BOOK REVIEW OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
BY THE REV. DR. JOHN CHRYSSAVGIS
Originally published in Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Vol. 55, no. 3 (2011). Republished on Inclusive Orthodoxy with permission from the editor.
Justin R. Cannon (ed.), Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church. Self-published, Createspace: 2011.116 pages. $12.00 (paper).
There are some topics that Orthodox Christians are singularly uncomfortable about broaching—even if it is simply to affirm their outright rejection and unqualified condemnation—and homosexuality is certainly among them. Indeed, any questions in general related to sexuality or gender—including the nature of homosexuality, or the divorce of clergy, or even the ordination of women—are subjects that arouse much passionate emotion but little rational exploration within theological and especially ecclesiastical circles.
This has always astonished, if not perturbed me, because it is not as if these issues are either absent or even diminishing in our society and church. Indeed, one of my gravest concerns over the years is that the oppression of homosexuality and silence on sexual issues in a hierarchical institution, such as the Orthodox Church, not only results from unjustifiable and unacceptable ignorance and prejudice. It also results in the church's complicity in discrimination as well as the church's reticence concerning sexual abuse in our own communities. Saying we hate the sin but love the sinner can sometimes be rejection masquerading as acceptance. It is, after all, so much easier to label than to listen.
This is why I was pleased to see the publication of this edited collection of stories and reflections about homosexuality. The editor is proactive in encouraging dialogue and discussion about this complex, albeit controversial topic; he is also the author of a small study on biblical perspectives on the subject that appears in an edited version toward the end of this book and the manager of a website dedicated to "inclusive orthodoxy." As he correctly observes in the introduction: "We cannot explore the issue of homosexuality without hearing the life, stories, and witness of faithful, Orthodox Christians who happen to be gay." (12)
The book contains four such stories, with names changed to safeguard the anonymity of the individuals: by Helena, whose gay son was painfully rejected and spitefully ostracized; by Barry, for whom prejudice and exclusion on the part of a parish priest led to further traumatic confusion and harrowing anguish; by Matthew, whose raw honesty and heartfelt confession sparked a long soul-searching journey for healing and wholeness; and by Elizabeth, whose disclosure and divorce were ultimately only reconciled in theological reading and support groups in "some seemingly 'unorthodox' faith communities." (42)
There is no doubt that their stories cry out for hearing and healing. And there are surely numerous others. We will doubtless be judged by God for failing to notice and to respond compassionately, instead opting to find security in easy scriptural texts and theological castigations. Both of these comprise a simplistic approach and perhaps provide a convenient way out. However, the Incarnation of God's Word that "assumed flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14) implies and imposes a messy spiritual wrestle and not a black-and-white pastoral response. After all, who among us can cast the first rational comment?
Part of the problem of ignoring homosexuality is that it will invariably be restricted to and debated in fringe groups, prompting spurn and dismissal of it and related issues by those in mainstream Orthodox churches and society. Hence, instead of including stories from clergy in recognized Orthodox churches, the editor resorts to leaders within communities unrecognized by most Orthodox churches who, as a result, may further ignore the issue.
The foundation and history of the support group for gays and lesbians, known as "Axios: Eastern and Orthodox Gay and Lesbian Christians"—originally in Los Angeles (1980), but then in other cities of the United States, as well as in Canada and Australia— is a sign of the "work, even suffering, [that must occur] through an honest orthopraxy on the issue." (80) However, even such an organization is forced to "carry the baton underground." (84)
Frankly, I remain unconvinced by the scriptural and terminological analysis provided in this book (87-113) that lends support to homosexuality, just as I am cynical of the simplistic parallels drawn between prejudice against homosexuals and the problems of anti-Semitism or slavery (62-65). Indeed, despite the truly fascinating and stimulating scholarship of John Boswell, whose work focused on religious understanding and social tolerance of homosexuality, I feel that it is a forced endeavor to re-imagine—if not re-invent—history for purposes of identifying the medieval rite of adelphopoiesis or "brotherhood ritual" (sometimes referred to as "adoption") with same sex marriage or union.
Still, the truth is that, as Orthodox Churches and as Orthodox Christians, we are going to have to discuss homosexuality with far greater candor and with far greater charity, admitting that the issue is far more prevalent among both laity and clergy on all levels and in all positions. After all, why would we be afraid of such an interchange ? Or what would we be afraid of in such an exchange? Seeking the way of God is not resorting to fear, but searching for compassion and honesty, especially among all the other dishonest places that we walk. We are called to strive for simple human decency—indeed, Christ-like decency—in a subject that is so often complicated by selfishness and pride, contempt and rejection, natural desire and degrading lust.
In that respect, I welcome the book as a first—and important, sometimes the most difficult—step in a long process of honest dialogue.
- The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis
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