Did same-sex marriages have church's blessing?

June 12, 1994|By New York Times News Service

If these words, taken from a manuscript preserved in the Vatican and dating from the year 1147, were for a bride and bridegroom, no one would find them startling:

"Send down, most kind Lord, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit upon these Thy servants, whom Thou hast found worthy to be united not by nature but by faith and a holy spirit. Grant unto them Thy grace to love each other in joy without injury or hatred all the days of their lives."

That prayer, however, is part of a ritual joining two men in some kind of a solemn, personal, affectionate relationship, a ritual that, according to Yale history professor John Boswell, "functioned in the past as a 'gay marriage ceremony.' "

Amid the debate about whether Christianity should bless unions between homosexuals, Dr. Boswell contends that it already has.

Scouring collections of medieval manuscripts from Paris to St. Petersburg, from the Vatican to Mount Athos in Greece and the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, he has turned up more than 60 texts, dating from the eighth to the 16th centuries, of Christian ceremonies for what has been variously translated as "spiritual brotherhood," "adoptive brotherhood" or Dr. Boswell's term, "same-sex union."

The book in which he makes his case, "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," is only now being sent to bookstores by its publisher, Villard Books.

But his thesis has already been made public by "Doonesbury." Last week the comic strip's gay character, Mark, informed a fundamentalist Christian married man whom he had tried to pick that a Yale professor had written a book saying that "for 1,000 years the church sanctioned rituals for homosexual marriages."

There is no question that Dr. Boswell has found records of ceremonies consecrating a pairing of men, ceremonies often marked by similar prayers and, over time, by standardized symbolic gestures: the clasping of right hands, the binding of hands with a stole, kisses, receiving Holy Communion, a feast after the ceremony. Some of these ritual actions also marked heterosexual marriages, but there remained differences in both actions and words between the two ceremonies.

Dr. Boswell's book will certainly provoke a sharp debate about what these same-sex ceremonies were solemnizing. From the spread of Christianity through the ancient world to the late Middle Ages, different Christian cultures stretching from Syria to Ireland featured a variety of social bonds not even vaguely paralleled in modern society.

Was this ritual, for example, a form of fraternal adoption, or

something resembling blood brotherhood? Was it a commemoration of undying friendship or a strictly spiritual bonding? To what extent, in short, was it the equivalent of heterosexual marriage, either in the contemporary sense or in medieval ones?

In his book, Dr. Boswell whittles away at all the alternative translations and interpretations of these ceremonies that would preclude a romantic and erotic dimension to the unions being celebrated.

The book, with texts in Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew and Arabic, provides plenty of material for other scholars to decide for themselves. Ultimately, however, there is a problem. As Ralph Hexter, a professor of the classics and comparative literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, put it, "We don't know what they did in bed."

What they did in bed is a central issue if Dr. Boswell's findings are going to play a part in the debate over recognizing same-sex unions legally or religiously.

One suspects that his book would get a different reception if instead of suggesting that these medieval same-sex unions tacitly were accommodating homosexual relations, he had argued that they were meant to be strictly free of any sexual acts, no matter how profound the emotional attachment of the participants, or whether that strict chastity was sometimes abandoned behind the screen of a "spiritual brotherhood."

Dr. Boswell has warned that moral or visceral objections to homosexuality may create a tremendous resistance to any interpretations of these unions as condoning explicitly sexual behavior. It is also true that the commitments of those who advocate gay rights, who include Dr. Boswell, may create an exceptional readiness to accept those interpretations.

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