Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Archbishop Stylianos recently made some important observations in relation to the debate about the extension of the marriage power in the Australian Constitution to include same-sex couples. Such observations display the nuanced and complex position of the Church upon an issue that has assumed world-wide importance of late.
While not resiling from the Church’s position that marriage, in the Christian context, is defined as an act between a man and a woman, Archbishop Stylianos has commented that a) the Orthodox Church seeks not to impose its views upon others, especially within a multicultural society and that b) it only seeks consideration of the unique Christian context within which the word ‘marriage’ has evolved. He thus leaves it to be understood that the recognition by the state of ‘same-sex civil unions’ would preserve the traditional understanding of the word marriage, while also catering for the needs of those who seek legal recognition of their partnership, thus separating the religious element from the legal component of the debate.
What is largely unknown is that as late as the 18th century, the typikon of the Orthodox Church contained a service known as that of adelphopoiisis, the purpose of which was to unite together two people of the same sex, usually men, in a church-sanctioned partnership. Surviving Byzantine, Georgian and Old Church Slavonic manuscripts from the ninth to the 15th centuries show that the prayers of the ceremony established participants as ‘spiritual brothers’ (πνευματικούς αδελφούς) and contained references to sainted pairs, including most notably Saints Sergius and Bacchus, who were famous for their friendship and are usually depicted with a torque, reminiscent of a wedding crown, around their necks.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, the rite of αδελφοποίησις, has been cited as a practical, subtle Church-sanctioned recognition of a same-sex romantic union. Proponents of this argument point to the use of the word αδελφin, the vernacular to denote a male homosexual, linking this to the adelfopoiisis ceremony.
Academics such as John Boswell, in his book Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, have argued that the practice was used to unite two persons in a marriage-like union, in continuation of ancient custom.
Boswell examines the evidence for same-sex ‘paired saints’ in early Christianity, such as Saints Nearchos and Polyeuchtos, Ruth and Naomi, and Sergios and Bacchus, arguing that these couples were perhaps romantically involved. In his discussion of Barberini 336, a Greek liturgical manuscript of the eighth century containing four ceremonies for sacramental union, one of which is between two men, Boswell questions what they represent, if they reflect homosexuality, and ponders if these are ‘marriage’ ceremonies, in doing so rejecting the idea that they represent ceremonies of adoption or ‘spiritual fraternity’.
In particular, he looks at the text of the ceremony from the Paris Biblioteque which states: “Lord and lover of good, these thy servants who love each other with a love of the spirit and have come into thy holy church to be blessed and consecrated by Thee. Grant them unashamed faithfulness, true love…”
Departing from the text of the union ceremonies themselves, Boswell looks at further evidence for such ceremonies in the Byzantine Empire, including stories such as those of Nicholas and the homosexual Emperor Basil I, (he refers to the emperor as a ‘hunk’) and then examines the Christian prohibitions that were later introduced to put a stop to them. His seminal study, according to University of Indiana sociologist Lutz Kaelber, shows how “social arrangements and processes can shape and sometimes bend normative perceptions of the boundaries between friendship, affection, and love”.
Despite Boswell’s fascinating musings, nothing in the text of the liturgical ceremonies or the ancillary literature suggests that the adelphopoiisis ceremony was developed in order to sanction same-sex unions of a romantic or sexual nature, but rather, it is most probable that these referred to a platonic union through faith, though he correctly points out the way saints are paired in the ceremony refers to a deep union: “That thy holy apostles Philip and Bartholomew should be united, not bound together by law of nature but in the manner of a holy spirit and faith, as Thou didst bless the joining of thy Holy Martyrs Sergios and Bacchus in union of spirit. Send down most kind Lord the grace of thy Holy Spirit upon these thy servants whom thou hast found worthy to be united not by nature but by faith and holy spirit.”
Commentators have argued that this rite was used in many ways, such as the formation of permanent pacts between leaders of nations or between religious brothers, as a replacement for ‘blood-brotherhood’ which was forbidden by the Church at the time. Historians have traced the prevalence of such unions among Byzantine soldiers. Going into battle and knowing that they had to rely on each other for their very lives, Byzantine soldiers underwent the ritual for the purposes of added security.
Russian theologian Pavel Florensky, in his description of adelphopoiisis in his 1914 book The Pillar and the Ground of The Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, described traditional Christian friendship, expressed in adelphopoiisis, as “a community molecule, a pair of friends, which is the principle of actions here, just as the family was this kind of molecule for the pagan community”, reflecting Christ’s words that “wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of thee”.
In his theological exegesis of the rite, he noted that its ceremonies consisted of prayer, scriptural reading, and ritual that involved partaking in presanctified eucharistic gifts. It was, according to him, merely a formalisation of a deep and enduring friendship, something that would have been better understood during the time of Byzantium where the social context saw friendship to be much deeper, more formal and viewed in more theological terms than the present.
Florovsky’s analysis is supported by contemporary experience. Though the adelphopoiisis ceremony is defunct in Greek Orthodox modern usage, historian Robin Young describes how she underwent a sisterhood ceremony in 1985 within the Syriac Orthodox Church, a church that while monophysite, preserves many of the usages, liturgical texts and practices of the early Greek Orthodox Church, including the adelphopoiisis ceremony. According to Young, upon a visit to St Mark’s monastery in Jerusalem with a friend, “our host, Archbishop Dionysius … remarked that since we had survived the rigours of Syria and Eastern Turkey in amicable good humor, we two women must be good friends indeed. Would we like to be joined as sisters the next morning after the bishop’s Sunday liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
After the liturgy, the bishop had us join our right hands together and he wrapped them in a portion of his garment. He pronounced a series of prayers over us, told us that we were united as sisters, and admonished us not to quarrel. Ours was a sisterhood stronger than blood, confirmed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he said, and since it was a spiritual union, it would last beyond the grave. Our friendship has indeed endured and flourished beyond the accidental association of two scholars sharing an interest in the Syriac-speaking Christianity of late antiquity. The blessing of the Church was a precious instance of our participation in the life of an ancient and noble Christian tradition. Although neither of us took the trouble to investigate the subject, each privately assumed that the ritual of that summer was some Christian descendant of an adoption ceremony used by the early church to solemnify a state – that of friendship – which comes highly recommended in the Christian tradition (‘Henceforth I call you not servants, but I have called you friends.’ [John15:15]).”
The poetry and beauty of the blessings of the adelphopoiisis rite are stirring, especially in such invocations as: “That their love abide without offence and scandal all the days of their lives, we beseech thee O Lord. ”
Yet Miodrag Kovadinovic offers a unique insight into a further abridged version of the ceremony, known as pobratimstvo in the Slavonic tradition. Apparently, it was felt that brotherhood could be achieved through simple invocation – ‘My-Brother-Through-God!’ – in case of peril, whereby a foe suddenly becomes an ally, underlying the military uses of the rite.
There is something noble and profoundly moving in the seeking of a divine sanction for a platonic relationship and its gradual disuse possibly says much for the way friendships have developed since that time. Nonetheless, while the adelphopoiisis ceremony contains many elements of the Orthodox marriage rite and Boswell’s conclusions are tantalising, ultimately, the argument that Orthodox ritual condoned same-sex romantic unions cannot be sustained and, as Archbishop Stylianos maintains, the issue of solemnising same-sex unions, as far as the Church is concerned, is a civil one.
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.