The Episcopal Proclamation: A Needed Symbol

Orthodox people love symbols—we even find symbols in places where they don’t really exist, such as when we say that the Gospel Entrance in the Divine Liturgy is a symbol of Christ going out to preach.  (Liturgical footnote:  an entrance of someone coming in is unlikely to be a symbol of someone going out).  And it is important to understand what a symbol really is, at least in the patristic mindset.  For the Fathers, a symbol is not a sign of an absent reality, but a sign which makes something present.  That is why the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist were described by them as symbols.  Anyway, we Orthodox love symbols.  Symbols have power and are important.

The recent proclamation of the Holy Synod of Bishops about homosexuality at the OCA’s All-American Council is such a symbol.  (It may be read in its entirety here.).  It is an excellent statement of the Orthodox Church’s timeless view on homosexuality, which condemns homosexual practice as “by its nature disordered” and as something which “cannot be blessed by the Church in any way, whether directly or indirectly”.  The proclamation also expresses “pastoral concern and paternal love for all who desire to come to Christ and who struggle with their passions, temptations, besetting sins, whatever those might be”.

More significantly (and perhaps the reason for the proclamation), it also “calls upon all clergy, theologians, teachers, and lay persons within the Orthodox Church in America never to contradict these teachings by preaching or teaching against the Church’s clear moral position”, and says that “any clergy, theologian, teacher, or lay person who contravenes our directive thus undermines the authority of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America…We call on any such persons to cease their disruptive activities…Those who refuse correction open themselves to ecclesiastical discipline”.

Please note the last bit about ecclesiastical discipline.  This indicates that the bishops say that they mean business, and that this symbolic utterance is a true symbol—i.e. that it partakes of the reality it symbolizes.

It is easy for fine words to be not true symbols (i.e. symbols in the patristic sense), but mere symbols (i.e. symbols in the modern sense)—that is, words that sound wonderful, but have no true reality.  Laws that are dead letters are such symbols.  Such laws may be on the books, but everyone knows that, when push comes to shove, they will never be enforced.  Those laws still have some value as statements of an ideal, but they are not true laws.  For example, if the law says, “Thou shalt not steal” and the police catch a thief red-handed, but he is let go and never detained or tried, that law is a dead letter (at least in that instance).  A real law (as opposed to a dead letter) has teeth, and there are unpleasant consequences if you are caught breaking it.

This difference between a dead letter and a real law may be illustrated by the difference between security guards and police. Here in my neck of the woods, there are many security guards.  Their job is to stand around and observe when criminal activity takes place.  Thus, for example, there is a security guard in every liquor store here in B.C.  But if the liquor store is being robbed (so the employees of the store told me), the guard will not intervene to stop the criminal or wrestle him to the ground or fire a weapon.  The guard is unarmed, and in the event of a theft or altercation his job is to merely observe and then to call the police—as if everyone in a store full of people with cell-phones wouldn’t do that anyway.  As one of my parishioners who once worked as a security guard told me, “My job is to say ‘Stop!  Because if you don’t stop, I’ll be forced to say Stop! again.’”

Laws that are not enforced are like security guards—outwardly comforting, but essentially useless.  When the law is broken (such as in the case of robbing a liquor store), we need police, not security guards.  We need someone who will take vigorous action to subdue the offender and stop the offending action.

Everyone knows that there are clergy, theologians, teachers, and lay persons within the Orthodox Church who speak, write, blog, and publish works that contradict the Church’s teaching about homosexuality.  There are also parish clergy who at the Liturgy knowingly commune openly homosexual couples and who thus (in the words of the bishops’ statement) “create a theological framework which would normalize same-sex erotic relationships”, since deeds are even more powerful than words.   The question now is:  what will happen to those clergy, theologians, teachers, and lay persons if they refuse to change their offending behaviour?  Will they really be subject to the threatened “ecclesiastical discipline” or not?

One thing is certain:  the episcopal proclamation will provoke a storm of protest from those intent upon dismantling and destroying the timeless teaching of the Church.  One would be tempted to say that the statement will “out” such people if it were not only too clear who they actually are.

In the days and weeks to come, expect Facebook and related forums to fill with their howls of protest as they denounce the bishops for their hide-bound refusal to “dialogue” (i.e. allow the Church’s teaching to be trampled upon), for their heartless homophobic rejection of fellow members of the Church, and (of course) for their “fundamentalism”.  Indeed, sites such as Orthodoxy in Dialogue, Public Orthodoxy and The Wheel have already weighed in with their opening salvos with a predictability that is indistinguishable from inevitability.  They seem incapable of discerning the irony of it all, for the immediacy of their defiant responses unwittingly prove the bishops’ point that the stand taken at the All-American Council was clearly necessary, if not long overdue.

The members of the Holy Synod have shown themselves to be true leaders at this last All-American Council, and true and courageous shepherds of their often-embattled flocks.  They have shown themselves abundantly axios and worthy of our praise.  Let us continue to pray for them in the days to come that they may continue to shepherd us with courage.  Such courageous action will continue to call down upon their heads criticism, vitriol, blame, and condemnation.  All the more reason to be constant and vocal in our support of such episcopal courage.  At the beginning of a hierarchical Liturgy the people vest the bishop as an expression of their loyalty, support, and love, and they sing eis polla eti despota.  The bishops need our loyalty, support and love now more than ever, as the battle is joined against those that will defy them.

18 comments:

  1. Fr. – The OCA includes Canada. It is my understanding that such a statement would be seen as illegal “hate speech” in that country. Do you know if official objections have been made against the OCA for such statements? I’d assume it’s only a matter of time. I also wonder how long chains such as Hilton will allow the OCA to utilize their facilities. But, in any case, – good for the Bishops.

  2. I think I understand. Christ is the bridegroom the symbol of the Everlasting Father. He is male. Homosexuality and queerness cannot represent how a male and a female unite as one to raise a divine family.

  3. Reading the statement, I was impressed by how plain spoken it is–no double-speak whatsover and not so very long either. These wise and brave hierarchs have made the position of the OCA clearly understandable for the average lay person and for what it is worth, I am proud to defend them and pray for them with you Fr. Lawrence.

  4. Bravo. I applaud the OCA. Now if only “other jurisdictions” would be as brave, bold, and faithful to the Scriptures, Holy Tradition and Patristic teachings.

    1. Indeed, Olga. Indeed.

      Let us keep the Bishops (and all the clergy) in our prayers. They so need them.

  5. I respect the Bishops for taking a stand. I however wonder about the Bishop’s mandate forbidding the Orthodox lay or clergy or theologian to publish or teach anything that contradicts the Bishops’ teaching on this matter. I also wonder about the perspective that the Church is a Hospital for sick people. Hospitals are sterile places where people try very hard to avoid. With all due respect the Bishops do not marry. How do they know how Mothers care for their little children and help them become adults to go their own way in the world. Mothers have traditionally interceded (with prayers….communication) on behalf of their children, their neighbours and themselves when their husband, the father of their children, has been too authoritarian. When Mothers and Fathers show love and affection between one another and with their children and welcome and encourage the discussion of all kinds of ideas the family becomes a safe sanctuary reflecting the LOVE God intends for the human family. Sadly often times we see in church families that when the Mother speaks out against the authority of the Father of her family, she is dealt with harshly. True the Mother must also make sure that the children are not usurping her role or the Father’s.

    1. The task of a bishop, whether formerly married or not (some were married and widowed) is to uphold the Faith. This includes the discipline of priests or those under their care acting in such a way as to contradict the Faith. Those openly defying the Church’s teaching are not sick people in a hospital, for they refuse the treatment offered by the physicians. Instead they are false physicians, people offering to the sick poison instead of medicine. That is why the bishops must take action against them.

      1. For a priest to teach anything inconsistent with the teachings of the church causes untold strife, and is to lead his flock astray; creates confusion; causes division in the parish; leads people into temptation and sin; calls into question the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and leads others to do the same; causes scandal; leads young people astray; his flock loses confidence in him, their spiritual leader, and abandons them. For the bishop to do nothing in these instances is unthinkable when considering the spiritually devastating effect upon the flock, both local, and however far reaching the influence has spread.

  6. I’m not trying to be either subversive or pedantic, but since the Bishops have distinguished homosexual orientation from homosexual activity, I’m not sure what you mean by “openly homosexual couples.” Would two people, each acknowledging homosexual orientation but seemingly serious about seeking Christ, be presumed sexually active if they live together? I knew a pair of lesbians who did so and vowed that they were celibate; last I knew, they were under the impression that the Church writ large condemned that.

    1. The phrase ‘openly homosexual couples’ refers to a same-sex couple who are living together and are sexually active. The problem is not inward desire (sometimes misleadingly called ‘orientation’), but activity. The question is the wisdom of living with someone to whom one is sexually attracted if one has a commitment to celibacy. If a man is attracted to his girlfriend, living with her is unwise, since it places a great burden on his sexual self-control. It is a bit like asking a struggling alcoholic to be a bar-tender.

  7. Linda, I do not know what experience you have had with people who are same sex attracted. I have had quite a bit. My mother was a modern dancer with Martha Graham and I was raised around dancers both professional and amateur plus I spent eight years immersed in amateur and semi-professional theater as an actor and director myself. I knew quite well many same-sexed attracted people as teachers, friends and co-workers.
    I noticed one attribute all of them possessed–a terrible ontological loneliness significantly different than the aloneness I felt. I perceived it in both partnered and non-partnered; open and secretive SSA folk. I see it still in people I know in the Church to this day. I have also seen the deep anguish that lonliness causes in some. Both outwardly and empathically. It still breaks my heart when I remember.

    It is a loneliness that cannot be filled by a mate of the same sex, at least not that I have seen. In fact that often makes things worse.

    When set in a culture that makes a shame filled fetish out of every kind of sexual desire, the problem is worse. Only a life of repentance and genuine chastity can provide the fullness of the life in Christ to which we are all called.

    In our passion filled world that says the only way to freedom is to indulge your desire because “that is who you are” repentance and abstinence from any passion is difficult but sexual ones even more so. Yet the Church has always taught, rightly, that repentance and abstinence from our passions is the way to sanctity.

    To teach and/or counsel other than that about any sinful passion is to deny the fundamental practice of the Church since Jesus began His public ministry. Simple as that. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

    The mind of the world always tries to tie disobedience to freedom and dignity when it is just the opposite.

    1. Michael, I belong to the United Church of Canada. I know many homosexual and lesbian people. Many tell me that they feel like lepers when attending churches who insist their sexual orientation is sinful. What concerns me most about affirming the LGBT+ lifestyle is the promiscuity of many in the culture. The ones who have made an open an honest commitment to a loving partnership with a chosen one are as blissfully happy as heterosexual unions where couples work at their relationship. Having said that the pride parades and the queering of Christ celebrating sexuality that a person chooses as if dining at a smorgasbord or acting as bored couples participating in key parties did in the 70s are perhaps symptoms of divorced parents and disfunction in society as a whole. Society sees unity as conformity. Patriarchal language and culture and the mystery of the Triune keep believers from seeing Christ as three unique persons in relation to a fourth as Andre Rublev’s icon and Isaiah 9:6 depict. That is why I wonder if people of faith should be focused more on finding ways to accept these people who are the victims of societal disfunction just the way they are. Perhaps by loving them as a mother would love a child who was born without all their toes or born blind they will feel God’s love when they meet Christ and his Bride face to face.

      1. From the Orthodox perspective, the issue is not orientation (ie. desires) but the fact that homosexual activity is unnatural. One of course has compassion for any person struggling with unnatural desires, but such desires should not be indulged.

        1. Thank you Father for that succinct statement of the truth. It helped me a great deal by God’s Grace. Have you written anything on the Orthodox path of repentance?

        2. I agree. Unnatural desires should not be indulged. Bishops and Priests should set up and keep rules as boundaries to keep desires in check while Christians they serve are seeking God’s wisdom. The congregation looks up to the Priest and his High Priest for guidance. It is unnatural for a heterosexual male to desire, to crave or beg the body of someone of the same sex and then wrap them in the clean linen of their bed. It sullies the sacrament of marriage.

  8. Though my option hardly matters, I found the statement well balanced speaking the unchanging truth of the Faith whilst also being pastoral. A lot of the ‘noise’ I’m seeing in response to the statement (aside from those shouting ‘dialogue!’ With, I suspect, ulterior motives) is that the Church (and Christians in general) seem to go to extra lengths to ring this gong, but why no statements about pre-marital sex which is most likely a significantly more prevalent issue today. Or Divorce, greed, nationalism etc. How should we respond to those accusations?

    1. I suspect that the bishops focused upon this topic rather than on (for example) premarital sex because there were not a number of Orthodox voices calling for a change in the Church’s view on premarital sex as there is on the subject of homosexuality.

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