Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Patron Saint for Homosexuals

Hallowe’en means Eve of Hallows, because today is All Hallows Day or All Saints Day. In the Christian Church it is the day when all those who have been listed as saints and martyrs are venerated. Tomorrow is All Souls Day when everyone else is venerated.

Ignorance is a very emotive word, and I’ve found that many gay people are ignorant about how much homosexuality has been embraced by Christianity. Perhaps they only see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe, just like homophobes.

But it is a fact that the church has never officially declared homosexuality to be a sin, despite the fact that many Christians have claimed it has. The Catholic church even had a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples before the Reformation, and several saints can be identified as being gay. The Church has never had a great problem with homosexual desire, only with homosexual practice.
St Aerled of Rievaulx as depicted in his "De Speculum Carititas"
("The Mirror of Charity"), c.1142.

One Catholic saint who has been rediscovered by the Christian lgbt community in recent decades is St Aelred of Rievaulx. He was an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat born in the north of England sometime around 1110. He was educated at the court of King David the Saint of the Scots, and entered the Cistercian abbey at Rievaulx in Yorkshire at the age of 24. He became it’s third abbot in 1147.

It was during his time at Rievaulx that Aelred write on the subject of friendship. In one work he revealed his attraction to a fellow monk called Simon. But while he recognised that his carnal desires were not appropriate to his spiritual calling he did recognise that love based on physical attraction, a celibate love between two men, was just as much a gift from God as attraction between man and woman. He considered that it was a love that can be experienced in a monastery as it does anywhere else and shouldn’t be ignored. In his own words he said “Feelings are not ours to command. We are attracted to some against our will”.

Even though other monastic leaders criticised Aelred’s ideas the Church itself did nothing to contradict him. In fact it was in the following century that the Catholic church began formulating their ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Aelred spent the rest of his life based as Rievaulx, dying there in 1167. The Cistercians, the French monastic order to which Aelred belonged, gave their approval to a local cult of Aelred at his burial site in 1476, the year from which we consider him to have been recognised as a saint.

Today St Aelred is seen as a patron of many lgbt Christian churches and some have been named after him. Since his “reclamation” by the lgbt community during the emergence of gender studies in the 1960s he has become an example of how homosexuality and Christianity can be compatible. As a Christian abbot his physical desires were not consummated, voluntarily. One of the main questions within the present Christian community with regard to gay clergy is about exactly that.

Elizabeth Stewart, Professor of Christian Theology at St. Alfred’s College, Winchester, said in 2002:
“He was remarkably tolerant and frank about the fact that in a monastic community some men would be physically attracted to one another, and may indeed fall in to what he regarded as the sin of consummating that attraction… What’s fascinating about Aelred I think is that even though he’s aware of the dangers of male friendship, he still idealises it as the royal route into the divine life. And coming from somebody who was so evidently attracted to other men, emotionally and physically, I think that’s an extraordinary theological feat… I think what’s attractive about Aelred for gay people is that he is somebody who may have the ability to teach the church today that homosexuality is about more than sex. It’s about spirituality.”

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