Monday, August 5, 2013

Marrying your brother… why Adelphopoiesis Liturgies are not early Christian Same Gender Marriages…

So in the late 1970’s early 1980’s John Boswell, an extraordinary academic in many ways, wrote about Adelphopoiesis Liturgies and postulated the concept of Same Gender Marriages between gay men in the early church. This and many other piercing questions to the history we take for granted are found in his text Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. This text is not a revisionist history but consistently points out the exceptions that prove the general consensus, that the past was 100% homophobic, to be quite wrong on many accounts.

Recently, for reasons I am not quite aware, there has been a series of memes on the internet about his research, specifically from his text Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. In this text Boswell shows that certain individuals who took part in an Adelphopoiesis Liturgies also had many other major markers, such as mutual gravestones and cohabitation, which would mark them as a gay male couple. To consider these specific couples to be known gay couples the church blessed using an available liturgy is a plausible hypothesis. To call the Adelphopoiesis Liturgy a Same Gender Marriage Liturgy, however, is not.

Let me throw out a hypothetical situation. In less then a week one of my good friends is getting married, I am one of his groomsmen. Mutual friends describe our relationship as an “epic bromance”. In the early centuries of the church male Christians who found themselves in the midst of an “epic bromance” would take part in an Adelphopoiesis Liturgy to name each other brothers before the church and God. They would place their hands on the Gospel Book, the priest would pray over them asking the Holy Spirit to give them the gifts requisite to being true brothers to each other. They would also take on all legal and cultural obligations that brothers have for each other.

Now let us say me and my soon to be married bro did this. We would be brothers, but not husband and husband. The relationship recognized in the rite is a spiritual one and has no mention or expectation of us physically consummating our love in any way. It would be expected for me to be a witness, just like a familial brother, at my bro’s wedding. What would happen there, by the way, is his bride would come in covered in a veil, be blessed, and the priest would witness the transaction from the bride’s father’s household to her husband’s household. If something would happen to my spiritual brother I would quite possibly take his wife into my household and might even be responsible for producing his heir through the Greco-Roman form of leverite marriage. Needless to say this is not what we are talking about any more when we use the term “marriage” nor are the basic expectations of the Adelphopoiesis Liturgy what are being sought by most same gender couples that I know about.

To return to Boswell:
“To insist, for instance, that in order to constitute “marriages” homosexual unions of the past must emulate modern heterosexual marriage is to defy history. No marriages in ancient societies closely match their modern equivalents. Most were vastly more informal; some were more rigid. Most cultures regard marriage as a private arrangement negotiated between two families. No precise criteria could be specified as constituting a “legal” marriage during most of the period of this study: two people who lived together permanently and whose union were recognized by the community were “married”. Even early Christian theology recognized the difficulties of deciding who was and was not married; Augustine was willing to designate as a “wife” any woman who intended to be permanently faithful to the man she lived with (De bono conjugali 5.5)”[1]

I want to highlight two major points from this. First is that no historical reality is going to viably represent modern day concepts of marriage. Second that Boswell is looking through the historical record for gay couples that were “two people who lived together permanently and whose union were recognized by the community” and found that some probable candidates had taken part in Adelphopoiesis liturgy as a way to be recognized as family by the community. He did not find any evidence that Adelphopoiesis Liturgies regularly constituted anything equivalent to the marriages sought by modern same gender couples; he simply found that they were at some points used to constitute a community recognition between two men who show other markers of possibly being a long term committed same gender couple. 

Having now possibly dashed the dreams of a pure precedent for same gender marriage rites within the Christian tradition let me close with a few of my hopes. First that the church will continue to seek a theology of Marriage that speaks to a life long committed emotional, physical, and spiritual relationship between two equal and mutual individuals. Second that the church will invest its time in developing liturgies and theologies around friendship and spiritual family that we had in the past but now completely lack. My dashing of the idea of ancient same gender marriage comes from the barrier this causes to the development of both goals.  


[1] Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

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