Is There A Historical Same-Sex Marital Rite?

This is a question that might be pertinent as states continue to debate whether there ought to be such a thing as “same-sex marriage,” a legal category that has just come into force in Minnesota.  The reason the question may be raised as the debate continues has to do largely with the work of John Boswell, a historian who passed away back in 1994, but who was the author of two books in 1980 and 994 that truly helped press the idea.  He argued that a rite known as “brother making” was actually a rite of “same-sex marriage.”  Well, he literally wrote “same-sex union,” but that phrase was consistently compared to “heterosexual marriage,” so “same-sex marriage” is what he meant (at least in today’s terms), even if he was trying to be a little reserved in how he wrote.

Here is one response to the whole debate worth reading and considering:

In addition, I would add that Boswell does some eisegesis (reading into) the sources by implicating a sexual component to a brother-making rite between monks.  The historical texts do not insinuate a sexual component.  In order to claim they do, he assumed “brothers” has a very broad definition (in order to include homosexual lovers) and “wedding ceremony” a very narrow definition (in order to make all parallels to the marriage rite point only in a sexualizing direction).

My point here is not that there were not homosexuals in the past.  There were.  Nor is my point that it is impossible that any two monks committing to one another as brothers could have engaged in such acts.  It’s certainly possible.  My point is simply that one is making quite the stretch if one wishes to call adelphopoiesis “same sex marriage” (or even “same sex union” with an explicitly sexual component)–quite the stretch. Boswell definitely demonstrated that there was always a homosexual “sub-culture,” if you will, within Christian societies (for his historical work was on more than merely the brother-making rite) but when it comes “same-sex marriage,” one is on better ground to argue for a “progressive” approach than to claim the Orthodox Church has a same-sex marriage rite.  The reality is, we do not and the reality is, our bishops would not allow such a thing (which must be distinguished from whether someone can have a homosexual orientation and be Orthodox–for he/she most certainly can).

What this means for the legal enterprise in America?  Probably very precious little, but to the degree that the question is raised, it might be helpful to know that Boswell’s work on this particular rite is not as one-sided and definitive in favor of a same-sex marriage ceremony as some people might claim.

5 Responses

  1. Michael

    Boswell’s thesis is a total lie, from front to back. Fr. Hugh Barbour addresses this in an essay in Chronicles magazine:

    I also took the liberty to ask my (Serbian) bishop about this. He was even more emphatic than Barbour:

    “I begin by noting that I have known from childhood of the rite, formal or informal, of the “bond of brothehood” among Orthodox Christian Serbs, both in times of Ottoman occupation and, in particular, as revisited in WWII. Needless to say, it has nothing to do with “gay marriage” or even a “gay bond or union”. Nothing. Rather, it is quite akin to the Western notion of becoming “blood brothers”, sans the physical commuting of blood (though even that came into play in the trenches during war).

    Essentially, two men who shared a particular bond of filial love and trust would enter into such a bond for the sake of the longevity of a family. Namely, if one would die the other would assume full responsibility for the family. This can be understood with the question of “kumstvo”, ie. baptismal sponsorships, among the Serbs. We, moreso than any other Orthodox peoples have a small “t” tradition which is even more stringent than the dictates of the Holy Canons. For instance, we do not permit immediate blood relations to be baptismal sponsors. Why? Again, during Ottoman occupation, then ongoing wars (I & II Balkan, WWI & II, etc.), it was desireable to extend the family as much as possible, again for the sake of survival. This remains so ingrained in our people that we retain the same even to this day, regardless of circumstance or location. ”

    To Americans, who cannot even be bothered to be responsible for their own families, let alone anyone else’s, such a commitment doubtless seems incomprehensible, if not bizarre. That incomprehension, along with the American tendency to sexualize everything, is why ideological hacks like Boswell can get away with lying to God’s face about this rite.

  2. Michael

    Slight correction. The last paragraph in the previous comment (beginning with the words “To Americans ….” is not my bishop’s comment. That is my own. The two paragraphs above that are a quote from my bishop.

    1. Michael, thanks for the comments. Yes, everything I found is problematic for Boswell. I see his work as an example of forced eisegesis. I am glad your bishop was able to speak to his personal and ecclesiastical knowledge of the reality of the rite.

  3. Andrew Jacob Cuff

    Read Dr. Robin Darling Young on Adelphopoeisis and Same-Sex Marriage in an article she wrote for First Things. She is an eminent historian, but perhaps even more importantly, she actually participated in one of these ceremonies with a friend of hers in Syria. Her take on the matter is taken as fairly authoritative in the scholarly community.

    1. I’ll add it to my list. I was reacting more to the name of Boswell being kicked around so I thought I’d see what he wrote. I hadn’t had time to do much reading beyond that, but saw some weaknesses in what he wrote, simply based on what I already knew of church history. So, yeah, this wasn’t a fully researched post.

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