I was at a conference this past weekend at an Orthodox Christian seminary, and met a lot of interesting fellow Orthodox believers, both clergy and laity, from all over the country. I picked up from more than a few people great concern about the current move within US Orthodoxy to embrace and affirm homosexuality.
“Did you see that piece about the Lutherans in First Things?” someone said to me. I had not. I read it later. Its author, Robert Benne, is part of a Lutheran church that in 2010 separated from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America over its decision to bless formally gay unions. Benne recalls in his piece the 2018 ELCA youth assembly in Houston, and an address that ELCA superstar Nadia Bolz-Weber (whose first book some years back I genuinely enjoyed) gave to the Lutheran kids:
This year, concluding her speech, she employed a blasphemous parody of the set of renunciations that parents or godparents are expected to answer at a baptism: “Do you renounce the devil and all his empty promises?” One renunciation went: “Do you renounce the lie that Queerness is anything other than beauty?” And the youths dutifully chanted back: “I renounce them.” So the crowd was led to reject Christian teaching that homosexual orientation is “objectively disordered” and that acting upon it is sinful. Those who held classic Christian views became purveyors of the devil’s lies. That judgment fell upon those in the ELCA who, previously, were guaranteed a place in the church if their “bound conscience” held them to traditional Christian teaching. That promise, we see now, was bogus. It merely allowed local pastors and congregations of a traditional bent to persist in their retrograde beliefs, while all agencies and institutions of the church beyond the local level enforced the progressive verdicts of the 2009 assembly. No public dissenter could get a position or keep one at the higher level.
Benne notes another keynote address, one from Tuhina Verma Rasche, a female ELCA pastor who was raised Hindu. He writes:
Rasche has notoriety as a blogger and networker of #DecolonizeLutheranism. Her blog is a bit hard to believe; it features two Advent devotionals entitled “F*** This S**t” and “#ShuttheHellup.” Her blogs carry wonderful messages such as “The ‘American Dream’ is code to hold on to white supremacy” and “Whiteness is such a hell of a drug, white people are willing to blow up the entire f***ing world in order to maintain white supremacy.” Those remarks are clues as to what #DecolonizeLutheranism is all about. Here is an exhortation from its webpage: “The time has come for marginalized communities to lead our church into the 21st century—people of color, the disabled, all genders (women, trans, and non-conforming), sexualities, ages, incarceration or immigration or citizenship status, and others.” This liberation from the church’s Eurocentric whiteness must be engineered by a task force that is 100 percent people of color or people who speak a language other than English.
These two keynoters not only reject traditional Christian notions of sexual identity; they also challenge classic teachings on sexual morality. Both signed a petition that was concocted by an organization called “Naked and Unashamed” (I’m not making this up) based at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, where I (blushingly) taught for seventeen years. The petition calls for the ELCA to stop “privileging marriage as the only acceptable form of sexual relationality” and to start “editing out language that perpetuates heteronormativity and sexual oppression” from its guiding documents. Fortunately, neither spoke about their notions of sexual morality to the hormone-driven teenagers who cheered them on. Needless to say, both support Planned Parenthood and a woman’s “right to choose.”
Another keynote address featured an ELCA pastor’s wife and their 11-year-old son who has transitioned to living as a girl. They were held up as icons.
Benne concludes his piece:
I want to alert those churches that have not “evolved” [on sexuality and gender] to the dangers of doing just that. Once orthodoxy is breached on these issues, the process won’t stop there. It will lead to sharper denials of the apostolic faith. The revolution will eat its own children. There really is a slippery slope.
I had a number of conversations at the conference with Orthodox converts who came to Orthodoxy out of churches that had surrendered orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality, and which had since begun sliding into moral and theological disarray. As a former Catholic, I talked about how Catholicism is rapidly following Mainline Protestantism down this path, especially under Pope Francis. Talking last week to a Catholic friend about this, I told her that this fight has now come to Orthodoxy. She said, “Please don’t give in; you guys are the last place left.”
This week, the US Orthodox bishops will be meeting. A pro-gay group, Orthodoxy In Dialogue, has issued a challenge to them. The group calls on the bishops to do the following:
As you gather in prayer and brotherhood during the first week of October, we the undersigned respectfully propose that the Assembly, its individual member bishops, and their respective jurisdictions and dioceses consider taking the following steps:
1). Cease issuing condemnations of abortion, participating in the March for Life, and advocating for the elimination of legal, accessible abortion.
Instead, create a committee of clergy, laypersons, and especially women to explore options for a pan-Orthodox initiative to offer financial, material, emotional, spiritual, and social support to pregnant women in need and to their children after birth.
The reality of the world in which we live also requires the Church’s support for the surest means to reduce the incidence of abortion: universal access to contraception and to accurate, scientifically based sex education.
Finally, it is important to listen to women’s reasons for having an abortion and to work with them to mitigate those reasons when they are open to doing so. Judging, condemning, marching in parades, and attending Rose Dinners accomplish nothing and don’t save a single child’s or woman’s life.
2). Cease issuing condemnations of same-sex orientation.
These condemnations inflict lasting emotional and spiritual harm on Orthodox children, teens, and adults who regard their orientation as a good and natural part of their personal identity. They seek from their Church, not a cover for sexual permissiveness, but a profound and affirmative theological articulation of how their orientation reflects the divine image and participates in the acquisition of the divine likeness through the collaboration of human ascesis with uncreated grace.
Instead, create a committee of clergy, theologians, psychologists, therapists, laypersons, and especially Orthodox individuals who identify as same-sex oriented to study questions of sexual orientation in all their complexity.
The committee should be open to examining possibilities for blessing Orthodox same-sex couples who wish to make a monogamous, lifelong commitment to each other.
The committee should also be tasked with formulating pastoral guidelines to present for the Assembly’s consideration.
The blanket excommunication of Orthodox Christians who present as same-sex oriented must cease.
3). Remove from the websites of the Assembly, its member jurisdictions, and each jurisdiction’s individual dioceses all past condemnations of same-sex orientation.
Once again, these condemnations inflict lasting emotional and spiritual harm on those targeted by them.
4). Instruct the clergy to cease issuing condemnations of transgender identities.
Arguably these condemnations inflict even greater emotional and spiritual harm on those targeted than condemnations of same-sex orientation. It has been demonstrated statistically that transgender persons comprise one of society’s most vulnerable demographics.
We as Church have not even begun to examine—let alone understand—the complex interplay of emotional, spiritual, psychological, social, and even biological factors that lead a person to identify as transgender and then to commence his or her transition to the gender opposite the one assigned at birth. Indeed some persons experience themselves as having both genders or neither gender.
Others are born intersex, which means that their biological bodies possess some configuration of both male and female organs, whether externally, internally, or both.
Rather than deride them we must seek first to love them and to hear them.
Create a committee of clergy, theologians, psychologists, therapists, laypersons, and especially Orthodox individuals who identify as transgender or intersex to study questions of gender identity and its relationship to the body.
The committee should be open to examining possibilities for blessing Orthodox transgender and intersex persons to form a monogamous, lifelong commitment with the partner of their choice.
The committee should also be tasked with formulating pastoral guidelines to present for the Assembly’s consideration.
The blanket excommunication of Orthodox Christians who present as transgender or intersex must cease.
5). Authorize, endorse, and sponsor—as an official, permanent ministry of the Assembly—an international support organization for Orthodox Christians who identify anywhere along the LGBTQI spectrum.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue stands prepared to offer our services to the Assembly, and to our brothers and sisters everywhere, to bring together a small committee to reach out to LGBTQI Orthodox Christians and begin laying the groundwork for this important ministry.
The term “dialogue” (along with its synonyms, “conversation” and “discussion” and “engagement”) seems to have taken its place alongside the proverbial terms “motherhood”, “apple pie”, and “the flag” as sacred and untouchable. It used to be that no one in their right mind would speak against this Trinity of American values, and now no one is allowed to suggest that anything bearing the sacred word “dialogue” should be viewed with suspicion. A commitment to dialogue is considered an essential part of civilization, and a sign of one’s tolerance, reasonableness, and open-mindedness. Anyone lacking a sufficient commitment to these modern virtues (the new Trinity of American values) is a fitting candidate for denunciation and insult. If you think this last sentiment is too strong, you probably do not own a computer or go online very much.
One could almost formulate a spiritual law that any site or online contribution which contains the D-word or its synonyms is pushing the same basic agenda. Take for example the site, “Orthodoxy in Dialogue” (with D-word prominently displayed) or the site “Public Orthodoxy” (which says that it “seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity”). Like other liberal sites these are dedicated to the destruction of traditional Orthodox belief and praxis. Obviously no site hoping to gain traction among fellow-Orthodox will advertise this agenda and goal. Like all deconstructionist movements, other softer terms must be found—usually using multi-syllabic words, which is almost always a bad sign.
There is no dialogue to be had. None. Nor is there an escape from confrontation. Orthodox bishops hate conflict, and would rather avoid it, but they have to draw a firm, clear line in the sand here. If they don’t, there is no doubt where this is going to take the Orthodox churches in the United States. Look at the Mainline Protestant churches. Look at what’s happening to many Catholic parishes and institutions, especially under this papacy.
To enter into this phony “dialogue” is to prepare to surrender. There can be no surrender. There must not be surrender. But listen: if you’re a priest or a deacon, and think you can avoid taking a stand, you had better wise up. As the pro-gay Protestant theologian David Gushee wrote in 2016:
It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.
Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.
He’s right. He’s on the other side of the issue from me, but he’s right. The Orthodox bishops must step up and defend Christian orthodoxy within Orthodoxy. They have to hold the line. Neutrality and avoidance — peace at any price — is surrender.