by Roger Burg
from Signs of the Times No. 13 - Apr 2004

Well, it's not gay marriage. It was the old adelphopoiesis ceremony that the historian John Boswell 'discovered' in the 1990s, the rite by which the Church in Eastern Europe united same-sex couples.

I had got fed up with the resistance to the Civil Partnerships Bill, which came from the socalled 'traditionalists' in 'the Churches'. It was clear that someone ought to do something, but who and what?

Then I read about the Roman Catholic movement for women's ordination. The women were up against a strong argument. It went something like this: 'Mother Church has always known that only men can be ordained into holy orders, therefore it follows that women will never be ordained and never have been.' Theological argument can be so conclusive.

So some of the women had had the cheek to re-enact the ancient Catholic ceremony in which thousands of women had once been ordained into the diaconate and thus into holy orders. They incorporated the tales and acted the voices and testimonies of some of them in a beautiful event in a church in central London, and put the text, sounds and pictures on the Internet. Enacting it rather sidestepped the argument.

That answered the question for me of what should be done: the ancient same-sex union rite should be re-enacted.

I put the idea to a couple of the most likely national gay Christian organisations, which were impressed, but were overwhelmed with the fallout from Canon Jeffrey John and Bishop Gene Robinson. Well, if a job needs doing, do it yourself. So that answered the question of who should do it.

A homely event

This meant there would be no big event in London. But the idea might grow slowly from small beginnings, gathering support as it went on. So I persuaded my supportive and longsuffering partner that we aim for a date of Sunday 23rd November for a first attempt.

Then the first big surprise hit us. A bishop in the Old Catholic Church told us that the ceremony has been in use in every century for well over 1000 years and he was updating the translation for his own Church today.

A second surprise was the length of the ceremony. As Boswell translated it, it looked like a litany and a couple of prayers. In fact it's over an hour long and importantly includes the pre-sanctified communion. So drawing up the script suddenly became a major task. Costumes proved more difficult than expected, not least the first millennium East European vestments. You have to know your sticharion from your epitrachelion, even if you run them up from Oxfam duvet covers. And where were we going to get a censer?

For the first re-enactment no church hall would have us so we eventually settled for small numbers in our lounge.

The day dawned clear and chill (because the central heating broke down), costumes were half finished, and the censer was made out of tin foil and sellotape. But the re-enactment and discussion afterwards were enthusiastically approved and the group decided firmly to attempt a proper version in spring. The discussion at the end rambled and needed to be broken into informative talks, and we would have to get an expensive commercial venue.

The second attempt

A local gay group offered us a subsidy to cover hire costs and another invited us to its monthly public meeting on April 13th. Unexpectedly, a local Church offered us its hall at a surprisingly cheap rate for Sunday, March 21st.

Then another surprise; one of us found that the Western, Catholic Ordo ad Fratres Faciendum (brother making) was printed in the original Latin, in Alan Bray's book, The Friend. This was too good to ignore! We still hadn't got all the costume for the eastern European rite - and no progress on the censer. But we had to include the western rite, and some of the more perceptive theological insights that various sources contain about the ceremonies.

Then the vicar insisted that we use the Church, not the hall, and allowed us to use the censer!

We converged from Essex, London and Hampshire for a hurried rehearsal after the morning service (and broke the censer).

The vicar opened the event with a warm welcome and unprompted explanation of some historical background and referring to some of the English same-sex couples united in the communion.

Our Old Catholic bishop explained the theology of the adelphopoiesis. Jeremy Marks, of Courage, spoke about this ex-gay ministry whose experience and search for answers led it eventually to accept gay sexuality and gay partnerships as a gift of God. Sadly these had come too late to include in the publicity, but improved the programme enormously. And a friend presented the tale of the saints Sergius and Bacchus, invoked in both ceremonies (which gave us a break to mend the censer). They were martyred for their faith, and through their witness others came to believe. (There's an evangelistic theology to same-sex unions, seen again in the Gospel reading from John 17.)

We had two discussion sessions. In one it was pointed out that the first ceremony is clearly distinct from marriage, but its form follows closely the heterosexual union blessing. The wedding theology centres on sex and child bearing, and Greek Churches would welcome an adelphopoiesis to balance the earthly unions with the spiritual adelphopoiesis.

We also saw that the prayers that seem to prohibit gay relationships insist the same-sex couples are brothers, not 'by fleshly union', 'carnal intercourse, 'earthly lust' (variously translated) but 'by faith and the Holy Spirit'. This is a reference to John 1 v13, in which believers are sons of God and thus brothers in Christ 'begotten not by the fleshly lusts of an earthly father, but by faith and the Holy Spirit'.

We concluded by commenting on the government's proposal to restore some legal status for these same-sex relationships in the Civil Partnerships Bill, and began on a strategy to present a more truly Christian approach to the Bill.

And finally at 4:30 we relaxed over a rather nice buffet tea.

There's much more on the website at www.samesexunions.org.uk. There's information on future events and pictures and transcripts. Please feel free to offer more material for the event or website, (and do tell us if you know where we can pick up a decent censer).


Roger Burg is a member of the Croydon Area Gay Society.