Friday, 14 October 2011

Who are the "Queer Saints and Martyrs"?

I have been rather neglecting this site for a while, partly by circumstance, and partly for some reflection and reconsideration of its essential nature. When I first started learning about the "gay saints" of the Church, the matter of definition seemed fairly clear.As time has moved on, and I have learned and thought a little more, I have realised that this view is simplistic. One comment at the site, referring specifically to trans saints, is also more broadly relevant to the entire project.
No MTF saints can be found among those who actually got canonized -- but we all know, you don't have to actually be canonized to be a saint. Surely there's got to be some MTF saints who *aren't* canonized! Problem is -- not only such saints aren't canonized - but a MTF saint would probably have so little written about her, that it would be unlikely that we'd even know about her at all! So, maybe it's time that we start *investigating* the possibility? Coz let's face it -- the Vatican aint going to do this investigation for us. Information may be scant - but at least we can start looking! 
So - it's time to start looking. Here is my current thinking, and the revised concept for the site.

Byzantine icon of "All Saints"

Who are the "saints"?

The first problem lies with the familiar word "saint". We popularly assume that it refers to people who have been formally honoured after death by a process of canonization in recognition of their obvious holiness, but this was not always so. For the first millenium, half of church history, there was no formal process. Saints were honoured by popular acclaim. Many of our best known and best loved saints from the early centuries of the church have never been canonized - there was no need for formal process of canonization.

While the intention behind the introduction of a formal process may have been simply to introduce some order and rationality, in practice the system has been wide open to abuse. The lengthy processes involved make it expensive, while the benefits accruing from a successful cause (for example, to a religious order founded by the new saint, or to the tourist industry at his home region) leave it open to manipulation by lobbyists. Leaving the process firmly in the hands of Vatican bureaucrats also guarantees rapid advancement for the theologically
orthodox and Vatican insiders - such as popes - while placing major barriers to approval for those outside the establishment, such as gay men or lesbians, and Protestant Christians. The same factor has resulted in what may well be retrospective censorship of some of the early saints, such as Sergius and Bacchus, who were once honoured, but whose stories have become an embarrassment to late orthodoxy.

These considerations demand that any serious discussion of LGBT saints move beyond those officially recognised by the Vatican, to include others who have been so recognized by popular acclaim, especially by  the LGBT community itself, and those from the Protestant churches.

Who are the  "gay or lesbian" saints?

Modern sexual terminology is similarly unrealistic when considering the saints. First, they are modern terms, often not applicable even to contemporary societies outside of North America and Europe, and also of limited value to people of the classical and medieval worlds, where concepts and standards of sexual behaviour were so very different to those of the modern West. They are particularly inappropriate when dealing with clergy or other men and women professed to a religious life of celibacy. Does it make any sense to think of John Henry Newman, for instance, as "gay", when although clearly of an effeminate and homophile disposition, it is generally accepted that he had no sexual activity with this beloved John Ambrose?

The problem is even greater for the significant body of trans people in church history. Although there are a number of them, it is misleading to think of them in quite the same way as modern trans people. Although the effect may be the same, with people of one biological sex living and dressing in accordance with the opposite gender, the motivations may have been entirely different - for some of the early cross-dressing saints, the motivation may have been simply an opportunistic desire for a monastic life that would otherwise have been denied them, or to evade an unwanted marriage forced on them by parents.

This has led me to avoid entirely the terminology "gay", "lesbian" or "trans" when writing about saints, and instead to insist on "queer" - by which I mean simply people who may be thought of, for one reason or another, as falling outside the conventional framework of heterosexuality and gender conformity. (This also opens the door to consideration of some notable women, who cannot be classified as lesbian or trans, but who significantly defied the gendered expectations imposed on them by a patriarchal world).

Who are the martyrs?

The usual understanding of "martyrs" is of those who have been persecuted and killed for their Christian faith, for which the blood they have shed stands as witness. The example of Joan of Arc reminds us though, that martyrs have been killed not only for the church, but by the church. In the centuries that followed, thousands of others were martyred by the church, either on the dubious grounds of heresy or sodomy, or both. When the church stopped initiating or encouraging these executions, civil authority continued on the pretext that they were acting in accordance with divine will.

Over the last century or so, most countries have ended the judicial execution of their sexual minorities, but individuals within them have continued to murder gay men, lesbians, and (especially) transmen and women, again on the pretext of defending religion. Discussion of queer "martyrs" should include collectively all those who have been killed specifically for their sexual or gender identity, even where they are not necessarily saintly in any conventional sense. It is neither feasible nor appropriate to record every single one of them individually, but some will deserve particular attention, for the manner in which their deaths have come to symbolize the persecution in modern times. Just as St Sebastian, after the first attempted execution, returned to the emperor to berate him for his wickedness, the ghosts of Matthew Shepard, Angie Zapato and Tyler Clements permanently reproach the society which allows hate -fuelled violence against sexual or gender minorities to continue, and the churches that turn a blind eye to this hate (while vociferously denouncing our loves). 

The Modern Martyrs.

The churches no longer exact or encourage physical execution of modern queers, but the Catholic churches and other denominations have a record of imposing a figurative, professional martyrdom on its LGBT clergy and aspirants. They have done this by excluding gay men and women from from ministry, or by insisting that they may be admitted only if they remain celibate and single, or by preventing them from writing and publishing honestly about theology from an LGBT perspective.

Like Sebastian, some of these, such as John McNeill, Chris Glaser, and Janie Spahr did not respond to this modern version of martyrdom simply by accepting it. Instead, they have continued to speak truth to power, confronting the church authorities, and exercising alternative ministry to queer Christians outside of formally approved structures.

The conventional thinking about saints is that we honour those that have died - but these modern martyrs, very much alive, also deserve honour and recognition.

What of the non-saints?

As I have explored the history of sexual minorities in the Christian church, I have been conscious of the prominent place of many men who have had sex with men, or who have sheltered those who did, or who patronised homoerotic artists - but who nevertheless achieved high office in the church, as abbots, bishops, cardinals and even popes.

These are not people that I particularly want to honour in any way, but they do need to be recorded and noted, for the clear way in which they contradict the modern claims that the church has always and necessarily    condemned homoerotic relationships.

We are all saints.

While we usually think of the saints of the church as those that have been formally recognized, in fact in orthodox theology they are only the most visible examples. It is accepted that there are very many more saints than these. We are all called to sainthood.

And so, having begun my exploration of gay saints some years ago with an orthodox but narrow understanding of the term, I have now expanded my definition to an also orthodox, but broader understanding, which also incorporates those still living.

I now intend my title for this blog, "Queer Saints and Martyrs", to represent not a literal listing of formally approved saints, nor of those who have died and since been recognized by popular acclaim by the LGBT  community, but as a figurative description for all of us. I intend to explore here, all those people in church history, ancient and modern, whose stories have something to say about the place of queer people, in faith.

These will include also the well-known and obscure conventional saints, like Sergius and Bacchus, Galla and Benedicta, and John Henry Newman, that I already been covering. I will expand these to consider also some figures from Protestant history that (not being Catholic) are not usually considered "saints", but are also deserving of honour.  I will continue to cover the history of persecution of its own people by the church, and the martyrs they have created, directly and indirectly.

And I will pay considerable attention to the extraordinary story of the queer clergy who, by their courage in facing up to the authorities of the institutional churches, have led the way in forging for us all an expanding place of welcome in church.

October is LGBT history month. As a contribution to LGBT History, I will begin my expanded focus by re-posting from Queering the Church a series of profiles of some modern "LGBT Icons - in Faith", to complement the existing stories of the recognized saints - and will thereafter continue to add more.

What of the non-saints?

Up to now, at this site I have been working within the framework described above - saints, recognized either by canonization  

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1 comment:

  1. Praise God for the insight and faith reflected in this post! In doing the GLBT saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog, I have gone through a similar process of pushing the boundary of “sainthood” until I saw that we are all saints. I will be returning to read this post again more carefully, but I wanted to leave a quick note of affirmation. I’m looking forward to seeing what you do as this blog goes to the next level.