I don’t know what to do about homosexuality. What I do know, however, is that what I have written here is my understanding of what God and Christ would have us do, according to the scriptures, sacraments, and saints of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps I am wrong in my understanding of Christianity and Orthodoxy. Perhaps Orthodoxy is wrong in its understanding of God, Christ, and humanity. Millions of people, heterosexual and homosexual, certainly think so. Whatever the truth, and whatever God’s will for us creatures, I live with the constant awareness that I will answer for what I have written here. I will answer before God. And, in a sense even more terrifying, I will answer before Sharon Underwood and her son, and my friend, and all who try to make sense of life in this world, and to do what is good and right for everyone.
I ask all people’s friendship and forgiveness.
–Fr. Thomas Hopko, from the original forward to Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections recently published in Ancient Faith Publishing’s updated edition of his book.
As I think about what an Eastern Orthodox discussion of homosexuality and gay marriage should look like, this forward by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko comes to mind. Fr. Thomas speaks with both humility and with confidence in his words, but more importantly he speaks knowing that he is talking about an issue that impacts real men and women who are trying to live their lives as best they know how. Recently the Eastern Orthodox Church has had a surge in official statements on gay marriage as a result of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision by the US Supreme Court.
While all of these statements were theologically accurate, most seem to be written with only a passing nod to pastoral care for the sexual minorities within their communities. Rather than engaging in the difficult conversation of what effective pastoral care for sexual minorities within the Orthodox Church could look like, I feel that they took the easy road and restated the same, already published, views again. The last thing I want is for the theology and tradition of the Church to change regarding the issue of same-sex erotic relationships, but the time has come to look at how the Church practically ministers to its LGBT members.
I have been a member of the Eastern Orthodox since I was baptized as an infant. My parents converted to the Orthodox Church, from a Presbyterian background, a few years before I was born. Baptized in a Greek parish, I was then raised in a Romanian parish until my family helped start an Antiochian mission church. While in college I attended a Greek Orthodox parish and was their primary Byzantine chanter for over four years. I now currently attend the Antiochian parish that family has attended for the last 11 years since its founding.
I have never, to my memory, heard a priest deliver an anti-gay sermon or preach publicly about homosexuality. This is both a good and a bad thing. It is good because unlike many of my Evangelical friends I never grew up having to endure homilies based on the culture wars, but it is also bad because I grew up feeling like my personal struggles were so far out of the norm that they were unspeakable. Apart from a few summer camp priests at Antiochian Village, my priest at the Greek parish during my undergrad was my first confessor who knew about my gay orientation and who I felt safe with.
When I was a teenager I knew two things were true about me: that I deeply loved my Orthodox Church and the relationship with Christ she guided me towards, and that I was deeply romantically, sexually, and emotionally attracted to other men. Navigating the intersection of these two desires became the main focus of my energies and pursuit. I knew that I was committed to the Church’s understanding that the sacrament of marriage is the only hallowed context for genital sexual expression and that the sacrament of marriage is reserved to one man and one woman.
Apart from Fr. Thomas Hopko’s little book, there were (and are) no respected Eastern Orthodox resources on how it might look for me to live as a same-sex orientated man, and as a faithful Orthodox Christian. I quickly sought out and found support from the growing body of Evangelical, Catholic, and Anglican resources and ministries. Ministries like First Light in St. Louis, where I have been involved both as a support group member and as a group leader, provide support groups for same-sex attracted Christians. Books like Wes Hill’s, Washed and Waiting, were especially significant as I began to be more public and thoughtful about my sexuality. Over the years I’ve become friends with many of the men and women who are working to help the traditional Christian church live out its sexual theology in a life giving way. Without the work of my non-Orthodox friends and communities, my own continued faith and sustained convictions would not have been possible.
One of the first steps members of the Eastern Orthodox community can take to begin more constructively ministering to the sexual minorities in their midst is to reach to resources outside of the Church. Non-Orthodox men and women like Ron Belgau, Wes Hill, Eve Tushnet, and Mark Yarhouse are doing the bulk of the current constructive thinking on these issues. Knowledge of their contributions is a basic starting point before any discussion of homosexuality in Eastern Orthodox circles. Many Orthodox are comfortable with their conservative non-Orthodox neighbors when it comes to pro-life or anti-gay marriage statements and political rallies, but fail to listen to their non-Orthodox neighbors on other common concerns.
The second step the Church can take is to actively engage with the stories of the sexual minorities within the Church. While there are only a few of us who are public about both our sexuality and our Eastern Orthodox faith, we do exist and our experiences and witness need to be taken seriously. To understand any issue that impacts a minority people group it is most productive, and wise, to include the voices of the impacted minorities that exist within the community.
I was so thankful a few years ago when I was invited by an east coast chapter of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (a college ministry) to speak alongside Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA (Orthodox Church in America) on the topic of sexuality, in order for the participants to learn from my experiences. Opening up our parishes and communities to hear from the lives of our members regardless of their story, can go a long way towards building communities that are vulnerable. This will expand far beyond the testimony of LGBT faithful.
A third step the Church can begin to take is to theologically examine the place of single people who are “in the world.”
The Church has long recognized marriage and vocational celibacy as the two avenues of call within the church, but when a calling to marriage or to the monastic life isn’t present, what then? I know some gay Eastern Orthodox Christians who have felt a calling to pursue celibacy as monastics and to find community in a monastery.
I have also known people who felt that God was calling them to a romantic relationship with the opposite sex in the context of marriage. Non-Orthodox like Kyle Keating, and Brian Gee have given us examples of this life.
But, many LGBT and single people who are Orthodox Christians will find themselves called towards neither path, and instead will try and make their way living in the world as members of a parish community. Providing support for communal living and intentional community is but one possibility that should be more seriously considered by the Church.
A fourth step, and probably the most important, is for the Eastern Orthodox hierarchy and clergy to set aside their fear of speaking publicly about sexuality and begin opening up our communities to conversations that are real and difficult, but so necessary for the life of our Church. Our hierarchy and clergy have wasted so much time on jurisdictional issues and our own petty and sinful infighting, all the while their flocks are wandering, left to deal with most of the pressing contemporary concerns on their own.
By merely restating the same positions it gives the impression that there are no longer any compelling pastoral issues that need to be addressed and often to many of us faithful gay Orthodox Christians it looks like laziness. Our bishops are too scared, or busy with other things, to take the time to listen to our voices and to help us move beyond the theology we already agree with, and to help us discern how we should live our lives, not just what we should avoid. Eve Tushnet’s belief that we need to have so much more than a “vocation of no.”
I could continue but will leave the list at four things for now. I like Fr. Hopko do not hold all of the answers. My own life is enough of a struggle to daily seek, serve, and please God. I am hoping to eventually serve my Orthodox Church through my skills as a counselor and to help others in their personal struggles.
I am also aware that by publishing posts like this and the others that I’ve written, many within the Church might become wary of me. I have several friends who are faithful celibate gay Catholics and Protestants who have lost jobs and opportunities merely because of their sexual orientation. I am willing to pay this price if my life as a sexual minority, pursuing celibacy within the Orthodox Church, is some how able to begin shifting the conversation in a more pastorally sensitive and person centered direction.
I offer my life and my story, and what knowledge I have in service of the Church that I love. I ask forgiveness if my brashness and directness has offended anyone. I pray that even if you disagree with something I’ve said, that you will be willing to sit in your uncomfortableness for just a few minutes and try and understand what my life, and the lives of other Christian sexual minorities, looks like. I don’t ask you to provide all the answers but to simply walk with people like me as we try and understand our lives as sexual minorities who are committed to orthodoxy. Through the prayers of our holy fathers and mothers, may Christ our God have mercy on us and save us.
Gregg is currently finishing a graduate degree in Counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO. He is a member of All Saints of North America, Antiochian Orthodox Church. He can be followed on Twitter Follow @eleisonblog and contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.