Terry Weldon writes:
After the Gala Dinner at Quest Conference 2013 (Chichester), I delivered a short talk on Queer Saints and Martyrs in Church History. As a after – dinner address, I tried to keep it light – hearted, pointing in particular to some of the oddities and fun bits in the history. There was, however, a more serious side all the same. It is important to remember that throughout Christian history, our people have always been present – just as they have in every human society throughout the world, and in every period of history.
In conversation afterwards, there was a suggestion that perhaps it is time for Quest to select a patron saint. Informal discussions have since continued, but we missed the opportunity to do begin the process last year. This year, formal discussion will begin, at Conference 2015. This will not yet be a formal decision, and so does not form part of the AGM agenda. There will instead be some time set aside for discussion, and later an informal vote to give a sense of the feeling of conference for the new committee to consider. If they see fit, a formal decision my then be put to conference at next year’s AGM To get the ball rolling, I’ve been asked to put together a short list of possible candidates for serious consideration.
Why Might We Want a Patron?
Saints have been a feature of the Catholic Church right from the very early days, to honour especially those who had been martyred for their faith. To begin with, there was no formal procedure for selection: those described as “saints” were simply those that become widely admired and honoured by the Christian community. Later, the institutional Church formalized the process into the complex canonization process we know today – but still, the Church recognizes that in reality, there are far, far more saints than only those officially recognised as such. Indeed, we are all called to sainthood, as witnessed annually on the feast of All Saints.
So, the first reason for naming and honouring specific saints, is to provide us with role models, whom we can seek to emulate in our personal search for holiness in our own lives and circumstances. The second reason, for many people, is their value as spiritual intermediaries in their prayer lives, especially in prayers of petition. Whatever the reason that applies to individual Catholics, research shows that recognition and honouring our saints is widely perceived as a major characteristic of the Catholic Church – to a far greater degree than adherence to the sexual behaviour rules stated in the Catechism
Sergius and Bacchus
By far the best known of the “gay saints”, these were two Roman soldiers and lovers, who were executed for their faith.
The reasons for supporting them are familiar: they are well known, and in this era of expanding rights for gay marriage / civil unions, they are sometimes seen as patrons of gay marriage.
Reasons against could be that they are too well known – almost a hackneyed choice; Pacifists might object to their military connections; and because they are so well – known, they are controversial: there is a lobby that argues strongly that they did not, in fact, even exist.
An early Christian martyr, sentenced to death for his faith. Pierced by a barrage of arrows, he was left for dead, but said to have been revived by angels. After his recovery, he went back to the Roman Emperor responsible, and berated him for his wickedness. He was then sentenced a second time, and killed.
Reason for is his behaviour in speaking up and directly challenging the authority that was persecuting him.
Reason against is that although widely regarded as a popular gay icon, this rests solely on the abundant semi-erotic paintings of his half – naked torso pierced with arrows. There is no suggestion that Sebastian was himself gay, and the image may not be the one we want to present to the world.
Joan of Arc
The well – known cross-dressing French woman who led military resistance against the English, was tried and burned as a heretic, but was subsequently canonized as a saint.
Reasons for are that she is a clear reminder that the cardinals and theologians of the Church can be wrong. (Even Pope Benedict XVI has noted that this is an important lesson from her story); She can also be seen as the most important “transgender” saint.
Reasons against: In her home country of France, she has been hailed by the nationalist right wing as a model of French patriotism.
Aelred of Rievaulx
A medieval abbot, at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, who wrote strongly in favour of the spiritual value of intense paired friendships. As a monk, he was personally celibate.
Reasons for: Although there is nothing in the writing to suggest that he was thinking of sexual intimacy, there is equally nothing in modern intimate relationships that negates their potential spiritual value. He is also English.
(Aelred has already been adopted as patron by Integrity USA (the Episcopalian counterpart to Dignity), and by the Mexican Communidad de San Alredo).
Julian of Norwich
In spite of her apparently masculine name, Julian was a medieval female nun, renowned for her mystical writing in praise of God, and an unfailingly positive attitude..
Reason for is that in her writing, she develops a genderqueer image of God, writing for instance of “Mother Jesus” and of an omnigender Trinity. Her mysticism is also a useful model to Catholics who feel that a useful response to the hostility of the institutional Church, can be to develop a strong spiritual life and personal relationship with the Lord. She is also English
Reason against is simply that there is no reason to suppose that she was personally lesbian or in any way genderqueer.
Cardinal John Henry Newman
English cardinal, renowned for the quality of his English prose, his theology, and for his lifelong devotion to his close friend, St John Ambrose, with whom he asked to be buried in the same grave.
Reasons for: In addition to the obvious significance of his relationship with St John, he is important for LGBT Catholics for his powerful writing on the principles of the primacy of conscience, and of the sensus fidelium – the idea that if teaching is not fully “received” by the faithful as a whole, that teaching can have no validity.
Reasons against: Balancing his writing on the importance of conscience, he also wrote that at times, it becomes necessary to submit that conscience to the authority of Rome. Paradoxically, for that reason he is sometimes hailed as a model by very conservative groups in the Church (especially in the USA).
Elizabeth I of England, at least in any pictures, I’ve seen, wore some armour with big dresses! OK, Highland soldiers fought in kilts, even in the trenches, but kilts are practical, especially in mud! Elizabeth Tudor wasn’t dressed for fighting.
I’ve read that Joan’s adoption of male dress was a major factor in her condemnation. In France, even into the XX century, women had to have a special licence to wear trousers in public – so called “medical reasons”! Being comfortable and decently clad wasn’t enough. Except when I’m wearing a (proper) kilt, – a male garment – I tend to feel constrained in a dress/skirt. You’ve got to watch how you sit, bend down, worry about wind, the external kind, (cf Marilyn Monroe), and as for silly shoes…
One objection to Joan of Arc might be that she fought the English. I’m fine with that, obviously, and the French always generously financed our Wars of Independence, our Auld Ally. And, poor lass, she was only canonised as a political sop to the the French, in an effort by the Vatican to offset “la laïcité”.
Thoughtful and interesting piece with some good suggestions.
One thing however, jumped out when I read it and that is the fact that just because Joan d’Arc wore male military attire it does not make her ‘transgender’ merely that in order to appear strong and command respect in a very male dominated world she had to out men the men. Elizabeth I it should be noted also wore male amour on at least one occasion.
Yes, I agree that simply wearing male clothing doesn’t make Joan necessarily trans – and the term would not have had any meaning in her own time. This association is certainly controversial.
However, the fact is that she is seen by some as at lease genderqueer, and her cross – dressing was far more than occasional. Male clothing, and taking on a male military role, were central to her character – and part of the evidence presented against her in her trial, and part of the reason for her execution.
You may not see her as a trans role model, but others do. That’s a reason to at least consider her. I hope that people at conference will discuss this.