Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Please pass Bacchus the ring, Jesus

Personally, being able to get married is not on my wish list, much as I recognise it's a human right to be able to honour those we love, regardless of their gender.

That's partly because of the sexist, homophobic and racist history of marriage in the western world at least, but mostly it's not on my wish list because I don't feel I need state, Church or other institutional approval for wanting to love someone else. My longest relationship to date lasted ten years, survived familial disapproval (threats from her parents to try and remove her children based on our relationship), enjoyed huge social support (when we broke up, many of our friends were devastated) and would not have been one bit stronger, for me, if we had chosen to mark it with some kind of ceremony.

So with all those qualifiers in place and being clear I respect that others make different decisions which are wonderful for them, I found this article about 4th century Christian men, St Serge and St Bacchus, enjoying some love of the marital kind endorsed by no less than Jesus Christ pretty smile-worthy.

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.

Even if none of the same-sex marriages the article references are between women, it still makes "traditional" marriage just a little more interesting.


Hugh said...

"mostly it's not on my wish list because I don't feel I need state, Church or other institutional approval for wanting to love someone else"


Hugh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It's a modern reading of these relationships to assume a sexual or romantic dimension to these strong friendships. It's a good story for people who want the Church to legitimize same-sex sexual relationships, but it's highly unlikely.


Juvenal's Satires directly mention male couples going through a marriage ceremony though.

- muerk

Hugh said...

@muerk: Whether or not these relationships were sexual is incidental to the point. Male/male and female/female marriages show quite clearly that the historical definition of marriage is not as rigid as its defenders like to claim - while drawing on history and tradition as a source of support for their arguments?

LudditeJourno said...

Muerk - I'm not sure why you think it's "highly unlikely" that relationships were romantic or sexual?
Though I take your point that history is always open for interpretation, and often this interpretation is political, like "vanishing" same-sex sexual relationships, or, alternatively, seeking evidence that same-sex and both-sex attracted people have always been part of our communities.

Anonymous said...

Hugh: afaik these rites were about brotherhood rather than a marital union.

LJ: I think it's unlikely because of the strong ascetic climate in Christianity at that time. Homosexuality was publicly lambasted by clerics as well. Also marriage wasn't about romance, love or even an emotional connection, it was about combining assets and producing children. Think about how hard it was for barren women, now imagine a family agreeing that a man choose a sterile marriage partner, now add in the idea that the marriage partner is of the same sex.

As well as that there was no clear notion of a homosexual orientation per se. It was seen as a sexual act that was immoral, rather than someone's actual being having a homosexual orientation. I'm sure there was plenty of same-sex sex and long term lovers but the whole context of their sexuality was different compared to today.

- muerk

Hugh said...

Muerk, you could say that but "brotherhood" is not exactly an uncontested definition either. The concept of brotherhood and male homosexuality were often intertwined. The ceremonies we're discussing could easily encompass both.

You can't say "marriage has always been about a man and a woman" and then dismiss every instance that's not about a man as a woman as "not a marriage because it's not a man and a woman". That's extraordinarily circular logic.

You make a good point about the ascetic character of the church but you need to realise that ascetism extended to childbearing. For a lot of church thinkers all sex was seen as immoral, homosexual or heterosexual alike. Celibacy was highly prized. Motherhood and fatherhood were not something that the christian church has always prized as heavily as a lot of contemporary christian conservatives seem to think (again, projecting our own values backward).

The main reason that the church became the arbitrator of marriage, at least in Europe, is simply that it was the main keeper of all legal records due to its near monopoly on literacy. The church wasn't really keen on promoting marriage, any more than the fact that they kept property records shows they were keen on promoting private property and proto-capitalism.

Anonymous said...


Yeah maybe, but I don't think so, then it's not like I'm an historian either.

You make a good point about the ascetic character of the church but you need to realise that asceticism extended to childbearing.

Oh yeah, absolutely. Husbands and wives who lived as brother and sister were, whilst not the usual arrangement, not unheard of. I think it was more common for it to happen after children were born, but I'm pretty sure there were some that were always celibate.

I'm not sure how the Church dealt with it though because for a marriage to be legitimate it has to be consummated and open to children. Even now people who can't perform intercourse are unable to have a Catholic marriage.

You're also right about parenthood not being spiritually prized. There are some parents who have been canonized, such as St Augustine's mother St Monica, and the parents of St Therese of the Little Flower, but most saints were celibate religious or martyrs (whose sainthood was based on that rather than their vocation as parents). even St Paul talks about marriage as a vocation for people who couldn't handle celibacy and that strong ascetic current really pushed that home. Christianity has mostly lost that push for ascetic practice. The Opus Dei people who use the cilice are regarded as strange by many and it's not common to take on physical penances like whipping anymore. We don't even fast like they used to - discipline
of the body used to be considered vital for spiritual growth but it's rare to find people practicing it now, even within religious orders.

I also agree about the Church becoming the recorder of marriage because it had the institutional tools. However both East and West wings, and the protestants who still have them, view marriage as a sacrament. Sacrament as defined as: an outward sign of God's grace.

Whilst I'm not going to go much into the theology of marriage it's object has always been towards the conception and rearing of children (which is why the Catholic Church is never going to fly for same sex marriage).At times sex has been seen as a necessary evil, not because it's dirty, but because it's so powerful - that caution about losing the discipline of the body. The hunger for sexual pleasure is something that had to be contained within marriage towards its functional purpose. Sexual desire was seen as something that could take hold of people and weaken their rational mind and will. The intellect and the will were supposed to be turned towards God.

It's why I'm skeptical of the same sex reading of these rites. If marital sexuality was a fire brand of danger, and it was curtailed by pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, then gay sex was even more dangerous because it was pleasure for pleasure's sake. This is the Church that sees masturbation as a sin because pleasure of the self alone is regarded as separating one's self from God.

- muerk

Hugh said...


You talk extensively about the Catholic Church's current views. These are not as relevant to the historic views of the Catholic Church, let alone the non-Catholic Churches, as you seem to think.

I certainly agree with you that that is the Church's official stance now, but that doesn't really tell us very much about what it used to be. The Church is a conservative institution that is uncomfortable with seeing itself as changing or innovating, so it tries to pretend that doctrinal shifts have just been reinterpretations or corrections, not radical reversals.

So everything you've written about who is and isn't a Saint and what the current Church view of marriage is not really a contribution to this discussion.

anthea said...

Muerk, this queer atheist appreciates your intelligent and respectful contribution to the discussion. Hugh, do you really have to be so dismissive?

LJ - I found this really interesting and I agree that it's important to challenge the idea that marriage has always been one thing (I particularly love the way the Mormon church advocates a singular definition of marriage, despite having relatively recently fundamentally changed that definition for political reasons). But I do think there's a danger that in attempting to recognise the diverse range of relationships, we actually end up cramming them into quite narrow categories, assuming sexual, long term monogamous relationships above all else. It bothers me when people use 'Boston marriage' as code for 'lesbian relationship' - sure, some of them were, but we shouldn't dismiss the legitimacy of forming a relationship/household based on friendship either. But the first step to challenging narrow relationship categories is to talk about examples like this.

LudditeJourno said...

Anthea - yep, agreed, we don't know what form other's relationships took - but assuming they were not sexual, for me, is probably the dominant assumption rather than wondering or staying in the not knowing. I find the invisibilisation of the sexual (ESPECIALLY for women) really irritating and supportive of all kinds of dominant ideas of gender and sexuality.

anthea said...

Agreed Luddsy - I just worry that in our determination to remove one layer of invisibility, we sometimes end up adding or perpetuating another.

Anonymous said...

Anthea: thanks :)

Hugh: I spoke about the Church's historical view of sexual passion rather than about today's view which can be summed up by John Paul II's Theology of the Body which is a definite growth from the sexual passion = danger attitude of centuries past. Perhaps you misinterpreted and thought that the Church still felt that way about sexuality.

One thing that has been consistent through out is that the function of sexuality and marriage is the conception of children. The Church has never held a primarily romantic notion of marital love - fidelity, duty, selflessness and chastity have been the qualities that make a marriage, not personal feelings.

If anything Catholics historically channelled passion into love of God, rather than another human being. If you read the old works by spiritual masters Jesus is spoken of as a lover, someone to rest your weary head in his lap. Some works seem positively erotic to modern ears, yet they were not sexual.

If anything, I think our modern concern with physical pleasure and the sexual act has dimmed the other ways that we can love and be passionate. Spiritual ecstasy is a real phenomena, but it's hard to explain when the focus is on a bodily experience.

- muerk

Hugh said...

Yes, and I'm disputing that, Muerk. I feel that Catholicism's current focus on procreation as a religious duty is relatively new. As I said before, I think the asceticism of the medieval church extended not just to a disdain for romantic love and procreation, but for childbearing as well. As such marriage was something they did purely because there was a demand in society that they were best placed to meet.

Anonymous said...

Ahh okay Hugh. I disagree and I'd be interested to hear why you think that.

The current focus on procreation as a function of marriage is (I believe) a reaction to a shift in society to regulate pregnancy. Previously it was a given that marriage would equal children given healthy spouses, it's only been in the last few decades that contraception has been reliable enough to make an impact on how we view our sexuality.

There were cases where wealthy Christians in the early chose a celibate life of study and spiritual growth. Pelagius for example was a chaplain to women who had chosen that path. However the average Christian was not educated, Romanised (outside of the old centers of the old Roman empire), or wealthy. Most of the flock of the bishops were peasants for whom asceticism was something monks did.

For women, part of the consequences of Original Sin is that they are subject to their husbands, yet still yearn for them, and that they suffer pain during childbirth. The unspoken point of this is that women were expected to marry and bear children - this was their role in Creation. Some women became nuns or celibate singles but this has never been the norm. If it was we would have gone the way of the Shakers.

- muerk