture or literature survives from the Early Medieval period. It appears that what gay culture there was survived among the clergy. An example of gay, Christian literature from this period is by Alcuin, who was the leading reformer in the court of Charlemagne:
I think of your love and friendship with such sweet memories, reverend bishop, that I long for that lovely time when I may be able to clutch the neck of your sweetness with the fingers of my desires. Alas, if only it were granted to me, as it was to Habakkuk, to be transported to you, how would I sink into your embraces, . . . how would I cover, with tightly pressed lips, not only your eyes, ears, and mouth but also your every finger and your toes, not once but many a time.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries there was a renewal of urban life and a growing tolerance of minorities, includeing gay people. Gay culture and literature thrived and there was growing acceptance in parts of the Church.
One story you might find interesting occurred during the papacy of Urban II. It is especially relevant given the recent debates in the Episcopal Church over the consecration of an openly gay bishop. Pope Urban II was a strict reformer, dedicated to cleaning up the morality of the clergy; he was not known for being permissive. It was Urban II who launched the first crusade.
During Urban’s papacy one John of Orleans was elected as Bishop of the French city of Orleans. It was known that John had been lovers both with the French King and with Ralph, Archbishop of Tours. In fact, there were those in the church who opposed John’s election as bishop. However, Urban did not oppose the election, and an openly gay bishop was consecrated in the year 1098.
In 1102 England passed its first, I repeat first, statue that named same-sex relationships as sinful. St. Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury and the most prominent theologian and philosopher of the period, wrote that the population would be surprised to learn that such relationships were sinful because they were widely practiced and widely accepted.
Anselm, himself, was steadfastly committed to celibacy. However, it is quite clear that he formed emotional relationships with other men. He wrote beautiful, passionate love letters to other men.
Many such letters full of homoerotic and homosocial language and imagery survive, including those of the great Hildegard of Bingen which were written to another woman.
Many conservatives criticize current queer theologians for interpreting scripture and Christian tradition from the queer perspective. The conservatives often think that we are creating interpretations that have no basis in the history of Christian theology. However, they are wrong. Medieval theologians developed queer readings of scripture.
The most prominent queer theologian of this period was Saint Aelred of Rievaulx. Notice that many of these figures bear the designation of sainthood; they were not fringe figures, but were clearly considered orthodox by the Church. St. Aelred developed a full-fledged Christian theology of same-sex relationships. He argued that our emotional attachments, straight or gay, gave us access to divine love.
Aelred seems to have gone through his gay adolescence, leading a promiscuous life, though he doesn’t seem to have looked upon this period of his life as negatively as St. Augustine did his promiscuous period. After Aelred took the vow of celibacy, he seems to have kept it. However, he still fell in love with other men. Aelred considered these loves to be permissible and even encouraged them when he was abbot. He encouraged his monks to be physically affectionate with each other, though refraining from sex.
Aelred wrote passionately about his own love relationships:
For I deemed my heart in a fashion his, and his mine, and he felt in like manner towards me . . . He was the refuge of my spirit, the sweet solace of my griefs, whose heart of love received me when fatigued from labors, whose counsel refreshed me when plunged in sadness and grief. . . . What more is there, then, that I can say? Was it not a foretaste of blessedness thus to love and thus to be loved?
St. Aelred not only developed a positive theology of same-sex relationships, he even interpreted scripture from a queer perspective.
In The DaVinci Code, much of the plot hinges on Leonardo DaVinci’s painting of The Last Supper. Dan Brown points out that the Apostle John, sitting on Jesus’ right side, looks like a woman. Dan Brown then argues that this is in fact Mary Magdalene and not John the Apostle. Art historians reject this interpretation; the effeminate figure next to Jesus is John the Apostle. This forces us to ask the question, why would Leonardo paint John the Apostle in such an effeminate way?
Well, for one thing, we know that Leonardo was gay. As a gay man, he was probably very familiar with what was a longstanding queer interpretation of the Jesus story. In the Gospel of John there are many references to the disciple whom Jesus loved. Church tradition has long held that the disciple so named is John the Apostle. In the Gospel, he is pictured as reclining on Jesus’ breast. You might be surprised to know that for many centuries, there are theologians who have interpreted literally the phrase, the one whom Jesus loved. Among those theologians was St. Aelred who wrote the following about Jesus and John:
with whom you can rest, just the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.
Others have interpreted the Lazarus story from a queer perspective. Jesus clearly had a close friendship with Lazarus. Some have identified Lazarus with the mysterious naked young man who appears twice in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus is arrested and to announce his resurrection to the women in the tomb. This reading was given further credence when the Secret Gospel of Mark was discovered in 1958 in a monastery in Israel. There is no scholarly consensus about this gospel fragment. Some scholars think it is a hoax or forgery, others that it is authentic. Some argue that it is ancient, but was written later than the canonical Gospel of Mark. Some claim that it was actually part of an early edition of Mark and that this portion was edited out because it was so controversial. We do know that there were multiple versions of Mark floating around in the early centuries of Christianity. Even those who accept this text as authentic and part of Mark’s first edition, disagree as to what it means. Some argue that it has no sexual meaning whatsoever.
What is contained in the Secret Gospel of Mark? This passage:
And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.
Now unless you freak out, I’m not personally arguing that Jesus was gay. I don’t know if Jesus had sex with anyone or fell in love with anyone, male or female, nor do I care. It really doesn’t affect my core beliefs at all if Jesus married Mary Magdalene or was in love with St. John. What I am trying to demonstrate is that there is a longstanding queer Christian history that has been ignored. I want to refute Al Mohler’s ignorant notion that for 2,000 years the Church has spoken clearly and with one voice on the gay issue. Because the church has not.
In fact, the anti-gay position didn’t gain complete dominance until the Late Medieval Period. By the end of the twelfth century and on into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Europe went through a period of intolerance and persecution of minorities – Jews, gays, women, lepers, etc. Historians do not fully understand the change. There was a new phobia of outsiders, growing centralization of the government, laws of all sorts multiplied, and enforcement of a strict orthodoxy in the Church. Long established institutions like the Knights Templar were destroyed, Jews were expelled from various nations, and witch trials erupted. King Edward II was reviled for his homosexuality and was brutally murdered.
In 1179 the third Lateran council was the first council of the church to rule on homosexuality. Boswell records, “Between 1250 and 1300, homosexual activity passed from being completely legal in most of Europe to incurring the death penalty in all but a few contemporary legal compilations.”
The Scholastic philosophers and theologians, particularly St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas were responsible for a codified orthodoxy against homosexuality. Aquinas was also the first person in the Christian intellectual tradition to move homosexuality from a sin of excess to a “new and singular degree of enormity among types of behavior most feared by the common people and most severely repressed by the church” (Boswell).
So, it is true that church teaching has spoken largely with one clear voice on same-sex relationships, but only during the second half of the church’s life. Through more than half of our history, many voices took a positive view of same-sex relationships.
Even in this modern period, there have been prominent gay church persons and minority voices advocating for gay people. Among prominent church persons of the modern age who were gay, transgressed gender boundaries, or developed homoerotic spirituality, we can list Saint Joan of Arc, the reformer Erasmus, the artist Michelangelo, Pope Julius III, the mystic St. John of the Cross, King James I of England who authorized the translation of the Bible into English, Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, patron of education and the arts Queen Christina of Sweden, Mexican nun and author Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, theologian John Cardinal Newman, priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, and the Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold.
The historical record is more surprising than the DaVinci Code suggests. The Church has not spoken with one, clear, anti-gay voice for 2,000 years. In fact, there have been many passionate voices that supported same-sex relationships. We too have a place in Christian history that pre-dates the modern gay rights movement. Let us not forget.