The Forgotten History of Gay Marriage
Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite. It was originally published on March 14, 2012. Since then, there have been many changes and advancements in LGBT rights around the world. The information in this post still holds true, though, and is an important reminder. Enjoy!
Republicans and other opponents of gay marriage often speak of marriage as being a 2,000 year old tradition (or even older). Quite apart from the fact that the definition of marriage has changed from when it was a business transaction, usually between men, there is ample evidence that within just Christian tradition, it has changed from the point where same-sex relationships were not just tolerated but celebrated.
In the famous St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, there is an icon which shows two robed Christian saints getting married. Their ‘pronubus’ (official witness, or “best man”) is none other than Jesus Christ.
The happy couple are 4th Century Christian martyrs, Saint Serge and Saint Bacchus — both men.
Severus of Antioch in the sixth century explained that “we should not separate in speech [Serge and Bacchus] who were joined in life.” More bluntly, in the definitive 10th century Greek account of their lives, Saint Serge is described as the “sweet companion and lover (erastai)” of St. Bacchus.
Legend says that Bacchus appeared to the dying Sergius as an angel, telling him to be brave because they would soon be reunited in heaven.
Yale historian John Richard Boswell discovered this early Christian history and wrote about it nearly 20 years ago in “Same Sex Unions In Pre-Modern Europe“ (1994).
In ancient church liturgical documents, he found the existence of an “Office of Same Sex Union” (10th and 11th century Greek) and the “Order for Uniting Two Men” (11th and 12th century Slavonic).
He found many examples of:
- A community gathered in a church
- A blessing of the couple before the altar
- Their right hands joined as at heterosexual marriages
- The participation of a priest
- The taking of the Eucharist
- A wedding banquet afterwards
A 14th century Serbian Slavonic “Office of the Same Sex Union,” uniting two men or two women, had the couple having their right hands laid on the Gospel while having a cross placed in their left hands. Having kissed the Gospel, the couple were then required to kiss each other, after which the priest, having raised up the Eucharist, would give them both communion.
Boswell documented such sanctified unions up until the 18th century.
In late medieval France, a contract of “enbrotherment” (affrèrement) existed for men who pledged to live together sharing ‘un pain, un vin, et une bourse’ – one bread, one wine, and one purse.
Other religions, such as Hinduism and some native American religions, have respect for same-sex couples weaved into their history.
When right-wing evangelical Christians talk about “traditional marriage,” there is no such thing.
Image of icon of Sts. Sergius & Bacchus by St. John Cassian Press