Friendship and Marriage in Church History
Rites of friendship between people of the same sex existed in my church, the Orthodox communion, mostly between the 12th and 16th centuries, and particularly in Greece and the Balkans. The ceremonies were not called marriage and were not perceived or treated as such. Unfortunately, the late scholar John Boswell called them marriages in his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994), and people who find his book will say, “Look at this!”
These fraternal unions were ritualized in church in the presence of a priest. They include some symbols associated with marriage: the Gospel book and candles, a few prayers, and a pledge of lifelong relationship. The rites do not call the union “marriage;” they speak quite restrictively of a spiritual relationship, the couple who are united are referred to as the “elder” and the “younger,” and the prayers clarify that this is a rite of friendship by which “brothers” are made, no sexual relationship would ensue. The rite is called “brother-making” in Greek. These rites go back into pre-Christian times in Greek culture and were usually contracted prior to battles to build alliances between cohorts in war or to bond households for economic reasons.
Later, a theology of friendship developed in the church, led by Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th C Yorkshire monastic abbot. The rites sanctified primarily monastic friendships, but the Greek word for brother was, so to speak, unisex and could include women as well. As Greek Orthodox canon theologian Fr Patrick Viscuso put it, however, the rite…“established a different type of union from marriage, one perhaps closer to adoption. This view is supported by the fact that discussion of making brothers occurs in late Byzantine sources in connection with kinships established by adoption, contrary to the assertions of Boswell.”
Boswell claims in his book that these unions were equivalent to heterosexual marriage – including sexual acts – and, thus, they show that the church – my church – not only accepted but also sanctified such unions. Not so. As theologian Robin Darling Young (who underwent a sister-making ritual in Jerusalem) showed, Boswell has chosen to overlook obvious differences between the rites of friendship and the rites of marriage, which she proves from the manuscript evidence. These texts are fairly well known to scholars of worship but not to the general public or even most historians.
Church historian Robert L. Wilken concludes a substantial review of Boswell’s book with this: “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe creates a world that never existed, misrepresents Christian practice, and distorts the past. This is a book on a mission, scholarship at the service of social reform, historical learning yoked to a cause, a tract in the cultural wars, and it is in that spirit that it should be read.”
We have heard from Boswell before. In his earlier popular book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980), Boswell claimed that antipathy toward same-sex marriage was a late development in the church (Same-Sex Unions supposedly showed this), but he completely bypassed any consideration of the early force of scripture, tradition, and common moral concepts.
Those who know me know that I don’t hate homosexual people and that I struggle with distinguishing civil unions from marriages. I am fearful, however, that people will read Boswell and grant his arguments credibility they do not deserve, and we need to be clear that the church universal never accepted or consecrated same-sex unions as marriages. This is bonding in friendship, nothing more.
I am grateful for research help received for this article from a number of credible journals and web sites, which I would willingly share should anyone wish to contact me through the church site.