At the recent All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, a resolution was put forward that fell under the purview of the bishops, rather than the entire enclave. Many of us (not only in the OCA, but in other jurisdictions) are enormously grateful for the quick response of the bishops regarding these questions of sexuality and the teaching in the Church, and for the resultant statement (https://www.oca.org/holy-synod/statements/holy-synod/holy-synod-issues-statement-on-same-sex-relationships-and-sexual-identity?fbclid=IwAR1E-7wZi0Dh5ojr-d4VVFygBe3Z6eyuMojos5tk0ocxS02bSiT0thmB6NI). In contrast to those who authored the immediate attack from such expected platforms as The Wheel, Public Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy in Dialogue, we are greatly heartened. Our family in particular is encouraged, since the recent questionable baptisms performed by the Metropolitan of GOARCH in Greece had become a stumbling-block to dear friends who had just begun a serious inquiry into Orthodoxy, including attending a local parish. I am pleased to reassure them (and others) of the Church’s continued soundness by reference not only to the Greek Synod’s response to this encroachment (https://orthochristian.com/147269.html), but also to this promptly-issued statement by our own bishops.
Those who are seeking to normalize same-sex relations within the historic Church have charged our good bishops with fearful oppression, callous exclusion of those struggling with sexual passions, and lack of pastoral concern for their flocks. To the contrary, the welcome words of our God-fearing fathers are marked by a courage that sets us free for fruitful and faithful exploration of the mystery of human sexuality, by a generous inclusiveness that calls all to a life of repentance and humility, and by a clarity of vision that shines a guiding light for the faithful in a time of great anthropological confusion.
The bishops have called upon all the faithful in teaching positions, whether lay or ordained, to cleave to the united witness of the Scriptures and the fathers concerning theological anthropology and the physical expression of our sexuality. Not only have they made this call, but they have also invited those whose teachings are outside of the Tradition to repentance, encouraged them to see the confusion and polarization that their un-Orthodox teaching (direct or indirect) is causing among the faithful, and warned that “those who refuse correction open themselves to ecclesiastical discipline.” It is to be expected that those who sit loosely to the Church’s teaching should judge this to be a stifling of their academic freedom, and it is merely typical of their rhetoric when they speculate that this episcopal action is born of fear in the context of our challenging age.
Let’s consider these charges for a moment. First, we thank our bishops for giving reasons for their teaching, and for their generous call to repentance, born of love for those who are misguided, whether in the way that they live or in what they teach. Second, those of us who have been increasingly concerned by the burgeoning boldness of those supporting same-sex relations (whether in tacit acceptance, blessings, or arguments for ‘marriage’) are delighted that the bishops are not simply reminding the faithful of the Church’s teaching, but are prepared to act when that teaching is set aside by those with influence. One critic of the statement opines that there was no need for another statement, but that “what has changed” from past statements is the “tone” of the bishops. Actually, what has changed is the openness with which “pro-LGBTQ” members of the Orthodox communion are now prepared to teach and put into practice their secular views. The bishops’ statement is not marked by fear, but by clarity and courage, as they perceive a change in those who have more quietly dissented in the past. They are willing to speak the truth for the sake of the whole flock, even when they know that this will evoke the ire of society at large and of the smaller group of influential academics (some ordained) among us who disagree.
What about “academic liberty,” which the editors of The Wheel insist is “the lifeblood of the Orthodox tradition?” What, exactly, does this mean and what should it entail among those teaching in an Orthodox institution, or even among those Orthodox who teach in other venues? One well-known Orthodox teacher promotes the “relational self” over against hyper-individualism and thus “imagine[s] us [Orthodox] supporting the political legalization of gay unions as a way of affirming the committed long-term relations that even involve sex, no matter who the persons are, [and] manifest the very virtues that St. Maximos identifies with the presence of God.” (transcribed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n33aL5i0B4Y). Yet this same teacher does not think that in the context of a religious college, all things should be open to debate:
“[We wanted to] provide a space … for there to be free discussion … on practically any topic…. We do draw the line at certain places…. Our Center really is not going to have a conference debating the divinity of Christ. That’s part of the dogmatic tradition; that’s non-negotiable. But we also feel that the dogmas of the church … which … are really just a few … are all centered around the person of Christ, who Jesus is, [and] they really set the parameters for discussion and debate, they don’t really stifle it.” (transcribed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNd1bCS8bB0 ).
So, then, those who champion flexibility and freedom in the academic sphere also draw limits. As one who has taught for decades in non-Orthodox settings, I make sure that my students know the various positions surrounding all the hermeneutical, theological, and pastoral matters that we tackle, but I also “profess” what I have received from the Scriptures and Tradition, sometimes at personal cost. Teachers at this level are not called to indoctrinate; neither are they meant simply to give a smorgasbord of ideas without any direction. We may, indeed, open up questions of Christology (or sexuality) when in discussion with those who are not believers, but need to make it clear that this is for the purposes of discussion, and not matters which we ourselves hold lightly. For discussion within the Church itself, the question is not foundationally one of absolute freedom, but of where the lines, the “parameters,” are to be drawn. Some have tried formally to limit these parameters to the solemnly articulated creeds, but one cannot imagine these same teachers allowing discussion concerning the morality of murder, racism, or pederasty. It is salutary to remember that, from the beginning, the New Testament books spoke not only about creed, but about conduct and church organization: the pastoral letters present a whole variety of sayings that are “worthy of full acceptance,” and only some of these have to do with Christology. This is true, also, of the councils, which articulated canons on various matters, not merely creedal concerns.
So, we are left with the principle that within a bounded area, debate, discussion, and questions may and should be fruitfully asked. This area represents the frontiers of our faith, and presents challenges to theologians, pastors, and counsellors. There are certainly matters of human sexuality that require discussion, and complexities that need to be addressed. At the current time, the Church is called to address theological anthropology, just as in the past she had to address Christology. But the foundations for such explorations are clearly laid out in the short passages of the gospels, the epistles, and the ensuing Tradition. What is not up for discussion is the normative creation of male and female (confirmed by Jesus in his citation of Genesis), and the proper place of sexual relations within a committed marriage of one male and one female person, in echo of Christ’s love for the Church. These are the very precepts that the bishops’ statement highlights. Upon that foundation, theologians may well think more precisely about the nature of female and male persons, and their calling to be with each other in ordered and truly loving ways, and pastors may well explore how to counsel wisely, while loving those who find this teaching difficult, either in practice or in idea. Now that the foundation has been firmly established, the Church may freely move on to give guidance for parents dealing with a confused teen, theological and social explanations as to why opposite sex marital union has been established by God, theological exploration of the way that men and women are called to live together in society and in the Church, and pastoral guidelines for priests and others as they pastor those who are either moving towards or join those who identify as GLBTQ. Understanding, for example, the difference between someone who has “trans” leanings because of inner psychology, or a disjunction between physical and hormonal characteristics, or cultural pressures, will be part of that pastoral discernment. But the foundational truths remain as those concerned come to understand these things better. Just as Christology required boundaries for fruitful discussion, so, too, does our anthropological crisis.
The second two charges against the bishops concerning “exclusion” and “unhelpful pastoring” are seen to be simply wrong-headed when we understand this document as a foundation upon which the community is to build. The bishops make it quite clear that they are “motivated by love and out of sincere care for souls” in their call that those who are same-sex attracted apply themselves, along with the rest of the Church, “to a life of steadfast chastity and repentance.” As bishops who are themselves celibate, they are not naïve concerning the particular challenges that this may present for those who cannot marry. As Jesus put it, there are some born eunuchs, some made eunuchs by men, and some who choose this life for the sake of the Kingdom. In effect, the bishops are inviting those who are not in a position to marry to join them in an honored celibate role within the Church—this is radical inclusion, not exclusion. A statement like this cannot do everything, and so it will be up to the Church to find creative (but pastorally wise) ways in our isolationist age to build families and friendships that embrace singles, whether opposite-sex-attracted or same-sex attracted. Similarly, it will be up to those who counsel to understand that many are not simply distracted by disordered passions, but lonely, and in need of human intimacy (not eroticism). This statement provides, again, the parameters within which such loving community-building can take place.
Richard Hays tells the poignant story of “Gary,” his college friend who in later life contracted AIDS. Tragically, Gary had found neither a place among conservative Protestant churches, who were uncomfortable with his presence, nor revisionist churches, who told him what he knew was untrue—that he had no problem, and should embrace his alternate sexuality. For Gary had experienced his own same-sex desire as a “compulsion and an affliction” for over 20 years, and had searched many current books affirming gay activity in the churches, finding in them only “wishful interpretation.” Caught between gay rights activists in the churches, and fearful people, Gary turned to his friend and the Scriptures for truth and for comfort, and finally made this discovery: “Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith? Certainly not. But anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged” (Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, 401). Gary was searching for a Church that would be faithful enough to be truly inclusive: inclusive enough to call every member of her body to ongoing repentance and fullness of life, while all of us await the full redemption of our bodies. No doubt Gary would have dismissed as condescending those ‘half-way’ strategies that admit homoerotic unions to be less than God’s perfect will, but the best that some can manage, given their present condition. He held out for the hope that there was truly no male or female, no gay or straight in Christ: and this meant being brought into God’s very own life of purity and health. However, life in Christ did not mean for Gary a reorientation towards desire for the opposite sex. Some Christians today still speak of this kind of healing in their sexuality; this was not Gary’s experience, yet he was content with God’s grace as he committed to abstinence. Professor Hays saw in his friend a powerful sign of God’s power made perfect in weakness, embodying our present situation ‘in between the times.’ God’s Spirit is at work among us, yet full glory remains a future hope. Gary’s integrity, and the faithfulness of others like him (some of them my dear friends!), reverse the image of human disintegration featured by Paul in Romans 1. They witness redemptively to all of us about Christ’s grace, love, and fidelity. So our life in the Church becomes more than simply learning about how best to help those with disordered identity and sexuality: we receive a unique gift from these brothers and sisters when they remain faithful. All these riches will ensue for a Church that orders itself and conducts itself with the unifying and reasonable power of the Holy Spirit, falling neither into the Scylla or Charybdis that “Gary” encountered. May we be that Church for future seekers.
We are thankful to the bishops for setting us on such a firm foundation, with welcoming but wise words, and in holding to the life-giving words that we have received in the Scriptures and in the fathers. In contrast to the rejection by the editors of The Wheel, let us receive this statement as a faithful rearticulation of what the Church has always taught, and not as the type of heretical teaching that St. Meletios of Antioch urged the faithful to disobey. The bishops are exhorting us precisely “to say and to believe in things” that are to our benefit (and to the benefit of the whole world) and that have been taught consistently since the time of the Gospels and Epistles. Though it would be easier simply to let the bishops’ own wisdom stand as self-evident, I have been compelled to speak against those who are maligning them: “What pious man would hold his tongue? Who would remain completely calm? In fact, silence equates to consent” (St. Meletios). I hope others will join me in thanking the bishops for their wisdom and courage. Now, as Metropolitan Tikhon indicated in his response to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, things are not over: we have God’s work to do!