SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Constantinople. 6th or 7th century.*

In November 2015 I obtained my MA in Theology from Regis College (conferred by St. Michael’s College under the system in place at the time), one of the member colleges of the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. My thesis, “A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love,” is available for download free of charge at the University of Toronto’s TSpace. It’s gratifying to see that it has been downloaded almost 800 times. My thesis advisor, Father Gilles Mongeau, SJ, has written one of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s most popular articles.


Dr. John Boswell (1947-1994)

Fully aware of the problems that beset the work of John Boswell—who gained a mass of skeptics and critics among the Orthodox (myself included) with his 1980 Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and especially his 1994 Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe—I attempted to exercise extreme caution and circumspection when engaging with him. I begin chapter 3 of my thesis as follows (pp. 37-38):

What is a sacrament? On what basis can we recognize with Florensky [in “Letter Eleven: Friendship,” The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. Boris Jakim, Princeton University Press, 1997: 284-330], in the liturgy of adelphopoiesis and in the sanctified relationship that it creates between two men, a sacrament, a holy mystery?

These two questions inform the present chapter. In this way I propose to move the discussion of adelphopoiesis beyond the impasse of the uncritical acceptance of John Boswell’s flawed scholarship versus the equally uncritical dismissiveness of his detractors who ridicule his underlying motive: namely, to explore the possible range of meanings of male pairs in the scriptural, liturgical, and hagiographical witness and their application for us today. This differs in no way from the impetus behind Florensky’s project eighty years earlier, despite the painful contrast between Boswell’s brashness and Florensky’s almost delicate subtlety. Yet to Boswell we owe a debt of sincere gratitude for catapulting this forgotten sacrament into the ecclesiastical, scholarly, and popular consciousness.

Others have addressed the problems rife in Boswell’s study more thoroughly than lies within my competence. His injudicious manipulation of primary sources, questionable translation of key texts, and misrepresentation of the historical record have been thoroughly dissected. Among the more nuanced voices from his phalanx of critics, Philip Lyndon Reynolds [in “Same-Sex Unions: What Boswell Didn’t Find,” Christian Century 112.2 (January 18, 1995): 49-54] discerns—“buried” in Boswell’s book—the “interesting and plausible thesis” that the Church’s “institutionalized or otherwise socially recognized same-sex relationships, such as the brotherhoods studied here, provided scope for the expression of what we would now regard as homosexual inclinations.” As we noted above, [Alan] Bray [in The Friend,  The University of Chicago Press, 2003] stumbled upon a similar “scope for expression” in some parts of the Latin Church. While neither Reynolds nor Bray leaps to the oversimplified inference that ἀδελφοποίησις in the East and the ordo ad fratres faciendum in the West represented an exact equivalent of marriage, their shared instinct that the Church of an earlier era acknowledged on some level, and provided structure for, men who felt as deeply drawn to each other as a man to his wife seems eminently justified.

Later in the chapter (p. 44) I mention a prayer published in Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions (pp. 298 [English], 346 [Greek]):

An 11th-century manuscript concludes with the removal of the men’s crowns, but lacks any indication of when the priest places them on their heads. By any measure this makes for an astonishing point of resemblance to Marriage.

Intuition warned me, first, that it would have been highly unlikely for the liturgy of brother-making to include a crowning; and second, that my skepticism was borne out by the absence of rubrics specifying when the crowns were placed. Yet I could hardly believe that even Boswell would simply make something up out of whole cloth.

As it turns out, I should have listened to my intuition. With this article I wish to correct the record publicly and apologize for the historical misrepresentation contained, however inadvertently, in my thesis.

I was overjoyed when Claudia Rapp’s Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual (of which Orthodoxy in Dialogue published a review here) appeared in 2016. Already in 1997 she had proven herself an important counterbalance to Boswell with her publication of “Ritual Brotherhood in Byzantium” in Traditio (v. 52. pp. 285-326). Little could I know, when working on my thesis in 2015 and wishing that Dr. Rapp would publish a whole book on the subject, that my wish would be granted less than a year later!

With respect to Dr. Boswell’s inference that brother-making included a crowning in some sources, it is worth quoting Dr. Rapp in full (p. 74 of her book):

While admitting that “same-sex union rites only rarely mention crowning,” Boswell adduces two pieces of evidence for the crowning of the two brothers. The first is the manuscript Grottaferrata Gamma beta II (no. 9) where—following the ritual for brotherhood—the manuscript mentions the prayer for the removal of crowns, which is introduced under the new heading of “Canon of the church for the wedding.” The manuscript continues with additional texts relating to marriage. In other words, this passage deals with the removal of crowns in a marital context, although Boswell prefers to interpret this prayer as belonging to the adelphopoiesis ritual that precedes it. The second piece of evidence is the prohibition reported by the fourteenth-century jurist Constantine Harmenopoulos that it is not possible for monks “to receive children from holy baptism [i.e., to serve as baptismal godparents], and to hold wedding crowns, and to make adelphopiia.” Boswell here confuses “holding the crowns” at a wedding, that is, being the best man, with being the recipient of this coronation in a nuptial ceremony.

In other words, the euchologion (service book) in question attests to a historical time when the marriage crowns were removed, not at the end of the marriage rite—as is now the practice—but in a separate liturgical action on the eighth day of marriage. This accounts for the placement of the prayer of removal elsewhere in the euchologion, apart from the marriage itself, among other prayers and services which include the liturgy of brother-making.

Dr. Rapp displays extreme generosity in assuming an honest error in interpretation on Dr. Boswell’s part. I find his work so replete with what appear to be wishful thinking, wilful misstatements of historical facts, and conscious mistranslations of primary texts that I feel rather less generous. Rapp’s journal article and book have proven much more helpful to my own work in what I have come to name conjugal friendship, precisely because of her ability to stick to historical facts, produce accurate translations of primary texts, and  remain nuanced in her interpretations.

In conclusion, however, I repeat what I said above: Yet to Boswell we owe a debt of sincere gratitude for catapulting this forgotten sacrament into the ecclesiastical, scholarly, and popular consciousness. Without him, a lot of very worthwhile scholarship would not now be happening.

*This is the icon made famous by gracing the cover of Dr. Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. It escaped destruction during Iconoclasm because it was housed at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Muslim-occupied Mount Sinai by that time. In the 19th century it was taken to Russia and now hangs in the Porphyry Uspensky Collection at Kyiv’s Bohdan and Barbara Khanenko Museum of the Arts (Музей мистецтв імені Богдана та Варвари Ханенків), formerly known as the Kiev Museum of Western and Eastern Art (Київський музей західного та східного мистецтва). Orthodoxy in Dialogue will publish an article on this icon in the foreseeable future. 
See also Claudia Rapp’s book summary which she wrote for Orthodoxy in Dialogue with her co-editor Andreas Külzer, The Bible and Its Many Uses in Byzantium

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and writer of Orthodox Christian commentary at the Kyiv Post. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course work for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He has a new author page on Facebook where you can follow his writings.

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