The recent debate surrounding the essay “Conjugal Friendship” by Giacomo Sanfilippo has yet again reminded me of a the importance of dialogue surrounding sexual minorities in the Orthodox Church. I’m not an expert in the theology of Florensky so I will leave the theological particulars to Sanfilippo and other theologians. I do have experience though in how the Church discusses sexual minorities and interacts with the LGBT community. I have read a few critiques and seen several posts by Orthodox writers and clergy reacting to the post on “Conjugal Friendship.” Most seem to be reading into his essay or assuming the worst about it and lamenting what they see as just another attack on the Church’s steadfast commitment to the traditional sacrament of marriage. I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few reflections on how we as a Church can better discuss the various paths available to sexual minorities within the Church rather than Sanfilippo’s specific content or that of his critics.
What I took away from Sanfilippo’s essay was less the specific arguments or case he makes for developing an Orthodox theology of Same-Sex love, and more the fact that he is attempting to find paths of living for sexual minorities within the church. As both a gay man and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I wrestle daily to try and figure out what I am called by my church to surrender and to give up. I am constantly reminded of all that I am asked to forsake at the Church’s request of fidelity to its, and my own, understanding of same-sex sexual expressions. I don’t need to be reminded that the path my heart most naturally is inclined towards, that of pursuing a husband and a family in a same-sex partnership, is not available to me. I don’t need to be reminded that I am called daily towards chastity and celibacy and to remain steadfast in following all that the Church teaches related to sexual intimacy. I know these things all too well and those battles within my heart rage continually. I need no reminders of these battles or allegiances.
What I do need however, and what I think attempts like Sanfilippo’s are grasping at, is an idea of what exactly I am called to as a gay Orthodox Christian. My life must be about more than forsaking romantic relationships, refraining from sex, and fidelity to the Church’s teachings. I need to walk with people who are more educated in the life of the Church and more knowledgeable of God to help me figure out just what I can do with these circumstances I have found myself in. I need to try and understand how I am able to find a place in the Church where I am able to flourish and become more than a reminder of all that we are asked to give up for the sake of Christ. By embracing celibacy in light of my sexual orientation I must be embracing more than the absence of sex. What exactly can I do with my life and my love within the Church? How can my love be a good gift to God? Like all of humankind I possess desires for connection, intimacy, and love. These human traits are part of how I reflect my creator God who formed us out of love for a purpose. What pathways and avenues are open to me to express these God-given desires in ways that are pleasing to God and His Church?
We need priests, theologians, and friends who are willing to come alongside those of us struggling within the Church to know our lives and to be both challenged by and influenced by our lives. Frequently I am given advice or counsel that comes as a quick response to a one dimensional appraisal of my life. It becomes difficult for me to trust in any advice I’ve received that isn’t both aware of and challenged by my heartbreak, my love, and my circumstances. I need older and wiser men and women to offer up their unique talents and knowledge in a desire to both know me, and many like me, and to use their influence and understanding to help shape a vision for our place within the Church. Impersonal knowledge and theology is offered in abundance via blogs, essays, and podcasts, but rarely reflects the actual lives of those most directly impacted. I have regularly offered my life, my stories, and my pain as a gift to the Church in an attempt to provide a public example to encourage more person-centered discussions. It is hard for me to trust that you know what is best for my heart if you have never sat and grieved with me and come to any real knowledge of my heart.
Essays like Sanfilippo’s offer an opportunity to have a conversation about how sexual minorities are called to find their place in the Church. I don’t know if he is asking for the Church to set aside it’s theology of sex and gender. But he is certainly offering a potential avenue that responds to the question, “How should we then live?”
I have borrowed the phrase, “How Should We Then Live?” from Francis Schaeffer’s book, available here: http://a.co/7YJXJjO.
That there is confusion about the ‘conjugal friendship’ essay I think is not a mystery to many of its readers.
Neologisms are familiar to those in the psychiatric profession as being words or expressions newly created whose meanings are unknown even by the speaker!
And so ‘conjugal friendship’ an ambiguous expression, never clearly defined by the author, and indeed to my mind a neologism. A cleverly disguised post-modern expression substituting for same sex union which is at least easily understood.
The author goes on to describe a same sex relationship that borders on unhealthy enmeshment which I see so common in the gay community.
If we want to endear ourselves to our traditional church language familiar and easy to understand by all would be more inviting.
True. That said, the “traditional church language” is far more indebted to Freudian social theory than it is to anything biblical.
Evan773, sad to say you are on the mark!
Today’s church leaders revere psychology. So much so that so-called Christian counselling is nothing more than Freudian et al and Biblical counselling is passé! This is the issue that frustrates Gregg. While sharing his heart he gets cerebral platitudes. Biblical mentorship is more heart centric — more shared tears, shoulder to shoulder silent walks, and tender embraces.
Yeah, I think it’s that. But Freudian social theory also comes into play via the baptizing of familialism (an invention of early-20th-century social theorists) as something biblical.
Sadly, the arguments on both sides concerning the propriety of committed same-sex relationships in the church are more deeply indebted to secular psychology than anything else. Those who promote the church’s acceptance of such relationships generally do so by relying on the post-1960s focus on sentimentalism and therapeutic benefit. Those who oppose the church’s acceptance of such relationships generally do so by relying on pre-1960s notions of “natural” gender-role hierarchies.
What we’re basically witnessing is a battle between 1950s pop psychology and 1990s pop psychology. The writers here provide a welcome respite from that. In the Reformed evangelical context where I grew up, patriarchal notions of “biblical manhood and womanhood” are central to people’s “Christian” self-understanding. In denominations like the PCA, notions of compulsory heterosexuality are as central to theological orthodoxy as forensic justification.
That places traditionalists in a precarious spot, especially in a culture that places the burden of persuasion on the party seeking to restrict another’s conduct. The revisionists merely have to demonstrate the weakness of the traditionalist position. That’s not too hard, given that the traditionalist position represents little more than a Christianized variant of Freudian social theory.
Thank you, Gregg. You are so right and have sufficiently challenged me! So much of Church life, in my 14 years experience as a priest, seems to encourage silence and anonymity, making relationships difficult. For example, the typical responses, from what I can tell, of many priests to a gay Catholic seeking pastoral care is often a referral to Courage and pastoral advice focused on the sacramental and devotional life (which is true and necessary), but little by way of discussion of vocation, community and friendships. This is insufficient, to say the least. I will be working on the challenge issued by your piece. Peace be with you and thank you for your good writing. -Fr. James
Ah, I get your drift. ‘Traditionist’ has negative connotation for you. And for good reason given the current schisms based on sundry popular psychologies none based on true science.
It was the same reason Pontius Pilate scoffed “what is Truth!” when Jesus claimed to be on the side of Truth.
I would use traditionist in the literal sense as being on the side of Truth which is not determined by putting one’s finger to the wind but something more absolute and preceding Freud.
Was Jesus a traditionalist? I would say yes because when questioned on marriage Jesus went to the Beginning where God made them male and female by a specific precise fashion being needlessly intricate given that He already had a mold from which the first was created. There was purpose for that something the present traditionists of whom you speak do not contemplate.
I think Jesus has much good to say about same gender attraction and what is true about gay people but few good things about the modern church.
Yes, I’m using “traditionalist” in a negative sense to distinguish it from the word “traditional.”
There is a traditional Christian understanding of marriage. Those precepts are set forth, for example, in Peter Leithart’s superb piece in First Things, “Intrusive Third Parties.” But conservative Protestants have largely rejected the traditional understanding of marriage, and have opted for an ideology of marriage constructed around notions of compulsory heterosexuality. I refer to this ideology as “traditionalist.”
Gregg, I don’t know what you mean: “By embracing celibacy”? Sounds like it’s difficult work for you? I did that for years hating every minute of it…
Yet, celibacy is a gift which is to be “accepted”. Any gift from God is good and should not be hard to accept like salvation another good gift. We see this with Jesus and Paul who do not lament that celibacy is hard to accept.
If hard, maybe no such gift is offered! That was the conclusion of my own life that God was not giving me celibacy and so that problem was my own creation…
Every gift from God is certainly good but this doesn’t mean that it has to “feel good” to us.
Then it is not a good gift Rosa which implies God is not good which is probably not what you meant. That leaves the receiver of the gift as the problem and not wanting the gift. Then the receiver should ask God to take it back in exchange for a spouse. Would God do that? Jesus didn’t make the celibacy gift compulsory as He said: “He who is able to accept” meaning that one can marry by praying and asking for a spouse.
Marry a person of the opposite sex.
But about God’s gifts I have an analogy. When I discipline my daughter I’m giving her a gift. I give her my caring and my concern and the gift of my vast experience in live compare to hers. I’m being a good mother but most of the times, if not all, she doesn’t appreciate this gift. She doesn’t like it. It doesn’t feel good to her. Nonetheless it is good and necessary. So is with God’s gifts.
Thanks you for this Gregg 🙂
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