Why the Brother-Making Rite Isn’t Right for Us

Adelphopoiesis (from the Greek ἀδελφοποίησις), also known as the brother-making rite, is a ritual with historical roots in the Eastern Christian tradition. Medieval Byzantine manuscripts offer evidence that this ceremony was performed in order to unite two people of the same sex as “brothers” in a way that was formally recognized by the Church. Adelphopoiesis did not garner significant scholarly interest until the 1990s when scholars such as John Boswell (Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe) began exploring the idea that this ceremony existed as an early form of blessing for same-sex unions.

Since long before we began this blog, people who have known about our celibacy have been asking us, “If you had the opportunity, would you participate in the brother-making rite or something analogous to it? Would this ceremony be a good way to acknowledge your commitment to each other?” Even though this rite is no longer performed, we get these or related questions at least once a month, so today we’re taking some time to offer a full answer. We do not see the brother-making right as appropriate for our specific circumstances for the following reasons:

We don’t consider each other “siblings.” Though we do acknowledge that all members of the Church are united as brothers and sisters in Christ, we aren’t inclined to think of our relationship as being first and foremost a form of siblinghood. The brother-making rite was used to make the two participants “brothers,” and we are mutually uncomfortable with applying this kind of language to our situation. A large part of understanding our celibate vocation involves seeing it as a mature, adult commitment. Though we don’t know exactly what these terms meant within the context of adelphopoiesis, to us the term “brothers” or “sisters” suggests that two people are under a common authority in the form of an adult parent. This seems inappropriate for our circumstances in that each of us already has a relationship with our own parents who raised us. One might argue that God could be understood as the parental figure in this instance, but it wouldn’t seem fitting for us to participate in a ceremony for the purpose of uniting us as siblings under God as a common parent when we’re already bonded to each other in this way by virtue of our baptisms.

How and in what circumstances this rite has been used historically remains unclear. Adelphopoiesis has not been a regular practice of any Christian tradition for several centuries. Despite Boswell’s argument that the brother-making rite was form of same-sex union similar to marriage, there are a lot of unknowns regarding exactly how it fit into the Church and society in the 9th to 15th centuries. What we do know is that this ceremony involved certain symbols that were also present in Byzantine marriages of the same period and contained references to pairs of saints who shared especially close relationships with one another. We also know that medieval Byzantine marriages involved several stages and the brother-making rite occurred within the context of a single ceremony. However, we don’t have complete answers the following questions: what motivated two people of the same sex to enter into this type of relationship with one another? What was this type of relationship in the first place? What did it look like? How was it understood within Byzantine society? Were there limits on who was or was not permitted to participate in this ceremony? Some sources suggest that the brother-making rite existed to create peace amongst families, and others posit that its purpose was to formalize chaste spiritual brotherhoods for a variety of possible reasons. Regardless, the particulars of its use, purpose, and meaning for the broader Christian community remain ambiguous. As such, we believe it would be intellectually dishonest to suggest adelphopoiesis as a suitable ceremony for honoring our own relationship.

Since Boswell’s work on adelphopoiesis, mentions of this ceremony have become associated with the movement for marriage equality. One need only perform a quick Google search using the search term “brother making rite” to see that discussions of this topic frequently involve the question of whether it was equivalent to marriage. Over the past few years, a number of popular news sources and online LGBT Christian resources have published articles on adelphopoiesis, implying that we can know it was indeed a type of marriage ritual, or we can at least be reasonably certain. Boswell’s work on this topic has been controversial since its publication in 1994, and now his name is associated with almost every mention of the brother-making rite in the modern West. As a result, even mentioning this ritual has become enough to suggest one’s association with the American political left and/or efforts to change the current teachings of some Christian denominations on same-sex marriage. The two of us are firm believers that LGBT couples should be extended the legal protections that enable the partners to be recognized fully as family to one another. However, we have no interest in calling our relationship a marriage, becoming involved with political movements of any kind, or advocating for change in our own Christian tradition’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. Even if adelphopoiesis ceremonies were still being performed today and the other factors we mentioned were not problematic for us, we believe it likely that participating in this ritual would cause more confusion than clarification for others on how we understand our relationship.

Finding ways to honor and celebrate our relationship with friends, family, and community is one of the many challenges we face as a celibate couple within a Christian tradition that teaches a conservative sexual ethic. This specific challenge calls for some creativity along with lots of prayer and support from those who love us. In the future, we would like to take up “ways we celebrate team Lindsey and Sarah” as a topic for exploration here at A Queer Calling. But for now, we hope today’s post has shed a bit more light on why we feel that adelphopoiesis, even if it did still exist, would not be the right choice for us.

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5 thoughts on “Why the Brother-Making Rite Isn’t Right for Us

  1. I know you don’t want to say your denomination on the blog, but I wondered if you could comment on whether this brother-making rite as marriage issue comes up more in churches like the Orthodox? I thought maybe it would because it was in the East where this ceremony was performed but you don’t really hear about this at churches like the Melkite Catholic churches. Or maybe it’s more Protestants wanting to take this as evidence of gay marriages because we know a little bit about it and a lot of Protestant churches are starting to do gay marriages. Do you hear this questions in your post more from people of a certain denomination or in general?

    • Hi Candy. In our experience, it’s usually folks from a Protestant background who ask us about adelphopoiesis. More specifically, the question usually comes from Protestants who embrace a progressive sexual ethic. We’ve both observed that generally, people in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions tend to avoid modern interpretations of this ritual. We’ve both heard on several occasions Orthodox Christians speaking very clearly against Boswell’s work on this topic. I can recall only two instances in which Catholics have asked me about my own thoughts on adelphopoiesis, and I don’t recall ever being asked this question by an Orthodox Christian. -Sarah

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  3. I read this article with a friend and her reaction was: “It’s a bunch of postmodernist independent hogwash to say that siblinghood is about being infantile.” That wasn’t my reaction to reading the article, but because my friend wasn’t interested in asking your thoughts on that, I’m posing the idea because I’d like to know what you would say about it.

    • Hi Cat, thanks for raising the question. We don’t conceive of siblinghood about being something infantilizing. It’s more that certain relationships feel right when you describe two people as being “separated at birth.” At that point, it seems almost a forgone conclusion that the two friends will be together for life. Moreover, these two friends frequently take great delight in the chance to know one another’s parents because of the sense of an extended family.

      There is also something about siblinghood that evokes questions of authority. To take a female monastery as an example, a new sister is welcomed to the monastic family under the authority of the abbess and ultimately under the authority of a bishop. -Lindsey

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