In the past few days Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has generated more discussion of his thought than at any other time in recent memory. The venerable Metropolitan wrote the foreword to the newest edition of The Wheel, a journal ostensibly dedicated to questions of Orthodox theology and praxis. More specifically, this edition of The Wheel focused on human being and sexuality, particularly questions of homosexuality. The Metropolitan’s foreword sets the stage for what is to come by asking questions and raising issues that others will address more fully. However, the foreword is no mere window dressing. In his own genteel and modest way, His Excellency does make an argument. And it is that argument that I want to examine a little more closely.
The Metropolitan begins with a quote from Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country; “The heart of another is a dark forest.” Given that the theme of the issue is, in large part, human sexuality, establishing an existential frame for his thoughts is not surprising or inappropriate. However, the subjectivity of human experience, at least in Christian theology, is always interacting with the objectivity—the changelessness—of God. This has the dual effect of breaking the isolation of our subjectivity but also of conditioning our freedom. His Excellency would not likely disagree with this, and he does touch on the fact that what it means to be human is revealed in the person and work of Christ.
But that objective dimension, which is integral to our understanding of ourselves, isn’t reflected in the questions he raises or in the flow of his argument. In the hypothetical scenario of the promiscuous and monogamous gay men, for instance, the question he leaves us with is merely a question of fairness which, while important as a subset of justice, is not capable of answering properly theological objections.
To say this more plainly, it is possible to treat the two situations more fairly and still fail to treat them Christianly. Further, by placing the statement about Christ as the paradigm of our being at the beginning of his elaboration of three points he wants us to keep in view, and his discussion of human dynamism in the second, one retains the impression that human dynamism is open ended. This impression is strengthened by his citation from the first epistle of John (3:2). Here the objective frame is not quite missing but sits in the background while we imagine the unexpected places this human dynamism might lead.
This leads to his third point, concerning the sources of our theologizing. The Metropolitan rightly emphasizes the primary importance of the marriage rite over the voice of any particular saint of the Church in terms of our elaboration of what marriage means. But, rather surprisingly, he then suggests that this liturgical source is something distinct from, and prior to, dogma. One hardly knows what to make of this.
On a historical front it is difficult to imagine how such a claim would be defensible. The dogmatic truth of our faith and the content of our worship are inextricably bound together. Liturgical worship can’t be reduced to dogmatic statements, of course, but neither can we offer true worship without them. However debatable the disjunction of worship and dogma may be it does serve a purpose in the flow of the argument. By sundering the connection between dogma and liturgical worship the Metropolitan is able to foreground one of two primary themes he identifies in the marriage service—the theme of mutual love—more or less absent the dogmatic context in which it is nested. He does mention that mutual love is often connected to the other main theme of the wedding service—procreation—though he emphasizes that neither is given pride of place. But here again the flow of the argument is toward the subjective experience of mutual love and seems to guide the reader toward the thought that in the hypothetical problems that are to follow, that theme should be a guiding light.
The penultimate section of the Metropolitan’s foreword begins with a case of special pleading. Shouldn’t the fact that a homosexual person doesn’t choose their desires and feelings, and that those homosexuals who remain faithful to the Church are expected to strive toward celibacy, affect how we think about their situation? Is the burden of celibacy, perhaps, too heavy to impose? Here again we find ourselves mired in the subjective frame, and His Excellency does not offer a solution to free us. At least not directly. It is well worth stopping to consider the question however. If the burden of celibacy ought not be imposed on those who don’t choose it, shouldn’t we also relieve heterosexual men and women who have, for one reason or another, been unable to find a spouse, of the burden of being celibate? I am sure the good Metropolitan would not accept this proposal.
Which gets us to the heart of the matter. In the hypothetical scenario of the promiscuous and monogamous gay men which follows his question there are two distinct sins under consideration— promiscuity and homosexuality—but they are not distinguished. Rather they are conflated which puts us in a pastoral bind. By asking whether celibacy is a burden too heavy to impose on homosexuals in the Church the Metropolitan certainly doesn’t intend to suggest that promiscuous sex ought to be permissible. But the only other way to answer his question affirmatively, to get out of the bind, without establishing new inequities between the way homosexual unmarried and heterosexual unmarried people are treated, would be to recognize monogamous homosexual relations as permissible within the Church. This puts us, the readers, in a situation in which two options emerge more distinctly than anything else: embrace the cruelty of the current situation or change the rules so that promiscuity remains verboten while homosexual monogamy is permitted. This conclusion is not forced on the reader but gently commends itself from the gathered material.
With these thoughts and questions lingering in our minds, His Excellency shifts the dramatic tension once again, away from the plight of the long-suffering monogamous homosexual to the figure of the perverted priest. Why, he asks, are we so obsessed with genital sex? Why do we inquire so eagerly as to what adults of the same sex do behind closed doors? It isn’t possible to know whether any such thing is at all common. Fishing for sins during the rite of confession is not only not taught in American seminaries but actively discouraged. But the caricature of the Peeping Tom priest is a powerful rhetorical instrument that effectively brings our moral sympathies to the aid of our emerging conclusions. This rather dramatic flourish seems to suggest that we adopt a pastoral practice akin to the US military’s widely derided “don’t ask don’t tell” policy of yore.
Now we come to the end of the beginning. And we’re on uncertain ground. Questions have been raised, problems described, and unpleasant images and feelings conjured. Where do we go from here? The Metropolitan has a very simple answer: we must be willing to experiment. How, he does not say. But the flow of the argument, the subjective frame, and the selection of heroes and villains in the preceding paragraphs suggests to the reader everything necessary to arrive at some preliminary conclusions. Whether those conclusions will be supported theologically remains to be seen.