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.