I don’t write a lot in this space about the Orthodox Church because there are so few Orthodox in the US that we never make news. And there are so few of us that social science research is not often done on us. But I do have something this week to write about.
At Fordham University, a couple of Greek Orthodox academics run an Orthodox Christian Study Center. One of the projects of the center (unofficially) is to bring the Orthodox Church in line with contemporary secular beliefs about LGBT. Having observed how “dialogue” with progressive has worked in Mainline Protestant churches and to some degree in the Catholic Church, I want nothing to do with this. In my view, the process begins with progressives saying they simply want to talk. Conservatives/traditionalists agree to participate in a spirit of openness. What they have done, though, is grant progressive revisionists standing. Having done so, the progressives never, ever give up, until they have achieved power within the organizational structures in the church. And then they decide that dialogue is over, that the Holy Spirit has spoken — and the trads get booted out.
In my jaundiced view, “dialogue” is a con. On LGBT matters, if Orthodox progressives wanted to dialogue on how the Orthodox Church can better help LGBT Orthodox believers and their families live out the truth the Church has always taught about human sexuality (homo- and hetero-), then absolutely, let’s do it. But if what’s at stake is whether or not to change the Church’s teaching, then there’s nothing to talk about.
I hear from time to time in the Orthodox online world certain traditionalist/conservative priests and laymen saying that the Orthodox Church will not change its teachings in this area, as if it were set in stone. I disagree. I mean, I agree with them that the teaching is so strong, and of such antiquity, that it should be difficult to change. But what this doesn’t take into account is the beliefs of the laity. According to Pew research, nearly two out of three Orthodox Christians in the US believe that homosexuality “should be accepted” by society, and 54 percent believe in gay marriage. Now, “should be accepted” is a fuzzy term. Does it mean that society should recognize the existence of gay people and their dignity? If so, I would say “yes.” Does it mean that homosexuality should be accepted as morally unproblematic? In that case, I would say “no.” So which is it? Pew’s question is vague. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that most Orthodox Christians in the US — quite unlike Orthodox Christians in every other country but Greece — follow the general liberal social line on homosexuality.
The Orthodox Church does not have a formal Magisterium, like Catholicism, so absent an ecumenical council — which we haven’t had in many centuries — there’s no formal body to proclaim formal teaching on faith and morals binding on all Orthodox, everywhere. Besides, what any church formally teaches, and what is accepted by its believers, are not the same thing. The Catholic Church formally teaches that homosexuality is morally disordered, but only a minority in the US Catholic Church believe it. Father James Martin would not be a celebrity and a papal adviser if the Catholic Church really believed what it formally teaches. My sense is that Orthodoxy in America is pretty much like Catholicism in this way, though it’s much easier to find data on Catholics.
As I’ve long said, the views a Christian church takes on homosexuality cannot be divorced from the views it takes on heterosexuality. My general sense is that the Orthodox Church in this country doesn’t want to be bothered with this stuff. It is satisfied with being the middle class at prayer, like most everybody else. I say “general sense” because I can think of notable exceptions — parishes, priests, and laypeople who really are trying to be countercultural in ways that are faithful to Scripture and tradition. The point I’m trying to make here is that despite the Orthodox Church’s reputation for moral and cultural conservatism, I don’t have a lot of confidence that that reputation is justified in the US, outside of particular parishes and among particular priests who dare to explain and defend Orthodoxy’s teaching (e.g., Father Mark Hodges).
I could be wrong, and believe me, I welcome substantive data showing that I am wrong. But I don’t think I am. It’s not so much that the Orthodox Churches are liberal — though some priests and parishes are — as that they are inert and passive on these massively important questions of human sexuality and identity in the 21st century. Conservatives within the Church are unquestionably right about the weight of traditional teaching, but I think they overestimate the ability of tradition to resist the overwhelming power of the culture outside the Church. Flannery O’Connor said that Christians have to push back as hard against the world as the world pushes against them. I love being Orthodox, but it is not my impression that Orthodoxy in America, as an ecclesial body, is interested in pushing back against anything, or is even interested in recognizing that the Church is being pushed — shoved, really — at all.
If Orthodox bishops and others don’t participate in these “dialogues” with pro-LGBT Orthodox because they don’t believe that Orthodox teaching is up for revision, I applaud that. But if they don’t participate because they don’t recognize that the Orthodox Church had better have something to say on the issues, or they don’t know what to say themselves, then we have a problem. A big problem. You can change the teaching of a church as much by your silence — what you don’t say — as by what you do.
The Fordham Orthodox recently helped to bring together a conference in England as part of their “Bridging Voices” project.About 50 or so Orthodox clergy and laity gathered for an unofficial dialogue about LGBT issues within the church. I saw on the list some names I recognize as liberals on the matter, and at least one name I recognize as a traditionalist: David Bradshaw, an academic philosopher at the University of Kentucky.
Prof. Bradshaw posted some comments on his Facebook page after the event. He has made them public, which means that I can quote them. Here they are:
Some friends have been asking about the recent conference on Orthodoxy & LGBT issues at Oxford. I wasn’t planning to post anything about this, but rumors spread quickly and I can understand that, given the current situation, people’s nerves are on edge. So here are a few clarifications & what were, for me, some take-aways.
1. The purpose of the conference was merely to talk & listen to one another. No action was proposed or taken.
2. We operated under Chatham House rules, which means that I cannot attribute specific views to individuals. However, there were also some video interviews recorded for posting on the internet, and I happened to be present when Metropolitan Kallistos (who was the only hierarch at the conference) was interviewed. He stated categorically that the Church’s teaching is that sex belongs only in marriage and that marriage can exist only between a man and a woman. (For what it’s worth, I repeated this in my own interview.) Yes, many people at the conference don’t like this teaching and wish it could be changed, but they made no serious argument against it on biblical or theological grounds.
3. For me, the biggest take-away was learning of the extent of violence in Russia & East European countries against LGBT persons. For instance, we were told about a group in Russia called Occupy Pedophilia that uses dating websites to lure gays into a trap. Having done so, they beat them, humiliate them (e.g., by urinating on them) and then seize their phones to “out” them to friends & family. There were numerous other such examples. Of course I can’t vouch that they’re all correct, but if even a fraction are then there is a serious problem. It’s especially a problem for Orthodox since Orthodox clergy participate in anti-gay rallies and have been slow to denounce the violence.
4. People don’t go to such extreme measures for no reason. Unfortunately there was no discussion of what has happened in recent years that would provoke the Russians & East Europeans to such extreme reactions. This was, in my opinion, a major shortcoming of the conference.
5. Another take-away for me was a better understanding of what it is like to grow up gay even in western countries. Several speakers emphasized the self-hatred, loneliness, and strong temptation to hate God that emerge as one begins to realize that one is (by the rules of the Church) condemned to a life of celibacy. They also emphasized that it’s not just sex that’s at stake, but the possibility of a long-term relationship of intimacy with anyone on all levels–physical, emotional, intellectual, social, & spiritual. Having listened to several such stories, I can only say that I sympathize completely and all of us need to do our best to help people who are facing this dreadful challenge.
6. That being said, I think there was some tendency among the gays present not to see that much of what they describe is universally human. Several of us pointed out that heterosexuals, too, can be involuntarily celibate for all sorts of reasons and often struggle with loneliness & depression. This is NOT to minimize what the gays suffer, it is merely to point out that there is a natural human tendency to think that one’s own problems are worse than anyone else’s. Oddly enough, it’s precisely the dissolution of churches & other institutions caused, in part, by the LGBT movement that is helping cause the pervasive loneliness throughout society today.
7. We also discussed the growing problem of gender dysphoria. One thing I learned was that gender dysphoria correlates strongly with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and that both in turn correlate strongly with the age of the father. Basically, as men get older their sperm is more likely to break down. Now it’s a feature of our society that people are getting older & having children at later ages. That isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, but it’s one reason why we’re seeing such a huge upsurge of these problems. (I also think that social suggestion & reinforcement play a role, but unfortunately this wasn’t discussed in any systematic way.)
8. In general the discussion of gender dysphoria was less one-sided than that of gay issues. However, one thing that was missing was any discussion of to what extent those who undergo transition later regret their decision and in other ways continue to suffer serious psychological problems. Without these crucial facts it’s hard to know what to think about the larger issues.
9. Finally, another take-away was that I think I now understand why those on the left on LGBT issues can be so virulent and hateful toward those on the right. They literally think that we are causing innocent people to despair and in some cases commit suicide because of our antiquated beliefs. We have, in their eyes, blood on our hands. I’m grateful to those at the conference who explained this forthrightly, as I really hadn’t understood it before.
10. Of course, whether such a charge is justified depends on whether our beliefs really are just “antiquated” or might actually be true. This is all the more reason why the Church needs to explain & defend its teaching. In my opinion, our hierarchs have been making matters worse by their silence, as they merely succeed in giving everyone the impression that the Church has nothing to say in its own defense. Ergo the hatred appears to be fully justified.
My apologies for the length of this post. Please understand that, like everyone else, I am still learning about these matters and I don’t claim to have all the answers. If you are offended by anything I’ve said here, take comfort that those on the other side are probably equally offended, and so you are in good (bad?) company.
I appreciate Prof. Bradshaw’s report here, and I emphatically endorse this statement of his:
In my opinion, our hierarchs have been making matters worse by their silence, as they merely succeed in giving everyone the impression that the Church has nothing to say in its own defense.
Not only hierarchs, but priests and lay leaders. Orthodox hierarchs have the habit of thinking that if they get together and issue an official statement, that they have done their duty. It’s not true. Meanwhile, there are some who know perfectly well that members of their clergy are living in, shall we say, irregular sexual situations (I’m thinking of a situation at one bishop’s cathedral that is an open secret in the US Orthodox Church), or who otherwise just don’t want the hassle of having to take unpopular positions in public, especially when it stands to offend donors from the wealthy laity.
I also emphatically endorse Prof. Bradshaw’s condemnation of the abuse and persecution of gays in Russia via things like “Operation Pedophilia.” I had not realized things like that were happening. Orthodox clergy and laity must hold the line on moral and theological truth, but if they can’t condemn cruelty against gays, who are made in the image of God like every other human being, then they have no moral authority.
The conference heard from a gay British man, Nik Jovcic-Sas, whose talk (audio here) focused on violence against gays in Orthodox cultures. It was he who spoke about the “Operation Pedophilia.” He is quite right to denounce this, and to say that the Orthodox hierarchy should be speaking out against this violence. There’s a lot in this talk that I agree with, no kidding. But he blames the Russian Orthodox hierarchy for this violence in part because it upholds traditional teaching about homosexuality.
This is how Jovcic-Sas identifies himself on his Instagram page:
Drag queen, vampire — and speaker in the Oxford dialogue. Here’s Nic, from his Instagram:
Again, I completely agree with Jovcic-Sas about the critical importance of Orthodox hierarchs and priests denouncing violence against LGBTs. But if you look at his Instagram page, it’s … well, let’s say charitably that there’s a lot there that conveys the message that this guy is not living the life of an Orthodox Christian. I like eccentrics a lot, but I question whether or not self-styled vampire drag queens have the moral standing to direct the future of the Orthodox Church.
I recognize that argumentum ad hominem is a fallacy. NJS’s exuberant and unconventional lifestyle does not negate the claims he made in his talk, which stand or fall on their own. NJS did a good thing by making the kind and extent of anti-LGBT violence in many Orthodox countries known to these church folks. I do struggle, though, with whether or not it’s wise to for “orthodox Orthodox” to grant standing to people like this who explicitly and vehemently deny the Church’s teaching, and want to see it overturned.
By his presence, Prof. Bradshaw seems to believe that orthodox-Orthodox need to participate in these events, even if we oppose the agenda of many there. I respect his judgment, but I don’t share it. I am willing to be convinced otherwise, though. If I thought that the theological progressives at this conference came away from it with as much thoughtfulness for the conservatives’ position as Bradshaw emerged with regard to the progressives’ position, I would feel more favorable about these events. My view, to repeat, is that progressives see them only as attempts to lift the skirt of a tent so the camel won’t have as much trouble getting his nose under it. Or, to use a less cliched metaphor, the conference’s project is about “building bridges,” but I fear that the bridges it intends to build will exist to provide an invading heterodox army access to the territory it wishes to conquer.
Here’s the thing I want my fellow Orthodox readers to take away from this post. It’s Prof. Bradshaw’s remark:
This is all the more reason why the Church needs to explain & defend its teaching.
There is no way that people who have their minds made up to reject church teaching are going to be convinced. But I’m betting that there are a lot of people who reject what they have never heard explained in the first place. And I’m betting there are people who would genuinely be open to the church’s teaching, if they ever heard it proclaimed.
I have an Orthodox friend who is homosexually oriented but chaste. He came out to me because he knows that I share his belief in the teaching of the Church, but also because he could trust me to love him and show compassion for him, and to help him carry his crosses, as I trust him to help me carry mine. When I heard Nik Jovcic-Sas talk about what happens to some gay people in Russia and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, I thought about my friend — a believing Christian who lives faithfully to the teaching, but who, if he confided in the wrong person, could be physically attacked. This is wrong, and must stop.
But my friend will tell you, if you ask, about how and why the Church’s teachings and her sacraments and disciplines help him to strive for holiness in the only way that faithful Orthodox Christians can: in chastity. If he were to seek help from these Orthodox Church progressives, I have a pretty good feeling that they would try to dissuade him from this hard path of fidelity. Gay Christians like my friend are caught between conservatives who would loathe them for their unchosen desires, and progressives who would disdain them for their commitment to chastity in fidelity.
As far as I’m concerned, the real LGBT dialogue that needs to happen in the Orthodox Church is about how to actively love and support men and women like my Orthodox friend, and to help others who struggle with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria to find a loving home within the Orthodox Church, without affirming sinfulness. To be honest, there also should be a dialogue within the Orthodox Church on how to help heterosexuals in the same way. The propaganda of this hedonistic world is constant; far too many leaders in my church, the Orthodox Church, prefer to believe that it doesn’t exist.
I welcome your comments, but if you’re only going to rant, save yourself the waste of posting, because I’m not going to approve it.
UPDATE: I mean it: I’m seeing a lot of comments by readers who aren’t Christian, and who don’t have the foggiest idea of what Christianity teaches, or why it teaches it, but who are ready to condemn the Orthodox for not being sufficiently progressive. I’ve approved a few of those comments, I think, but I’m done with that. I’m fine with publishing criticism of the traditional Orthodox position, but not dopey potshots.
UPDATE.2: A reader sends in this terrific, detailed response to an “open letter” issued by a small group called Orthodoxy In Dialogue last fall. The responder is the Orthodox priest Father Andrew Stephen Damick, who pushes back intelligently against the revisionists. After answering the (frankly outrageous) demands made by the OID people, Father Damick writes:
To be quite frank, I don’t think that the website in question is generally worth responding to or even reading, not just because their articles so often contradict the teachings of Christ and His Church but because they make a pretense at academic integrity which they rarely have. But this seemed like an opportune moment to reiterate a few of these things.
I know that reiterating the Church’s teachings on these things will be received by some as hateful, insensitive, etc. But it is not. It is love to speak reality and to embrace someone however he presents himself.
And let me state unequivocally that I absolutely reject mistreating anyone on account of their personal identification with any of the issues mentioned above — no one should be condemned, bullied, harmed, ridiculed, rejected, etc. Every person who comes to the Church must be treated with love, care, understanding, an orientation toward listening, support and blessing. All this is toward the goal given by Christ Himself, in the words of the apostle:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)
This is the true ascetical struggle — not to believe our thoughts and feelings on their face, but to present ourselves as living sacrifices to the Lord and to be healed of our addictions and sinful inclinations, aware that while they may never fully disappear in this life, there is nevertheless the possibility to be conformed to Christ, to be transformed in the renewing of our minds and to be made holy by His love.
OID takes standard progressive positions on LGBT issues. Father Damick is a great example of the kind of engaged Orthodox apologetics and leadership we need. Check his website out here.
UPDATE.3: A reader who is a Catholic parish priest (an orthodox one) said that he presents the issue of homosexuality this way to his parishioners. It strikes me as very wise:
Regarding Scripture and its interpretation, I offer this: there is a way to introduce Scripture into the discussion which does not rest mainly on specific texts (such as Romans I or Leviticus). After all, people counter these with, “Well, what Paul was talking about when he discussed homosexuality is not the situation we have today.” Or, “but there are other things commanded in the Old Law that you don’t require today.”
What I do is point to Scripture and say, “The Bible is not a book. It is a library of books, of different genres, with many different authors, composed in varying circumstances over many hundreds of years. What is remarkable about this is that these books, from Genesis to Revelation, propound a vision of human sexuality and its meaning, and of human nature, which is completely consistent. The understanding of the mystery of human sexuality deepens over those centuries, but essentially it is one seamless thread, with earlier practices such as polygamy and divorce yielding over time as the Spirit led God’s People into all Truth. It is quite clear what the teaching of Scripture is on human nature and the gift of human sexuality, and it is not consistent to try to make the teaching say something it is not saying. Christianity is not just a religion: it is a revelation. It’s not a matter of us looking at each other and saying, “Let’s figure out how we should live.” It’s a matter of listening to God’s Word, hearing it, understanding it; not of us trying to make it say something more acceptable to the voices of our age.