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.
©️ 2017 Gregg Webb
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. Continue reading
Copyright 2015 Gregg Webb
It has been a difficult season for me. I’ve been transitioning cities, working through heartbreak, living with nearly constant heartache, beginning the long-term career job hunt, and learning to live life without the basic structure provided by classes and coursework. Many of my friends are also struggling through difficult break-ups, divorce, depression, addiction, and deep loneliness. Life is difficult and it is messy, but it also has profound moments of beauty and restoration woven between the pain and lament.
Copyright 2012, Gregg Webb
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.
A common critique of celibate gay Christians is the perception that we attempt to swap out romantic intimacy for friendship. Instead of having same-sex romantic partners we simply have spiritual friends and too often are seen as playing a semantics game. I believe though, as do many of my fellow side-B Christians, that friendship was never meant to take the place of the intimacy that comes about in romantic relationship. Much of what we do is an attempt to celebrate the beauty and benefits of friendship as a good in and of itself and not as a new outlet for romantic and sexual desire. Friendship and relationships in general are not some equal alternative to marriage where finding the right partner becomes finding the right best friend. Friendship inherently makes room for not only the “other” in relationship but for others. I have quite a number of friends who I am quite close to. Some I live in close proximity to and others live thousands of miles away. Each is different and as a unique experience and relationship is worthy of celebrating. Like all relationships there are certain people with whom the bonds of friendship are especially close which allows for deep intimacy. Within an exceptionally close friendship there can exist the full sense of being known, being understood, and being cared for. But at no point in that relationship does my friend’s identity merge with mine. There is no “one flesh” aspect of friendship. This I think is the beauty of friendship and its contrast to a romantic and sexual relationship.
For one of my graduate school classes last year we learned to create lists of goals with a counseling client, a process called “goaling.” Our professor went through the process with a classmate and then asked each of us to break up into pairs and work through goaling with our partner. After dictating to my partner, a close friend of mine, we were instructed to begin talking through how to order them and to make sure they were just hard enough to be difficult but not so difficult as to be impossible. After doing this together I had assembled what I felt was a good list. It covered the major areas of my life: spiritual, educational, personal, and financial. My partner felt that after looking at my list something was missing. He didn’t say what he thought that could be other than that it just felt like my list was missing something. At that point it dawned on me the things that everyone else in my class’s list included but were missing from mine. So I leaned over to complete my list that he had been recording on his laptop and wrote the following at the top of my list:
- To marry the man I love.
- To have a family who is centered on Christ and that we would grow closer to Him and to each other.
- To have a home that is a refuge for many.
After writing these it took me a moment to absorb the shock of actually verbalizing these desires. My friend was then satisfied that I had written an honest list rather than merely the list I felt I should write. After looking at it for a moment I then deleted the three additions and left the list as it was originally.
Copyright 2015 Gregg Webb
Copyright Gregg Webb 2012
There are a number of factors that contribute to my conservative views as a celibate-gay Christian. The traditional view of marriage that I’ve held my whole life rests on several things and goes beyond the main passages of scripture that are so often brought up. Scripture is of course foundational for many of my beliefs regarding my sexuality as are the consistent teachings of the Church for over two millennia; they aren’t however the strongest day to day reminders of why I’ve chosen celibacy as my path. From my Eastern Orthodox upbringing I’ve grown up with the stories of countless men and women who have followed Christ’s call to take up their cross, deny themselves and follow after him. These saints, and especially the ascetics, are my daily reminder of the well-worn path I pursue.
Certainly many of these saints followed celibacy, often in a monastic context, but it’s not for that reason alone that I feel convicted in my own celibacy. Rather, it is that each and every one of them saw absolutely nothing as being of greater value or worth than Christ. There was nothing exceptionally radical, or out of place in their belief that in their pursuit of Christ everything was on the table, including their very life. Because of their witness, and their lives which we listen to and sing about daily in the Church the idea that surrendering my own desire for romantic intimacy and the erotic expression of that desire was something too great to be asked to give seems less out of place or extreme. That isn’t to diminish the weight and the calling of the Church and of community to help each other bear whatever burden they may be called to endure, but rather helps me place my own suffering and my own self-denial in the ancient tradition of the saints of the Church.
Over the last few months I’ve been slowly working through what it looks like to grieve the loss of the “what might have been.”
For me the “what might have been,” is the husband I will never have. As a celibate gay man I will constantly wrestle with the intersection of my desires and my convictions. By following my desire to become like Christ through the life of the Orthodox Church, I must always be willing to give up anything that runs contrary to that life. For me, I’ve experienced this sacrifice most profoundly as I slowly grieve the real cost of my celibacy: saying no to a romantic and sexual relationship with another man.
I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church and continue to call her home so whenever I see her handling the topic of homosexuality poorly it grieves me. This has never been so true as with the continued debate in Russia over the rights of its LGBT citizens. I feel very strongly that there must be a better way to discuss family values and uphold the basic rights and safety of a country’s citizens than Russia has been demonstrating. The Russian Orthodox Church’s involvement in the current debate only adds additional hurt and only legitimizes the Russian government’s persecution of LGBT people.
Copyright © 2013 by Gregg Webb
We are people who enjoy comfort. It is easy to exist within a bubble where our ideas and world-views are only confirmed and never challenged. We are prone to shy away from opportunities for our own growth by allowing possible friends to remain strangers. Ideological differences are allowed to define and enforce separation often under the guise of safety.
My own experience has shown that this bubble is not truly “safe.” It is far too easily ruptured when an uninvited co-worker, family member or classmate who would otherwise be an ideological object becomes a real person. When this happens I am forced to grapple with the tension that relationship creates in my life. I must embrace a biblical calling to be “all things to all people” and by doing so understand my own convictions. It is only through relationship with others that my own understanding and faith can be fully deepened and formed.
On Thursday, the Boy Scouts of America will vote on a revision of their membership standards. Under the proposed standards, the Scouts will not deny membership to any boy on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone. The standards also affirm that “any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”
As both a proud Eagle Scout and a celibate gay Christian, the vote, and the debate that has proceeded it, is personal.