What is the Byzantine “Service for Making Brothers”? What applications it might have in the modern church?

Bishop John’s Answer:

The “Rite of Brotherhood”, or “Rite of Entering into Spiritual Brotherhood”, “Rite of Fraternization” or “Adoption as Brothers” (as it is variously called in English translations, “Adelphopoiia” in Greek) appears in many manuscript forms from the ninth century on. It can be found in the famous Euchologion of Goar (originally collected and printed in1647, revised and reprinted in 1730) Usually it is located in the service books in the sections for blessings: blessing God on account of a certain happening: e.g., betrothal, cutting of a boy’s hair or beard, prayers for rain, first fruits or the blessing of seed corn – things that have a natural integrity and potential of their own, to which the believer responds in praise of the Creator. It was used more commonly in the Slav-Byzantine than in the Greek-Byzantine tradition.

In our Melkite Eparchy, we make use of it in our Theosis Program (parish renewal project). Participants who agree to pledge themselves to working together as a group for a greater understanding of the faith, a more intense living out of the mystery of Church and growth in the spiritual life, receive a blessing in their good resolve and commitment. As a group, a spiritual fraternity, they take part in this ritual.

What was the intention behind the rite in earlier times? It originally seems to have been designed for creating a spiritual, rather than a natural kinship, i.e., making a bond between or among brothers (or sisters) not based on being born of the same parents, nor of becoming “blood brothers” as some cultures permitted by an actual ritual exchange of blood – but by “adopting” someone as a brother (or sister) for spiritual reasons. The prayers refer to a kinship “not by nature, but by faith and the Holy Spirit”. The prayers refer to the spiritual bonds between Peter and Paul, Philip and Bartholomew (a kinship in Christ for the sake of spreading the faith), between Sergius and Bacchus (a kinship in Christ for bearing witness to the faith, as military men, in a time of persecution in the Roman Empire).

Throughout history it was used – and abused – for various reasons. Sometimes rulers used it to enter into “brotherhood pacts” with other rulers (being a type of “non-aggression” pact). At other times, it may have been forced upon combatants to bring an end to ongoing strife or vendettas. (There was a parallel reality in the medieval Western Churches). On occasion, it joined people to work together on spiritual – or commercial – projects. The Church saw a good in blessing God for sworn brotherhood, fraternity and cooperation for positive purposes. It did not “unite” those entering adopted brotherhood, but blessed God for the good reality already there (unlike crowning or other Mysteries which created a reality).

Normally the ceremony was recognized as creating a bond of adopted brotherhood between the participants. At times, this was canonically considered as an impediment to matrimony with members of the adopted brother’s family. Monks were forbidden to use it, since they already belonged to a “brotherhood of adoption” in their community. Several local Churches eventually banned the used of the ceremony because of complications resulting: e.g., did the “adopted brother” have rights of inheritance when his adopted brother died? Was he legally responsible for the support of a deceased “brother’s” survivors? Were “his enemies” my enemies – and what did I have to do about that? “Adoption” normally refers to parent-child relations, necessary by nature – “adoption” as a brother (or sister) does not seem to be so necessary and maybe should not be given the same importance. Because of these and other complications and questions, it was periodically suppressed. When culture and society changed from the medieval (feudal and fealty based relations) world to the modern world, it gradually fell out of use.

More recently, unfortunately some groups have tried to find in it a form of “marriage” for same sex partners. That this was not the intent can be seen in the history of its use. Most men who entered it were already married to women and had children. The nobles and rulers using it politically were generally married men. Saints mentioned in the Troparia at the end, in some manuscripts, were sometimes blood brothers by birth (e.g., Cosmas and Damian), or Apostles or Bishops (e.g. Basil and Gregory, whose bonds were clearly – in their own description of their close friendship – a spur to greater holiness and growth in Christ).

A Yale professor, John Boswell, a pro-gay advocate, wrote a “scholarly” book on Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. In it, he mentions the Adelphopoiia ceremony as a same-sex ‘marriage” from the Eastern Tradition. His scholarship has been criticized and refuted by other medieval scholars – from as far away as Europe, showing his errors in having a conclusion in mind before studying the issue.