Pinochio had Jiminy Cricket. I have Mary Evelyn Smith. She is apparently my conscience. I have been writing on gay marriage again, and it’s her fault click here if you want to know why I hate writing on gay marriage). Mary Evelyn posted an article by Maria McDowell on my Facebook timeline that raises some important questions about the way gay parishioners have to navigate life in the Orthodox Church.
Gay people in the Orthodox Church? Yes. We have them.
Some of my ecclesial kin surely already have a response to every issue McDowell raises. It goes something like, “We (the Orthodox Church) must continue to hold the line on our moral teaching. Gay people who come into our church must be counseled to pursue a life of celibacy. I know that seems hard and unfair, but life is not fair. We all have crosses to bear. Love the sinner. Hate the sin. Etc, etc.” [Yawn!]
I am not saying “No” to that answer, but I am not saying “Yes” to it either. This ready-made, neatly packaged response that makes some straight people nod like compliant bobble-heads is inadequate to the experiences of most LGBT people. That doesn’t mean the answer is wrong, mind you. It just means that the people who think that answer is sufficient need more gay friends. Basically, as pastoral theology, it sucks.
“Homosexuality” in Orthodoxy cannot be solved by finger-wagging, firm condemnations, or even
condescending sympathetic hugs. Nor can it be solved by pretending that this issue is simple and clear-cut. It isn’t. McDowell challenges us with the following:
We can argue endlessly over proof-texts from scripture or the tradition, wielding verses and canons and quotations like scalpels cutting out a cancer, or swords lopping off limbs. How many of us, though, stop to wonder what it is like to be a partnered lesbian woman or gay man in an Orthodox parish?
A gay Orthodox Christian may be “out” in public, but closeted to his church family. Or perhaps she is known only to her priests and a few select members of her parish. Some gay Orthodox Christians are in long-term relationships with their partners, others fully embrace the celibacy the church commends, while some are full of resentment as they try their best to swear off the affection people like me have the luxury of taking for granted.
LGBT people are not an issue. They are people, people who inhale the same incense and drink from the same cup as the rest of us. Yes, I will even say they are my sisters and brothers. Others may feel qualified to exclude them from the kingdom of God (and thus the true body of Christ). I do not. Love demands that I treat them as kin.
McDowell points out that when you are gay and Orthodox, nothing is mundane. I am about to have my house blessed after Epiphany/Theophany. Trying to work out a time for the priest to come by when everybody is home is difficult enough. I don’t have the added complication of guessing as to whether my priest would even be willing to bless my home (or baptize my child, etc.) Consider the fact that I can go out with “the fellas,” have a beer, and kvetch about my wife (not that I would, mind you!) without anybody suggesting that my relationship problems boil down to a deep spiritual disorder of which I need to repent. If you are gay and Orthodox, every sin and struggle comes back to your bedroom, and anything bad that happens to you is because something is terribly wrong with you.
By calling diseased, evil, disordered and destructive something that is experienced as a source of faith, hope and joy, we create a dissonance that is sometimes impossible to unhear.
I do not have any good answers about this. What I do have is gay friends, some of whom have taught me more about the love of Jesus than any straight person I have ever met. I have a hard time judging such people as unrighteous. Thankfully, Orthodoxy teaches me to focus on my own sins, which are legion. The unrighteousness of others is none of my business. My unrighteousness is always worse. I am only called to love.
Love is why I feel the need to keep raising this issue. Our dogmatic and pastoral theology are intertwined. How we conceive of sin, sex, marriage, nature, and so on informs how we treat other people. I am not suggesting that we take a hatchet to the teachings of the Orthodox Church and cut away the parts that we no longer find useful. Tradition is more complicated than that. I think the Orthodox scholar David Bell can help explain some of my concerns with this issue.
Orthodox Christians are obliged to accept the Tradition as it is at present, even though they may disagree with it, and it cannot be denied that although Tradition is a living and dynamic thing, and although it may be changed, it changes–if it changes at all–only very slowly. There are times when an aged and arthritic tortoise moves faster than the Orthodox Church.
For better or worse, I am riding the back of this tortoise. Orthodox theology does change, but it changes slowly. For me, the pace is part of the appeal. Bell continues, “Tradition can protect the Church. It can protect it from change which may be too hasty, too rash, or too individualistic.” Of course, I recognize that patience with the tradition is easy when you are straight.
Fr. Georges Florovsky was right when he said that faithfulness to our past demands re-thinking it in light of the present. The passage of time means that we have a very different understanding of same-sex desires than our ancient fathers and mothers, so faithfulness to our tradition demands that we stop trying to put the brakes on this tortoise! Tradition can protect the tradition from ideology, but it can also become an ideology. We can treat passages from the fathers in the same way that some Southern Baptists quote Scripture, which to me betrays a deep insecurity. I’m not sure we have faith if we keep giving in to the urge to protect it.
Orthodoxy can handle our inquiry. It can handle questions the fathers never had to deal with, questions like those raised by Fr. Robert Arida:
If the Church is going to respond to the legalization of same sex marriage/union it seems that it should begin by considering how to minister to those same sex couples who being legally married come with their children and knock on the doors of our parishes seeking Christ. Do we ignore them? Do we, prima facie, turn them away? Do we, under the rubric of repentance, encourage them to divorce and dismantle their family? Or, do we offer tem [sic], as we offer anyone desiring Christ, pastoral care, love and a spiritual home?
I am merely an academic theologian (not a true theologian). My scholarly focus is political theology. I do not have good answers. Heck! I barely know how to begin to ask the questions. But questions like Fr. Arida’s need to be asked, and we should not be afraid of where the inquiry might take us. We owe this much to our gay sisters and brothers. (Let me add that we also need to have this conversation with them and not merely about them.)
Some Orthodox lights have had the courage to do try to follow Florovsky’s counsel. I already noted Fr. Arida. There is also Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia! He has speculated about how monogamous gay people may live together and love each other. Of course, what he proposes is pretty tenuous. Most of our thinking about this LGBT stuff is. But tenuous speculation is better than silence because gay people are in and around our churches. They are not going away. What Fr. Arida describes above will happen if it has not happened already. How do we respond?