to Faithful to the Truth
A Byzantine Orthodox Viewpoint
This text is a redaction of an original that can be downloaded from the
excellent Axios web site.
The author is Nicholas Zymaris. My purpose is editing it has been to tidy
it up, highlight its distinctive features and remove less original elements.
In all passages written in the first person singular, that person is Nicholas
Zymaris and the editor [pharsea] has taken care to retain his exact words.
There is a faction of scholars who seem to suspend normal scholarly objectivity
when it comes to John Boswell, and dismiss
anything that he has written. Having talked with him, I know he made some
errors, but there are some things that the anti-Boswell faction tends
As you will see below, critics constantly change their story as to what
the rite is, starting by saying it's a holy rite of the church so it
could never have anything to do with that; and ending up by
denying it ever existed, because they realize that it
does indeed deal with that.
Years before Boswell published anything on this subject, gay Orthodox knew
about our Tradition. He did not invent the
idea of same-sex union,
but merely made a wider audience familiar with it. We know now that a union
ceremony has existed since before the ninth century. And since all the
editions of Adelphopoiia refer to Ss.
Sergius and Bacchus, it is safe to assume that their relationship was
an example to those engaged in similar relationships (their martyrdom was
in 296 A.D.).
Much is said about Boswell's errors. We all know that he wasn't even Orthodox,
but most of the material he cites is Orthodox, and as he doesn't understand
it too well, he makes some errors, such as interpreting a Trisagion as
"Holy, Holy, Holy", where of course it is not a "Sanctus" but a "Holy God,
Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us".
What the critics of the Rite of Brotherhood and of Boswell's work always
fail to adequately explain is: if these ceremonies are not for the blessing
of same-sex love, what exactly are they for? The answer is invariably
a very jittery and unscholarly "We don't know, but it's anything but that!"
is the Rite, if not "gay marriage"?
Critics of Boswell chose to write two reviews of his last book a year after
his death, to "eulogize" him with slander in Touchstone and
as well as an article in St. Sophia Quarterly, which had so little of substance
to say that it began by saying it found the picture of Boswell on the back
cover of the book to be ugly, and supposed that the university scene behind
him is to lend academic legitimacy to the book. There was also an article
in the New Republic. All of these articles gave lots of opinions, but few
references; all theorized that Boswell was mad to come to the conclusion
he did; all of them repeat like a mantra that Boswell is a terrible scholar
whose work is worthless; none offer a credible explanation of what the
rite is, if not a same-sex union. One even suggests that Boswell's work
is terrible because the actual ideal for Christians is some sort of super
Platonic love: which seems suspiciously like a homosexual relationship
without the sex. The imagery used by this proponent of total celibacy among
gays was surprisingly erotic.
The significance of the word brother.
If it seems strange that "brotherhood" is used in a spousal fashion, consider
that the term has several meanings aside from this:
No one disputes that one word refers to these different relationships.
Now look at the Song of Songs where the phrase "my
sister, my spouse" occurs repeatedly [e.g.
So 4:9-12, 5:1]. Are we talking about incest here? No, fraternal
terminology is being used for a relationship of eros between two persons
not related by blood.
brother by common mother ("a-delphos");
brother by common Father ("brother in Christ");
brother by common abbot (monk);
brother by common situation ("brother in struggle"), or
common race ("brother" in the black community).
The term "brother" is also seen in the aforementioned account of the
relationship between David
and Jonathan in I and II Samuel. Boswell has his own theories on the
use of the term "brother"; he considered it a synonym for "lover" among
medieval gay lovers; one might compare this to the term "warme Bruder"
("warm brother") in modern German which precisely means a gay person.
The significance of
the word spiritual
Adelphopoeia was performed in Greece, Russia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro
(Crna Gora) in the nineteenth century, and before that even in Italy. However,
in nineteenth century Albania it seems to have enjoyed a zenith of sorts,
and a number of Europeans note this with incredulity.
The term "spiritual brotherhood" is often used to describe the
rite in question "akolouthia eis adelphopoeian pneumatiken". This
refers to the spiritual nature of the rite, as distinct from blood
brotherhoods where physical blood was exchanged. This was a practice of
Moslems and others, but Christians did not drink each other's blood, instead
sharing in the Body and Blood of their common Lord.
In countries, like Albania, where Christians and Moslems freely mixed,
there were all sorts of variations: Christian spiritual brotherhood (with
Holy Communion and no blood exchange), interfaith (Christian-Muslim) "marriages"
with blood exchange, and same-sex concubinage without ceremony. This was
reported by Paul Naecke in 1880 AD, but does not mean that any - still
less all - of these relationships were approved of by the Catholic or Orthodox
Churches in Albania. However, spiritual brotherhood was indeed common and
was performed by a priest in church, and the relationship was clearly conceived
of as a same-sex relationship not excluding eros: this applied to both
male-male and female-female relationships.
Later in the nineteenth century the Church of Greece issued two local
encyclicals against the Rite of Brotherhood. Nevertheless, one must ask
why it took the church nineteen centuries to ban something like this. It
had been permitted much longer than it has been prohibited.
of the term "un-natural".
Spiritual brotherhood was distinguished by saying that the couple's love
was "not of nature, but of the Holy Spirit"; which I consider not
only to be a wonderful explanation of the term "spiritual" (it does not
mean "non-sexual"; one should consider that heterosexual marriage is sexual
but is also spiritual) but a rebuttal of the tired arguments about gay
love being "against nature".
Nineteenth Century Albania gave birth to many gay love songs. Some of
these were compiled by the ambassador from Austria-Hungary to Ottoman Albania,
Johan Georg von Hahn, in 1854 AD. Hahn was a devout Christian who loved
to illustrate Albanian grammar and sayings by using passages from the Old
and New Testaments in Albanian. One song from Hahn's 1854 compilation goes:
You'll find no bird that sings,
This is only one of many songs which Nechin composed, and all of them were
about male-male love. Hahn states that he was oriented only towards males.
They all sit there and cry.
The poor lover, how strongly he endures,
[For] they separate him from [his] beloved.
The sun, which rises in the morning
[Is] like you, boy, when you are near me.
When you turn your black eyes to me
You take spirit and mind from my head
[Nechin of Permet, Albania, mid 19th century;
tr June 1991, Nicholas Zymaris]
Reaction of Byzantine Orthodox
In 1994 AD, shortly before Boswell's "Same Sex Unions" book came out, news
of its impending publication was leaked to the Orthodox internet list at
Indiana University, which is dominated by Synodal Russian Orthodox, many
of whom are converts from Protestant fundamentalism.
rite is common knowledge
At the same time, a translation I made of the
adelphopoeia rite (this is the Greek name for Rite of Brotherhood,
literally "Brothermaking") in 1989 was, without my knowledge, scanned or
typed into a computer with internet access and entered into the discussion
on that same list. I should note that my translation was from Jacobus Goar's
Euchologion of 1730 AD, which is easily available at many theological and
university libraries in the U.S. and abroad; it is not some recent invention
of gay activists, nor is it particularly inaccessible. It is and has been
familiar to many researchers of this subject in the U.S.A. and abroad,
before and after Boswell's research. When Boswell's book came out, he revealed
that his research was also started when a friend mailed him a copy of the
rite from the same Euchologion. My interest in this edition of the rite
was sparked when an Orthodox bishop in San Fransisco said he used Goar's
text when his parish performs the rite (this was in 1988 AD).
rite is forbidden to monks
How did the Orthodox on the list react to this? A few desired to look into
it, and saw that the rite's content did seem to suggest a same-sex blessing.
The others at first did not take this seriously, and used the standard
argument I had heard for years from most of those who knew about this rite:
it is merely mutual adoption. But wait,
said the others, adoption is "yiothesia", not "adelphopoiia", and canonists
make an explicit distinction between the two. Well, then, it must be a
ceremony for two monks to do missionary work together. No, said the other
side, it is specifically forbidden to monks, which makes sense since
they had to be celibate. OK then, it was a rite to pacify two warring
kings, and they cited one king who united himself with a rival. One advocate
self-conciously said that he realizes many will just think that they were
too busy having sex with each other to bother fighting each other; like
"make love not war".
The adelphopoeia rite
The anti-gay side was losing its credibility. Drastic measures were taken.
The list owners denied access to anyone they hadn't previously screened;
this was explicitly to weed out any gay sympathetic voices.
The new party line was declared: this rite never even existed; it
was invented by Professor Paul Halsall and Axios.
All proponents of this view, especially Halsall, were to receive physical
threats by phone, private e-mail, and U.S. mail.
A priest from a Serbian jurisdiction pronounced an anathema on Halsall,
which is strange since Halsall has nothing to do with that jurisdiction
(he is a Western Catholic!)
rite is against nature
The lie that the rite never existed after all was made more ridiculous
by the posting of a passage from the Pedalion (Rudder), which has a section
devoted to Adelphopoeia. It is a subsection of the chapter on Impediments
to Marriage, and is separate from and after the section on Impediments
from Adoption. The commentary states (this is not a canon but a commentary
compiled by the Chicago businessman Aristotle Makrakis; the original author
may be St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain) that this rite should be prohibited
because it is the cause of much abuses; it is against nature because
adoption creates a son not a brother, and we all know why people do
this: to satisfy their carnal desires.
There, he said it. It's not just twentieth century gay advocates who
know about this, and it's not for monks, friends, or whatever. It is for,
as the rite says: "love not of nature, but of the Holy Spirit". This love
does not have biological reproduction as its end, but is still love.
Albanian Orthodox Church
There are parishes both in the U.S.A. and abroad which have never stopped
doing adelphopoeia, and know exactly what it is for, particularly in Albania.
Now, John Boswell knew many languages, but not Albanian, but even he found
some references in translation to what went on there. I know Albanian,
and interviewed Albanian Orthodox in 1991, when the churches were just
reopening after decades of communist oppression. In the same year, there
were rites of vellameria (the Albanian name for the rite) performed in
the Orthodox church in Elbasan. All Albanians I spoke to knew about the
rite, but only the ones from Elbasan had witnessed one.
I talked with an individual from the late dictator Hoxha's birthplace,
who gave a simple but moving account of how Hoxha's attempts at promoting
both atheism and homophobia miserably failed. In his hometown people now
practised their religion, and as far as the anti-gay violence and sentiments
"that is unknown where I come from; everyone
eats at the same table and those differences don't matter".
As far as vellameria and the fact that some researchers in the U.S. think
is a gay marriage, he simply said, "Yes,
that's what it is for". No shock, no need to explain it away or
make elaborate theories to obscure the fact. Other Albanians had no difficulty,
despite their heterosexuality, with going over my translations, word for
word, of a number of Albanian gay love songs and giving their insights
on the terms. Not one of over twenty Albanians I spoke to about this was
uncomfortable with this, unlike most Albanian Americans who seem to have
acquired American homophobia in many cases.
The Contemporary Greek
In fact, the rite continues to be performed even in N.W. Greece, as the
Church of Greece noted in "Adelphopoeia from a Canonical
Perspective" [Fr. Evangelos K. Mantzouneas, the Secretary of the Greek
Synod Committee on Legal and Canonical Matters of the Church of Greece,
Often, but not always, it involved the pair receiving Holy Communion
together. It caused an impediment to marriage, and the pair acquired many
legal rights including that of inheritance. Fr Mantzouneas cites the text
of a contemporary (1982 AD) rite from Epirus, which is essentially the
same as the Goar text; which he also cites. This is a very Greek way of
saying that the rite is still performed and we don't have a problem with
that, even though there were two local encyclicals prohibiting it in the
Church of Greece in the late 1800's. In fact Fr. Mantzouneas admits, like
all scholars that these encyclicals were generally ignored and that the
rite remained popular.
Being Gay and Orthodox, a personal
I don't see what seems so strange about being gay and Orthodox. It is hardly
a new thing for Orthodox to be gay; if you talk to actual gay people you
will see that this is not something chosen, but an
innate thing which is discovered. To throw around terms like "the gay
lifestyle" is best left to the fundamentalists who don't know any better.
To the general population, it evokes images of evil rituals, orgiastic
back rooms, and the like, and encourages the mistreatment of gay people.
The gay lifestyle
What is the reality? What is the typical "gay lifestyle"? The typical
gay person gets up in the morning, has breakfast, goes to work (or church
if it is Sunday or a feast day, and he/she is Orthodox), comes home, does
the laundry, errands, etc. If he or she goes to a bar, chances are it's
to do nothing more than chat with some friends.
Yes, some of us have sexual relationships. Even though society fails
to support the relationship as it supports heterosexual relationships,
life goes on; and I look in admiration at the many truly devoted and loving
gay and lesbian relationships I have seen over the years. Whereas many
a heterosexual grudgingly stays with his/her spouse till the children are
grown, then divorces when the "obligation" is past, these devoted gay couples
stay together for no other reason than love
and devotion. And there are many times when a couple loves each other
but is pressured by society, family or even the church to break up because
the love is of the same-sex variety.
Some are encouraged to have short-term relationships, or even one-nighters,
because at least that can be confessed,
and is not viewed as "living in sin", as a committed relationship would
be. That is not healthy either from a physical or spiritual perspective,
and the fault lies in anti-gay attitudes of society
and the Church,
and the individual's internalization of same. Even in these situations,
despite the cause of it, there is still much tenderness and goodwill shown
between the partners, who often become lifelong friends
(if they are not ordered by their
confessor to avoid the other on account of there being an "occasion
It should be noted that for many gays living in isolated areas, this
is the only way to achieve any kind of human contact with someone who understands.
It's a fallen world and a fallen
situation, but by God's
grace, sometimes good comes
This, then, is the "gay lifestyle". To suggest otherwise is to encourage
a slander against our community which has gone on for too long, and by
the grace of God is beginning to lose its credibility, finally.
Does our Holy Tradition oppose these things? Yes - it opposes slander,
and has nothing bad to say about what the real "gay lifestyle" involves.
Much can be found in our Tradition criticizing rape, pederasty
and fornication. Fornication, like the Greek
"porneia" found in the New Testament and the Fathers, refers literally
to prostitution, and is extended in meaning to refer to forms of sexuality
which do not involve money payment but nevertheless resemble prostitution.
It is as relevant pastorally to gay couples as rape is to heterosexual
Many Orthodox take the moderate view
that a homosexual orientation is more or less morally neutral; however
God help any one who acts on it! This outlook requires that all gay people
must be totally celibate, with no choice involved; which is quite unlike
the situation for heterosexuals.
Impact of these attitudes
Both from my own experience and the experience of many others, such a view
encourages the fragmentation and compartmentalization of personality. It
literally makes one sick, physically and mentally. For those whom God has
given the grace to live celibately, this is
fine: but it is not for most people. We realize this with straights, and
don't begrudge them marriage. For
gays, attempts to totally suppress their orientation lead to misery and
promiscuous, desperate "acting out" when they can't stand it anymore. These
situations are not likely to be conducive to either physical or spiritual
One expends all one's energy dealing with sexual issues, and perhaps
thinks one has accomplished a great work when having some small "success"
in this, where actually one's spiritual life is impoverished, because one
has no time or energy to deal with any other topic. Orthopraxy should derive
from sound theology. Simply spending one's whole life desperately trying
not to masturbate or have any kind of sex or thoughts of sex is a little
sad (and difficult, because such a person is made to constantly think about
sex by the anti-gay "pelvic
theologians" who are obsessed with the topic and expect everyone else
to be obsessed with it).
The end result of this is misery and separation from the life of the
Church as the confessor sees that the penitent is unable to stop having
or thinking about sex; so he is denied
the life-giving sacraments of the Church. If he realizes that it is
better to have a committed relationship, he is shunned for "living in sin".
No matter what he does, he is criticized.
All are sinners
Gay people should not have to waste years of their life being tormented
by the idea that their God-given capacity to love is a sin to be utterly
suppressed. As fallen human beings, gay people can and do sin in many ways,
sexually and otherwise: as do heterosexuals, but we sin because we are
fallen humans: not because we are gay. No one in his right mind would suggest
that heterosexuals are sinful by virtue of their heterosexuality: if one
cheats on one's spouse or otherwise sins sexually, the sin is not due to
whether a male or female has been wronged; it is precisely because someone
has been wronged.
God is Love
God calls us to love our neighbour, and this applies to all relationships
and all people. Our Lord said "God
is love"; we should not be so quick to judge a particular form
of love as bad. Indeed, the criterion to use
in looking at various relationships should be whether true love (of whatever
form, erotic or not) is present. If love is not present, then and only
then can the moralists talk about something "unnatural", especially when
their harsh anti-gay attitudes dismiss the idea of a gay
marriage and actually encourage the very promiscuity which they decry.
God has joined together, let no one tear asunder".
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