The debate over marriage for same-sex couples in the Church of England has reached a delicate stage, with Archbishop Justin Welby making every effort on the one hand to recognise the British civil law which now allows for same-sex marriage (‘Archbishop of Canterbury: It’s ‘great’ that equal marriage is the law of the land‘) and making it clear that homophobic bullying in C of E schools will not be tolerated. The paradoxical goal is to ‘combating homophobic bullying while still teaching the traditional Anglican view of marriage.’
For those of us who study the history of Christian marriage, it seems somewhat unfortunate to hear ‘the traditional view of marriage’ being invoked in this way. In fact, Christian ideas of marriage have changed quite dramatically across the centuries.
So I was delighted by the news this week that the General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia has decided to appoint a working party to pursue the idea of a blessing for same-sex couples. Their stated aim is ‘to follow the mandate of Christ to love one another at all times.’ (Read the press release here.) It is by no means to be expected at this stage that such a blessing would be understood as a marriage, especially given the complex legal situation for same-sex couples in the countries served by the Synod. But it is refreshing to see the Church approaching the question as one that is about the quality of its ability to express Christ’s love for humanity. The press release mentions explicitly the pain to LGBT people caused by homophobia. ‘The Synod has apologised unreservedly for the times the actions of the church have contributed to that pain.’
All of this reminded me of one of the most interesting controversies among medieval historians, which was triggered a generation ago by Yale Professor John Boswell’s influential Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), which created the scholarly ‘road map’ for understanding sources related to same-sex affective bonds, and his 1994 Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe.
Boswell shocked and fascinated his colleagues in 1994 by publishing his discovery of a medieval liturgy designed to celebrate a union between two men. Noting that in the ancient and early medieval churches marriages were not performed in church, he found it important that at the time when marriage liturgies came into use there was evidence for liturgies of same-sex union.
Initially the ceremony of same-sex union was, like the heterosexual ceremony … merely a set of prayers, but by the time of the flowering of liturgical marriage ceremonies in the twelfth century if had become a full office, involving the burning of candles, the placing of the two parties’ hands on the Gospel, the joining of their right hands, the binding of their hands (or covering of their heads) with the priest’s stole, an introductory litany…, crowning, the Lord’s Prayer, Communion, a kiss, and sometimes circling around the altar. [p. 185]
Twenty years later, Boswell’s study still makes provocative reading. Scholars do not dispute the existence of the liturgy studied by Boswell – but they are still in disagreement about what kind of liturgy it was. Were these same-sex unions really intended as marriages? In a fascinating review of Boswell’s study published in the New Republic of 25 July 1994, the ancient historian Brent D. Shaw offered the suggestion that the liturgies were actually intended as trust-pacts intended to cement protective ‘brotherhood’ relationships of the type attested among Mafia dons in modern Sicily. Shaw’s review is well worth reading, and includes excerpts from the liturgy itself.
Whether Boswell or Shaw was right in his interpretation of the medieval evidence remains inconclusive, but the liturgy he studied remains valuable as a resource for modern churches. Yet what is more important is the wider point that the medieval church was constantly evolving its prayers and liturgies, and the variety of relationships it blessed was far wider than we moderns tend to be aware of. Marriage was one among many kinds of human relationship which the Church supported. It is also worth remembering that it was only very slowly – across the first twelve centuries – that the Church became involved in the rituals associated with marriage, which was understood by the ancient Church to be a matter of civil rather than religious law.
And so it seems very ‘traditional’ indeed that the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia is seeking to enhance its liturgical offerings to support same-sex couples. We wish them every success in their work.
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The Internet History Sourcebook maintained by Fordham University in New York offers a useful summary of the reviews which John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions elicited from scholars during his lifetime (Boswell died of AIDS in 1994; here is a link to his New York Times obituary).
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