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Boswell and the Latin West
The Debate Over the Blessing of Friendship Today

Alan Bray


This note consists of some reflections on John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, with an eye to the relevance they might have today: to the current debate over the blessing of homosexual friendship. It is for this reason that these reflections focus on what John Boswell had to say on the Catholic west - where the debate now has its sharpest edge. These reflections are also a response to the perceptive arguments put forward by Elizabeth A R Brown and Claudia Rapp in ‘Ritual Brotherhood in Ancient and Medieval Europe: A Symposium’ Traditio Volume 52 (1997) pp. 261-381. What I have attempted here is to revisit the documents these historians employed and to apply a reading in different terms.

The argument I make below for the form of the rite that appears in latin europe to have corresponded to the adelphopoiesis edited by John Boswell was put forward in a BBC Radio programme a few days ago: ‘The Kiss of the Crusaders’ BBC Radio 4, 12 June 2.30pm produced by Tessa Watt and Helen Weinstein and introduced by Eamon Duffy. It anticipated some of the conclusions of my book on friendship in traditional society in england. The historians John Bossy and Maurice Keen joined in the discussion. The programme was designed as a popular presentation - there was an audience of approaching half a million listeners - and centred on a tomb monument to two english knights who died in Constantinople in 1391 and were buried there together. This monument is one of a number from medieval england that appear to show the traces of this rite.

Giraldus’s Topographica Hibernica

The implications of the material discussed in John Boswell’s book have I think been dismissed too easily and in particular the account he quotes from Giraldus de Barri’s Topographica Hibernica. This is not a sober and objective work but a piece of propaganda, intended to justify to its audience in catholic europe the invasion of Ireland by the Anglo-Norman army under Henry II in 1171. As evidence for Irish society a work of propaganda such as this is hardly reliable. Its value as historical evidence is rather I would suggest its indirect ability to preserve evidence of the values and prejudices of the audience that Giraldus was seeking to manipulate. In the course of this work, Giraldus describes a ritual confirming friendship which its audience could be expected in this way to recognise and value. Or rather to recognise as here debased by the blood that according to Giraldus among the Irish follows its treacherously pious beginning:

Inter alia multa artis iniquae figmenta, hoc unum habent tanquam praecipuum argumentum. Sub religionis et pacis obtentu ad sacrum aliquem locum conveniunt, cum eo quem oppetere cupiunt. Primo compaternitatis foedera jungunt: deinde ter circa ecclesiam se invicem portant: postmodum ecclesiam intrantes, coram altari reliquiis sanctorum appositis, sacramentis mulitfarie praestitis, demum missae celebratione, et orationibus sacerdotum, tanquam desponsatione quadam indissolubiliter foederantur. Ad ultimum vero, ad majorem amicitiae confirmationem, et quasi negotii consumationem, sanguinem sponte ad hoc fusum uterque alterius bibit. Hoc autem de ritu gentilium adhuc habent, qui sanguine in firmandis foederibus uti solent. O quoties in ipso desponsationis hujus articulo, a viris sanguinum et dolosis tam dolose et inique funditur sanguis, ut alteruter penitus maneat exsanguis! O quoties eadem hora et incontinenti vel sequitur vel praevenit, vel etiam inaudito more sanguinolentum divortium ipsam interrumpit desponsationem.

(Among the many other deceits of their perverse ways, this one is particularly instructive. Under the appearance of piety and peace, they come together in some holy place with the man with whom they are eager to be united. First they join in covenants of spiritual brotherhood. Then they carry each other three times around the church. Then going into the church, before the altar and in the presence of relics of the saints, many oaths are made. Finally with a celebration of the mass and the prayers of priests they are joined indissolubly as if by a betrothal.

But at the end as greater confirmation of their friendship and to conclude the proceedings each drinks the other’s blood: this they retain from the custom of the pagans, who use blood in the sealing of oaths. How often, at this very moment of a betrothal, blood is shed by these violent and deceitful men so deceitfully and perversely that one or the other remains drained of blood! How often in that very improper hour does a bloody divorce follow, precede or even in an unheard-of-way interrupt the betrothal.) - Bodleian Library/ Laud Manuscripts/ 720/ folio 224v. I have given the collated transcription in Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, ed James F. Dimock, vol. 5 (London, 1867) p.167. Rubric: ‘De argumento nequitiae et novo desponsationis genere’.

What Giraldus is doing here I think is this. Giraldus’s satire first attributes to this ritual all the proprieties to hand that could confirm the friendship created by ritual kinship; and he does this so comprehensively that each of the forms of ritual kinship that he knew his audience would value find their place. The first is that established by baptism. These vows, he tells his audience, are vows of compaternitas. Compaternitas was the spiritual brotherhood established at baptism between, among others, the sponsors of a child and its natural parents, relations which figured more significantly as the specifically social consequences of baptism than any subsequent tie to the child. The second that he invokes is that established by a betrothal. The vows, he goes on to assure his soon to be scandalised audience, are moreover given the force of a desponsatio: an agreement to a marriage. In the twelfth century a betrothal - a desponsatio - might precede the marriage itself by several years; but when it was solemnised at the church door, where the rite of baptism also began, its binding terms established kinship relations that stood with those created by marriage or a baptism. But in Giraldus’s awesome composite there is no baby and no bride, for the third form of ritual kinship implied by Giraldus that leaves its trace in this account is the ritual brotherhood of the kind that K. B. McFarlane pointed to some years ago (K. B. McFarlane ‘A business-partnership in war and administration, 1421-1445’ English Historical Review, vol 78 (1963) pp. 290-310): ritual brotherhood created directly by vows of sworn brotherhood and without the symbolic instrumentality of the child or the marriage. The heady mix in Giraldus’s description invokes the spiritual brotherhood of compaternitas, the binding force of a betrothal and the liturgical form of sworn brotherhood - a form whose culmination in this account is the eucharist.

Giraldus then aims his blow. After a beginning that could not have confirmed friendship in more solemn terms the pagan addition proves disastrous. The blood of the pagan rite stimulates the blood-lust of the participants, and the ritual ends not in friendship but in violence and murder. The drawing at the opening in the Bodleian manuscript of two men fighting to the death makes Giraldus’s point. But the historical evidence the passage contains lies not in what he has to say about the Irish but in the evidence he indirectly preserves of the form of a ritual that he knew his readers in catholic europe would recognise and value. The force of Giraldus’s satire depends on familiarity with the rituals he is invoking and his audience’s acceptance of their legitimacy. The implication of Giraldus’s Topographica Hibernica is that his readers in latin catholic europe knew that the ceremony of ‘sworn’ brotherhood ended with a celebration of the mass, and this knowledge prepares them to be all the more scandalised by the blood that (according to Giraldus) all too often then follows among the Irish.

Juvénal des Ursins

That this is the right way to read the historical evidence in this account is supported by the direct evidence of a letter addressed on 14 July 1411 to the King of France, Charles VI, by the sons of Duke Louis of Orléans, which the fifteenth-century historian Juvénal des Ursins included in his Histoire de Charles VI. It fills out the terse phrase ‘en leglise de Saint Martin’ (‘in the church of St Martin at Harfleur’) used in the document that McFarlane edited recording the compact of brotherhood in arms between Nicholas Molyneux and John Winter also made in France, in the church at Harfleur, almost to the day just ten years earlier on 12 July 1421. This letter (In Nouvelle Collection des Mémoires, eds. MM. Michaud and Poujoulat, series I, vol. 2 (1851), pp. 456-464) gives a detailed description of the rite by which their father had become the ritual ‘brother’ of his cousin Duke Jean of Burgundy on 20 November 1407 when, as in the ritual indirectly implied by Giraldus’s account, they had made their communions together before witnesses in a votive mass for this purpose.

The ritual as Juvénal des Ursins summarises it is that

le dimanche vingtiesme jour de novembre monseigneur de Berry, et autres seigneurs assemblerent lesdits seigneurs d’Orleans et de Bourgongne, ils oüyrent tous la messe ensemble, et receurent le corps de Nostre Seigneur. Et prealablement jurerent bon amour et fraternité par ensemble...

(on Sunday the 20 November the Lord de Berry and other lords assembled together, and the said Lords of Orléans and of Burgundy heard the mass together and received the Body of Our Lord; and before doing this they swore true love and brotherhood together...)

The unusual value of this letter lies in the stress it places on the customary and familiar nature of the rite followed in 1407, a point its writers press in their letter because of the infamy of the subsequent murder of their father by the servants of Duke Jean. As they put it, their father and Duke Jean during the ritual in 1407 had made

plusieurs grandes et solemnelles promesses, en tel cas accoustumées ... par especiales convenances sur ce faites

(many grand and solemn promises of the kind as are customary in such a situation ... by the special conventions recognised in such a matter).

Both of these pieces of evidence point, in the first case indirectly and in the second directly, to the same conclusion: that in the churches of catholic europe from at least the end of the twelfth century until the beginning of the fifteenth, the mass provided a familiar culmination for the creation of ritual ‘brothers’, a ritual completed in their taking holy communion together. Such a liturgical practice should not surprise us. In her classic study Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1991) Miri Rubin has described how, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the eucharist was refigured as a symbol at the centre of the secular world about it, becoming incorporated into its forms of life, shaping them and in turn being shaped by them. The ritual evident in these accounts was part of that process.

Edward II and Piers Gaveston

The rite I believe we can see in these documents seems very probably to have been the form in which Edward II became the ritual brother of his friend Piers Gaveston. I accept here the arguments for a ritual brotherhood between them put forward by Pierre Chaplais in Piers Gaveston: Edward II’s Adoptive Brother (Oxford, 1994). These are based on the chronicle of the civil war years of Edward’s reign in the Cottonian manuscripts. This is how it describes Edward and Gaveston’s first meeting (I have given Chaplais’s transcription at p. 13, rather than that of George L. Haskins in ‘A Chronicle of the Civil Wars of Edward II’ Speculum vol 14 (1939), p. 75).

... filius regis intuens, in eum tantum protinus amorem iniccit quod cum eo fraternitatis fedus iniit, et pre ceteris mortalibus indissolubile dileccionis vinculum secum elegit et firm[i]ter disposuit innodare.

(... when the king’s son gazed upon him, he straight away felt so much love that he entered into a covenant of brotherhood with him and chose and firmly resolved to bind himself to him, in an unbreakable bond of love before all men).

The precision of the term ‘fraternitatis fedus’ (‘covenant of brotherhood’) in this account corresponds to the ‘compaternitatis foedera’ (the ‘covenants of spiritual brotherhood’) that Giraldus invokes, and the Vita Edwardi Secundi is equally explicit about the formal character of their friendship and characterises it in the language of fraternal adoption (Vita Edwardi Secundi ed. N. Denholm-Young (London, 1957) pp. 7, 17, 28). This is taken from the passage that follows its account of Gaveston’s murder by Edward’s opponents.

Occiderunt enim magnum comitem quem rex adoptauerat in fratrem, quem rex dilexit ut filium, quem rex habuit in socium et amicum.

(For they put to death a great earl whom the king had adopted as brother, whom the king loved as a son, whom the king regarded as friend and ally).

The Annales Paulini composed among the cathedral clergy at St Pauls uses the same term (Annales Paulini in Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I. and Edward II. ed. William Stubbs vol. 1 (London, 1882) p.263).

‘Rex quidem adoptivi fratris sui Petri de Gavastone personam exulare seu honorem ejus minuendum non potuit sustinere’.

(Indeed the King could not bring himself to send his adoptive brother into exile or diminish his honour).

The chronicles do not describe the form in which Edward and Gaveston swore their fraternitatis fedus, but that of their oaths together in 1307 at the time of Gaveston’s first exile (at Edward I’s command) is described in the memorandum in the close rolls (Calendar of the Close Rolls Edward I, vol. 5, 1302-1307 (London, 1908) p. 526) as having been taken ‘upon God’s body and upon the other relics’ and makes it probable that their earlier oaths also took the eucharistic form that Juvénal des Ursins was later to regard as customary. This phrase in the close rolls follows closely the ‘oath sworn on the precious blood of Jesus Christ’ of Juvénal des Ursins and Giraldus’s ‘in the presence of relics of the saints’.

Ending Disputes?

It is not I think persuasive to characterise in narrowly defined terms the motives for the relationships being created by this rite. For example, an intriguing possibility is that the ritual I have described was employed to force men to make peace with each other, when their violent conflict was disrupting good order; and in some instances this seems to have been the case. The circumstances of the sworn brotherhood of the Dukes of Burgundy and Orléans would fit that description; but the details elsewhere belie so neat a generalisation. The most obvious of these is that the agreement between Nicholas Molyneux and John Winter was entered into in the church of St Martin at Harfleur and clearly was not the resolution of a dispute of this kind: in their agreement they recorded that they were prompted to become brothers in arms by the desire to augment the love and fraternity already growing between them (‘Premierement pour acroistre et augmenter lamour et fraternite qui est piera en commencee entre ledit Molyneux & Winter’) and through their agreement formed a working relationship that was to last throughout their lives. An ecclesiastical setting was apparently as appropriate for creating a brotherhood of this kind as one settling a dispute. If Edward II had been seeking a sworn brotherhood to resolve a dispute he would have sought it among the magnates who were threatening him and not in an intimate who could act for him like Piers Gaveston. A reading of the use of the rite solely to settle disputes would also require one to disregard the terms used by both Giraldus and the sons of the murdered Duke Louis of Orléans: in the one case the ritual being described takes place when the two men desire to come together in it - ‘they come together in some holy place with the man with whom they are eager to be united’ (‘ad sacrum aliquem locum conveniunt, cum eo quem oppetere cupiunt’) - and in the other the term they employ is ‘vraye fraternité et comgagnée d’armes’: substantially the same term as the ‘freres darmes’(‘brothers in arms’) used in the agreement of Nicholas Molyneux and John Winter.

jurerent et promirent solemnellement vraye fraternité et compagnée d’armes ensemble, par especiales convenances sur ce faites.

(they swore and solemnly promised true brotherhood and company of arms together, by the special conventions recognised in such a matter) - p. 457 of the above reference.

Defining the Family

A characterisation like this - essentially in terms of violence - imposes a coherence on the material that is achieved only by taking one part and discarding another; and the same inevitably happens when any other broad characterisation is applied: such as an equally universal motive if not of violence then of profit or of love. These are solutions imposed from outside. The guide I think is rather the manner in which different kinds of kinship terminology can overlap and shade into each other in Giraldus’s awesome composite. For the later historian to attempt with determined pedantry to undo the connections being made is to miss the point that that confusion corresponds with precision to the texture of the social life in which they figured - although from a modern viewpoint this is by no means self evident.

That the ‘family’ can be defined in several different ways - in terms of blood relations for example, but also as a common household, or in terms of marriage - tends now to be a technical point of interest only to sociologists and anthropologists, as in modern society these different definitions coincide closely. The family living together in the same household is conventionally the group of parents and their children linked by blood or marriage. In the past (as J.-L. Flandrin has pointed out so well) these definitions often did not coincide so nearly. One major cause of this mismatch was the many forms of what one might call ‘voluntary’ kinship, kinship created not by blood but by ritual or a promise. The difficulty for the modern viewer lies in that modern society recognises only one such ‘voluntary’ kinship, in marriage: in the past others have subsisted alongside side it; and their aggregate effect was that (in England at least until well into the seventeenth-century) an individual lived in effect in a potential plurality of families. He or she could be part of one family in terms of blood relations and simultaneously part of another in terms of the ritual kinship created by betrothal or marriage, by baptism, or as here by ‘sworn’ brotherhood. The relations this created did not obliterate the boundaries of families; spiritual’ kinship remained distinct from that created by birth or marriage, and there is no evidence that sworn brotherhood extended to others beyond those who made the promise that created it. But the cumulative effect of such a multiplicity of forms of ‘voluntary’ kinship was to embed the family within a wider and encompassing network of friendship; and when friendship is given a formal and objective character by ritual and oath - as it was in sworn brotherhood - it is indistinguishable in its workings from kinship. Fostering and adoption further extended that interlocking network between households, and within it was placed the family in our contemporary and more limited sense of a group of parents and their children. Sworn brotherhood was one of the threads out of which that fabric was made. That network is peculiarly difficult to see from the vantage point of a modern historian. Its presence was created by those very mismatches that modern society lacks; where all definitions of the family are perceived to delineate the same group and no kinship is perceived to be, in the strict sense of the word, artificial.

The Theology of the Rite

There is though a ‘but’ to be added. If I am reading these sources correctly the rite does not then appear as an unreserved endorsement of the relationship being created. Neither Giraldus nor Juvénal des Ursins imply that the vows of sworn brotherhood were part of the mass: in both of these pieces of evidence, the mass rather follows the vows. No doubt Juvénal des Ursins was voicing a widely held view when he describes the ritual brotherhood of the Dukes of Orléans and Burgundy as ‘sermentées et jurées sur le precieux corps de Jesus-Christ’ (‘an oath sworn on the precious blood of Jesus Christ’) (p. 456), but that is to gloss in a broad expression the insistent detail that the vows were not made within the mass. ‘The Lords of Orléans and of Burgundy heard the mass together and received the Body of Our Lord; and before doing this they swore true love and brotherhood together.’ The same detail appears again in Giraldus’s account: ‘Finally with a celebration of the mass and the prayers of priests they are joined indissolubly as if by a betrothal’. In the evidence provided by Juvénal des Ursins and Giraldus alike, the mass is not the setting for the vows of sworn brotherhood but rather follows, as their culmination. In the careful proprieties of Giraldus’s indirect account, the separation in time is accompanied by a symbolic separation in space, between door and altar. ‘Postmodum ecclesiam intrantes ... ’ (‘Then going into the church ...’). Giraldus’s tell-tale phrase indicates what would have been self-evident to his audience. A betrothal was made at the church door. It was there that the rites of baptism began. It was there also, at the church door, that the vows of sworn brotherhood were exchanged, with the two sworn brothers only then receiving holy communion together in the mass within that followed. It is not difficult to see the reason why traditional christianity should have had reservations about such a rite. The mutual fidelity being promised was unreserved and indissoluble. But to what end might that friendship be put? Such friendship was significant in a public sphere, and unreserved fidelity in that context easily gave rise to suspicions that lay close to hand of potential collusion and self-advancement.

The point is that the church in the latin west did not attempt to legislate for the diverse motives that could prompt sworn friendship. The solution of traditional christianity rather lay I would suggest in the shape of a eucharistic rite which allowed it to respond to the potential for good in the vows being exchanged without being compromised by the potential for misuse that accompanied them: in its transformation through the eucharistic action of the sacrifice for friends offered at the altar into the universal sacramental sign that it then offered in communion. That implicit theology emerges most clearly from the comparison one can make with the adelphopoiesis edited by John Boswell, which represented a response to the same dilemma but from within its own distinctively byzantine milieu. Westerners had no difficulty in recognising it as the sworn brotherhood of the latin west (Elizabeth A. R. Brown in the Traditio symposium p. 361), and in the troubled history of its canon law one can see in explicit terms the same reservation with which catholic europe regarded its western counterpart. Ritual brotherhood, warned a twelfth-century greek ecclesiastic, could lead to ‘many sins’, and greek canon law has variously attempted to restrict the rite or to preclude its use altogether: although apparently with limited success judging by its continuing inclusion in the liturgical collections and its surviving use (Claudia Rapp in Traditio symposium) pp. 319-326, quotation at p. 323).

The adelphopoiesis is a characteristic product of its theological milieu, although it addressed the same fundamental dilemma as the eucharistic rite developed in the West. Both the adelphopoiesis and its latin counterpart were alike designed to negotiate the dangers of mutual appropriation present when church and world come together, and both did so by recognising the good in the vows exchanged as something still incomplete, as a potential. But while the latin rite expressed this in a theology of grace, the adelphopoiesis employed a distinctively greek theology of praise. Characteristically the prayers of the adelphopoiesis open with the praise of God as creator, as ruler, and as saviour and place the blessing of the participants that follows in that context.

Lord God almighty who created man in his own image and likeness and gave him eternal life ...

Lord our God, who has granted our petitions for our salvation ...

Lord our God, you are the perfecter of love and teacher of the world and saviour of all ...

(From the slavonic Euchologion Sinaiticum translated by Constance Woods Communio 22 (Summer, 1995) p. 316ff. Comparable passages from Boswell’s translation of the adelphopoiesis (p. 295 and 296): ‘Forasmuch as Thou, O Lord and Ruler, art merciful and loving, who didst establish humankind after thine image and likeness ...’, ‘O Lord Our God, who didst grant unto us all those things necessary for salvation ...’)

Such a blessing - strictly a ‘blessing’ of God - places the adelphopoiesis with the rites for a betrothal, for the cutting of a boy’s hair or beard, the prayers for rain, first fruits, or the blessing of seed corn that are also found in the manuscripts that contain the adelphopoiesis or its slavonic equivalent: things that have a natural integrity and potential of their own, to which the believer responds in praise of their Creator (for example in Barberini Ms 336 in the Vatican Library: Anselm Strittmatter ‘The ‘Barberinum S. Marci’ of Jacques Goar: Barberinianus graecus 336’ Ephemerides Liturgicae Anno 47 (novae seriei 7) (1933) pp. 329-67 and the Euchologion Sinaiticum which Archimandrite Ephrem discusses in his review of John Boswell’s book in Sourozh Number 59 (February 1995) p. 52). The one views the potential good in the promises of ritual brothers, as it were from below, in a world of defective human relations: the other from above, from the viewpoint of the integrity of creation. This distinction is akin to that detected by historical liturgists in the differing rites for marriage in greek and latin christianity, a latin rite shaped from the eleventh century by the exchange of promises and a greek liturgy preserving an older liturgical tradition that locates the liturgical action in a prayer of praise. In the one case this has been described as the support and clothing of a promise, whereas in the other it is the celebration and receiving of a gift (Michael Vasey ‘The Family and the Liturgy’ in The Family in Theological Perspective pp. 169-185. ed. Stephen C. Barton, Edinburgh, 1996).

The differing response created a different trajectory. The point I think is this. Praise must be spoken, and a distinctive office emerged in greek christianity for the creation of ritual brotherhood - and with it a canon law that sought to legislate explicitly for its ambiguities. In the west that development was eluded by the incorporation of sworn brotherhood within the existing structures of the eucharist. The indirect effect has been to make the friendship created by the ritual brotherhood of the latin west far less visible to the historian than its byzantine counterpart.

John Boswell

I am inclined to think that this view of this liturgical practice addresses some of the questions raised by John Boswell’s book and his thesis that the adelphopoiesis - literally a rite for the ‘making of brothers’ or ‘sisters’ - had functioned in the past as what in contemporary terms we would today recognise as a homosexual marriage. Two major objections to the way Boswell handled his evidence stand out clearly, both of which are right. One is that the expected ideals of the rite he edited would not have comprehended sexual intercourse. The other is that his thesis disguises the fact that the rite did not preclude the individuals involved also being married. Yet I think that the matter will not rest confidently there, for the problem that remains is that an unqualified rejection of John Boswell’s thesis in these terms is itself open to the same kind of criticism as the thesis itself. It reduces the range of what we recognise today as being sexual to the narrow question of sexual intercourse and it glosses over the historical disparity that in the past marriage has been one, as it is not in modern society, among several forms of voluntary kinship. The claim that the relationships blessed by this rite were sexual and akin to marriage and the claim that they were not both involve an unsettling degree of anachronism.

Here I have rather attempted to define how the liturgical practice I have followed in the medieval latin west might be understood in historical rather than contemporary terms and then - from that vantage point outside contemporary culture - one can consider how that understanding might or might not illuminate the possible liturgical recognition of friendship today, to the point I turn to in conclusion

The Debate over Homosexual Friendship Today

There is of course then no simple passage from the one to the other, but the recovery of this history does provide arguably a possible new agenda on which both sides might be able to move forward together - if the will is there. The value in recovering its history lies rather, I would suggest, at a more fundamental level: in its ability to raise radical questions about the terms in which this debate is being conducted, and it arguably does so in at least two fundamental respects.

The first is about the kind of ethical question at issue. Are sexual ethics an adequate framework in which to consider the ethical issues involved? I have argued that the historical context for this past eucharistic rite was a society in which the individual lived in effect in a potential plurality of ‘families’, one in terms of blood relations but others also in terms of the kinship established through baptism or the eucharist and that their effect was to embed the family within a wider and encompassing network of formal friendship. The ethical question at issue in this rite lay in the role the relationships being blessed could then play more widely, beyond the individuals immediately involved. The past social context for the rite is irrecoverable, but that kind of ethical question is of more universal application, and the contemporary question it raises is whether homosexual friendships today could also be considered within a framework of that kind.

There are reasons for believing that this may be possible. It is as a result of defining the question in terms such as these that the Evangelical Church in Germany (with which the episcopal Church of England is linked through the Meissen Agreement) authorised a service of blessing addressed not to the homosexual partnership as a life-style but to its ethical role. It is also of course in these terms that civil governments are viewing the recognition of single-sex partnerships, where what is at issue is the burden of social welfare they are recognised to assume - not questions of sexuality. A framework of this kind would raise questions such as the following. What kind of role do homosexual friendships play in bearing the responsibilities of society more widely? In what sense are they - or could they be - drawn into the existing families of the two friends, as a loving uncle or aunt or as a support to the old? To address the question in these terms is to ask genuine questions that are not as yet easily answered, nor are they addressed exclusively either to the church or to homosexual couples, but they could provide a coherent framework in which this debate as a whole could be viewed.

Such a debate would be within traditional language and would not tacitly put at stake wider issues. It is that fear that I believe has fuelled the opposition to recognising friendship within the liturgical assembly. It has also allowed the issue to be seized by the authoritarian right as a rallying point for an agenda of social conservatism that goes far beyond issues of housing rights and pension funds and it would deny its use to them. But if the first question raised by the history of ritual friendship is about ethics, the second is about prayer - and liturgy. Would the church be compromised by a service of blessing, even if one directed to the responsibilities carried by homosexual friendships within society more widely? The form that question takes is distinctively modern, but the question itself is not. One cannot directly translate the reservations in traditional christianity about ritual friendship into modern terms, but they touched on the dangers of mutual appropriation that are always present when church and world meet. I have argued that the shape of the rite I have described was a form that allowed the church to recognise the potential for good in the relationships being blessed while confounding those dangers: it was a distinctively liturgical solution that was arguably achievable in any other form. Could this be the case also today with homosexual friendships? The question raised by the history of ritual friendship is less, to my mind, the possible revival of an ancient liturgical practice than whether a solution of the same kind may be possible in response to the questions raised by homosexual friendship today.

Alan Bray
Birkbeck College, London
27 June 1999
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