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.