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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.

Regarding Boswell

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 to ignore:
  1. 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.).
  2. 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".
  3. 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!"
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.

What 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 Sourozh, 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:
  1. brother by common mother ("a-delphos");
  2. brother by common Father ("brother in Christ");
  3. brother by common abbot (monk);
  4. brother by common situation ("brother in struggle"), or
  5. common race ("brother" in the black community).
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.

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.

The significance 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,
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]

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.

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.
The adelphopoeia 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).
The adelphopoeia 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 never existed
The anti-gay side was losing its credibility. Drastic measures were taken.
  1. The list owners denied access to anyone they hadn't previously screened; this was explicitly to weed out any gay sympathetic voices.
  2. The new party line was declared:  this rite never even existed; it was invented by Professor Paul Halsall and Axios.
  3. All proponents of this view, especially Halsall, were to receive physical threats by phone, private e-mail, and U.S. mail.
  4. 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!)
The adelphopoeia 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.

The Contemporary 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 found elsewhere,

"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 it 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 Orthodox Church

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, 1982].

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 testimony

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 of sin").

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 of it.

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.

Orthodox Attitudes

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 couples.

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 safety.

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. "What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder".

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