How Not to Talk about Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church

What to do about LGBTQ individuals connected with the Orthodox Church (or who want to be connected to the Orthodox Church) is the biggest doctrinal issue we are dealing with today. The pat answers we have are inadequate to the questions we have because, while the mechanics of same-sex acts have not changed over the centuries (or so I imagine), the social conditions under which same-sex desires and relationships are lived out are drastically different. In Greek times, same-sex acts were tantamount to child abuse. In Roman times, it was about the exercise of power. Degrees of condemnation varied in Christian Europe, ranging from scolding youthful mischief to prescribing penance for marital infidelity or fornication. It was not until the Victorian era that “homosexuality” came to be considered a kind of diagnosable and thus treatable condition.

The point is, for most of its history, the church thought of same-sex acts mostly in terms of the acts themselves, not the people doing them. Orthodoxy knows how to condemn fornication, under which homosexual acts of intercourse would be classified, but deploying Orthodox theology to “treat” the homosexual “condition” is anachronistic and unfaithful to the tradition. It is a Protestant reflex, I think, to take how one feels about something in the here-and-now and project it onto the past as the way it has always been (or always should have been sans the presence of corrupting influences). Perhaps this is why one often finds some of the sharpest condemnations coming from Orthodox Christians who have converted from other denominations.

During the Victorian era, and until fairly recently, individuals attracted to people of the same-sex were forced to take their “perversions” underground. (This was the way things were for much of the Victorian era, whether or not a person was gay. Talk of sex became “improper” in public, which only made people want to do “improper” things in private.) Now, two men or two women can live together in a relationship that would resemble any other “normal” marriage.

For younger people in particular, it seems “unfair” that the church should “discriminate” against good people because of who they want to have sex with. This is a new problem for the church—this sense of unfairness, at least when it comes to the LGBTQ. And it is one the church has so far failed to address successfully. If we want to see what happens if it continues in this failure, then we need only look at the Evangelicals, who are losing the younger generations precisely because of this issue.

Conservatives may want to blame society for its “permissiveness.” They may want to blame politicians or educators. Perhaps they can blame entertainment. All that is fine, but it does not change the fundamental fact that there is this question of why two men or women who love each other should be excluded from full participation in the life of the church. It may feel good in the short term to distract ourselves by blaming various institutions (or authors) for “stirring up trouble” or “sewing confusion,” but the trouble is already there. The confusion has already been sown. How or by whom doesn’t matter. All that is left now is to address it.

There are some who say that the Orthodox Church has addressed homosexuality, very clearly, and from the beginning. I insist that it has not, at least not beyond the biological “equipment” and the contexts in which they should be exercised. One very interesting question, for instance, has been raised about what to do in the case of a gay couple with a child, married in a civil ceremony, who then begin to attend an Orthodox parish. How does the priest respond with pastoral wisdom and sensitivity to such a family? Deny them the life-giving mysteries of Christ? Or require that the family be broken up first? I do not have a good answer to this, and as far as I am concerned when it comes to the replies that I have heard so far, neither does anybody else.

When one explains what one believes to be the “very clear” teachings of the church about “same-sex attraction,” and the audience fails to be convinced or still has other questions, the speaker has a couple of options. The first option is to say, “Well that person is just hard-hearted and stubborn.” Such a response is, in my opinion, prideful and unchristian. It lacks hope and humility. It gives up. I think a better response to not being understood by an audience is to be more charitable toward the audience and more critical with oneself. It is to say, “Well, I must not have explained myself very well, or there must be something about this situation I do not understand, so let me begin by asking you some questions.”

The second option is scarier because it is not possible to ask an audience questions if one thinks one already knows the answers. The second option is scarier because it demands that one be open to changing one’s mind. I would put forward that if that is out of the question for you, then stubbornness or hard-heartedness is not the other guy’s problem. It’s yours.

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