Saturday, 12 May 2012

The time-honoured Christian tradition of gay marriage?

Now here's an interesting thing. When religious conservatives want to wheel out the heavy artillery in their last-ditch battle against gay marriage, one of their biggest guns is tradition. Personally, I'm not impressed by the argument that goes 'we've always done things this way, therefore we must always carry on doing things this way, because that's the way we do things around here', but people who oppose gay marriage seem to think that it's important.

Anyhow, it turns out that the early church may have been cool with same-sex marriage, and that the "tradition" of defining marriage as the union of a man and woman could be a later innovation:

Contrary to myth, Christianity's concept of marriage has not been set in stone since the days of Christ, but has constantly evolved as a concept and ritual. Prof. John Boswell, the late Chairman of Yale University’s history department, discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient Christian church liturgical documents, there were also ceremonies called the "Office of Same-Sex Union" (10th and 11th century), and the "Order for Uniting Two Men" (11th and 12th century).

These church rites had all the symbols of a heterosexual marriage: the whole community gathered in a church, a blessing of the couple before the altar was conducted with their right hands joined, holy vows were exchanged, a priest officiated in the taking of the Eucharist and a wedding feast for the guests was celebrated afterwards. These elements all appear in contemporary illustrations of the holy union of the Byzantine Warrior-Emperor, Basil the First (867-886 CE) and his companion John.

From When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite at

 I don't know enough about the subject to know whether this is a clincher, but it doesn't seem wildly improbable, given the well-known sexual mores of the classical world (remember the Greeks' open enthusiasm for man-on-man action, the fact that our language for describing female homosexuality owes everything to Sappho of Lesbos and the readiness of many Romans to believe the rumours about Julius Caesar, no less, having been the catamite of King Nicomedes of Bithynia).

Ultimately, I don't care what the church thinks - tradition or no tradition, it seems like a no brainer to support a measure that makes the people concerned happy without inconveniencing anybody else who wants to get married in any way, but it would be amusing if the "tradition" that religious conservatives are so keen to uphold turned out to a flexible, changeable thing, adapted to accommodate same-sex unions in the Greek-influenced Mediterranean with its local traditions of open homosexuality, then amended to exclude such relationships in later European societies with less cosmopolitan mores.