Monday, 1 November 2010

Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints

Today is the feast of All Saints.  For us as gay men, lesbians in the church, this begs the obvious questions: are there gay saints?  Does it matter?
Some sources say clearly yes, listing numerous examples. Others dispute the idea, saying either that the examples quoted are not officially recognised, or denying that they wer gay because we do not know that they were sexually active.  Before discussing specifically LGBT or queer saints, consider a more general question.
Who are the “Saints”, and why do we recognise them?
All Saints Albrecht  Dürer
All Saints : Albrecht Dürer
Richard McBrien gives one response, at NCR on-line:
There are many more saints in heaven than the relatively few who have been officially recognized by the church.
“For every St. Francis of Assisi or St. Rose of Lima there are thousands of unknown and long forgotten mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, nurses, teachers, manual laborers, and other individuals in various kinds of occupations who lived holy lives that were consistent with the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Although each is in eternal glory, none of their names is attached to a liturgical feast, a parish church, a pious society, or any other ecclesiastical institution. The catch-all feast that we celebrate next week is all the recognition they're ever going to receive from the church.”
“The church makes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments, of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.
Two things are important here, especially at this feast of "all" saints: the category of saints is far larger than just those who have been recognised by a formal process; and the reason for giving them honour is to provide role models. It is not inherent to the tradition of honouring the saints that they should be miracle workers, or that we should be praying to them for special favours – although officially attested miracles are part of the canonization process. This formal process did not even exist in the early church:  it was only in the 11th or 12 the century that saint making became the exclusive preserve of the Pope.
It now becomes easier to make sense of the gay, lesbian and transvestite saints in Church history, and their importance for the feast of All Saints.
For some, their official recognition is not important – all that counts is their value as role models.  If they are widely seen as such, we are entitled to  call them so, even without clear canonized status.
Their sexual conduct (celibate or non-celibate) is equally irrelevant to the label “gay.”  There are some notable monks and priests who had deep, emotionally intimate love affairs with men but were known to remain celibate.  This does not change their orientation, making them gay, any more than a celibate heterosexual is somehow not straight. Still, I prefer the terminology "queer", to denote any noncomformist sexual identity - and ignoring pointless debates over celibacy.
With that out of the way, it becomes possible to recognise (and welcome) a wide range of queer saints in Christian and Jewish history, from Biblical times to the 21st century. It is important that we do so, to remind ourselves that we have always been a part of the church, that we have not always been rejected by the religious bigots, and that we can live lives of honour and holiness within the truth of who we are.
Some examples to think about:
First, are the many biblical figures and stories that remind us that we have always been part of Jewish and Christian tradition:
David and Jonathan, and  Ruth & Naomi represent the longest love stories in the bible - and both celebrate same-sex love. The eunuch prophets Daniel and his companions, and also Nehemiah, are examples of another kind of sexual minority recorded and honoured  in scripture.
In the New Testament, we have the celebrated story of Christ healing the Centurion's gay lover, and of another eunuch, Phillip, specifically welcomed into the Church, and also the intriguing example of Christ's  "Beloved Disciple", whoever he may be, and whatever the specific nature of the relationship.
In the early postbiblical Church, there are two pairs of military loversand martyrs (the well-known SS Sergius & Bacchus and the less familiar Polyeuct and Nearchos), the hermit lovers SS Symeon of Emessa & John, the martyred female pair Felicity and Perpetua, and a host of Cross-Dressing Monastic Saints, women who adopted men's clothing to be accepted as monks in male monasteries. There were also the two bishops and poets, St Paulinus of Nola, and Venantius Fortunatus, each of whom wrote high quality Latin verse in frankly homoerotic idiom.
The literary output (in the form of letters) likewise betrays the queer sensibilities of a series of medieval monks and bishops, including, saints Anselm of Canterbury and  Aelred of Rivaulx.
All the previous examples were recognized and honoured as saints by the church at large. As we move beyond the medieval period, though, the picture changes. Joan of Arc deserves particular attention from queer Christians for her status as one who was first martyred, at least partly for her habit of ignoring approved gender roles, but was later recognized and canonized as an officially approved saint.  From the Renaissance on, many thousands of men (and fewer women) were burnt or otherwise executed by the Church, or by the state at the instigation of the church, for alleged same-sex activities. Collectively, these men bear witness to the continued pervasiveness of same-sex attraction as an enduring element in natural human sexuality. "To bear witness" is the literal meaning of the Greek word from which our term "martyr" is derived, and so these victims of institutional church hatred can be thought of as martyrs, just as the early Christian martyrs were - except that these, like St Joan, were martyred not for the Church, but by the Church authorities.
In recent years, this persecution of openly gay or lesbian Christians has taken a new form. No longer able to silence queer minorities by execution or imprisonment, those in control of the Churches have instead depended on silencing them by exclusion from ministry or from teaching (for those already ordained). For anyone hoping to make a career in the Church, this is a form of professional execution: these men and women can also be seen as martyrs, martyred by the Church for their honesty in acknowledging their sexual identity, and their attempts to speak the truth on sexual ethics. Among a long list, I think for instance of John McNeill and Jeanine Grammick in the Catholic Church, and Chris Glaser and Jane Spahr, "lesbyterian", in the Presbyterians.
Like the early martyr Saint Sebastian, they have refuses to  accept the professional execution imposed on them, and have found ways to continue their ministry regardless. Jane Spahr has since finally been admitted to full ministry - perhaps in time these brave witnesses for sexual honesty in church will will, like Joan of Arc, come to be recognized for their prophetic witness and be accepted, like her, as saints of the Church.
Like the few specific names I have mentioned, there are many others who have spoken up in increasing numbers on behalf of full inclusion for all in Church, regardless of sexual orientation, in keeping with the words and the examples of the Gospels. In the spirit of All Saints, which recognizes collectively all the saints before us, including those not individually known to us by name, we remember at this time all those anonymous queer saints, some martyred by the church, whose pioneering work has contributed to the progress we are seeing today.
All Saints day is also a day for us to be inspired by the examples of those who have gone before, a day to commit ourselves to follow as best we can in our own path to sainthood. This then implies that as we, as lesbians, gay men, trans or otherwise queer in Church attempt to live our lives as faithfully as we can in Christ, we too must do so as honestly and openly as we can, that we too, in our own small ways, can become true queer saints in the Church.
Recommended Books:
Boisvert, Donald L: Out on Holy Ground: Meditations on Gay Men's Spirituality
Boisvert, Donald L: Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints
Lenz, Robert: Christ in the Margins
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  1. Wonderful explanation of why LGBT saints are important and who they are. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses! Alleleuia!

  2. Thanks, Kitt. The analysis above is the nucleus of what I hope to expand into a book length treatment of the same theme - the place of queer men and women in church history, both the saints and the villains, how it has constantly changed, and how the "cloud of witnesses" in the modern world promises great hope for the future.

    Your response is greatly encouraging.

  3. Fantastic! I’m looking forward to your book. Be sure to let me know when it is nearing publication. I’m also dreaming of writing a book about queer saints. I hadn’t thought of including the queer “villains,” though. What a queer idea!

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  5. Thanks for the encouragement, Kitt and Alexandra. In honesty, I must say that apart from the whole series of posts here, this is a project that is taking shape in my head, rather than as a coherent text.

    I do have a clear structure and theme mapped out though, and abundant material here to put into a draft. Knowing that there is a positive response is just what I need to start putting serious time behind it.