In May of 2010, Metropolitan Jonah, chief hierarch of the Orthodox Church in America, wrote an open letter to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board in response to the (then proposed) revision of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. As the chief endorsing agent for Orthodox military chaplains, he felt compelled to outline the Orthodox position on homosexuality and explain the implications the proposed policy revisions would have for Orthodox chaplains.
Although the Metropolitan wrote in pastoral support of the Orthodox chaplains serving both their Church and their nation, his words served to alienate another population for which he is pastorally responsible. At the heart of the letter is the understanding that people who experience feelings of attraction toward a member of the same sex, let alone act on those feelings, are sinful and in need of repentance. His Beatitude writes, “Those who engage in such [homosexual] activity are excluded by the Canons from the sacraments of the Church. A ‘gay’ identity is not recognized or accepted by the Church Fathers, for it entails a complete submission of oneself to a sinful state of self-delusion.”
With these words Metropolitan Jonah drew a line in the sand. People can identify as Orthodox Christians, or they can identify as homosexuals. But not both.
While I acknowledge that Orthodox Christianity has historically taught that homosexual behavior is sinful, these teachings are based more on Tradition—an authoritative source alongside Scripture in Orthodoxy—than on any one particular “prooftext.” The truth is that the Church Fathers, Church canons, and the Scriptures themselves have relatively little to say about homosexuality. Most priests and bishops today are tight-lipped on the issue—rarely is sexuality addressed from the pulpit. LGBTQ Christians are encouraged to attend liturgy, pray, receive the sacraments, do charitable works, and otherwise participate in the life of the church so long as they keep their sexual orientation a secret.
It is not surprising that Metropolitan Jonah is in favor of upholding the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, since it seems that the same policy is being enforced within the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians who identify as homosexual are welcome at the cup only as long as they keep their sexual identities secret.
I have a number of problems with the arguments and policies His Beatitude outlines in his letter, but I am most deeply troubled by his decision to exclude gay Orthodox Christians from receiving the Eucharist. Orthodoxy has traditionally seen itself as a communion of love. Our common reception of the sacraments—especially baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist—constitutes a deep, integral bond between Orthodox Christians. This stands in contrast to some western Christian denominations, many of which define themselves by creeds and doctrinal statements. To be sure, Orthodoxy has its share of creeds, doctrines, and dogmas. But our belief in the “One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” refers to an ontological reality rather than intellectual shibboleths. In Communion, believers are mystically united in a common body comprised of many members throughout time and across the globe.
So what happens when an Orthodox Christian finds herself in disagreement with church leadership? Does communion of faith necessarily mean uniformity of belief?
This is the position in which I find myself. I have been abstaining from communion for most of the past year. While my decision has been motivated by a number of reasons, it is due in large part to the difficulty I have in understanding the Church’s policy of excluding both homosexuals and women from receiving certain sacraments.
Many in the West are unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, sometimes called “Eastern Christianity” or “Eastern Orthodoxy.” Because Orthodoxy historically developed in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, it bears little resemblance on the surface to Catholicism and Protestantism, both of which developed in Western Europe. The story is often told of the Russian emperor Vladimir, who sent emissaries to investigate the religions of the world. Upon their return from Constantinople, where they attended an extravagant liturgy at the great Hagia Sophia, they recounted, “We knew not whether we were on heaven or earth.” Orthodoxy is relatively new to North America, having only arrived en masse in the late 19th Century with Russian, Greek, and other Eastern European immigrants. Babushkas and yia-yias are fond of joking that Orthodoxy is the best-kept secret in town.
When I began learning about the Orthodox Church during college, I was enamored with its liturgy, prayers, music, and icons. And I confess that there was something in me that was drawn to its seemingly monolithic authority. We claim to be the Church of the Apostles that has preserved the faith for two thousand years. Though some may laugh at the seeming naïveté of this claim, Orthodox believers find deep comfort and stability in a tradition that reaches far beyond our current cultural situation. It is all the more painful, then, when our tradition not only fails to adequately address present-day realities but also insists on judging modernity through the lens of antiquity.
The traditional teaching on homosexuality as recounted by Metropolitan Jonah ignores the reality of many Orthodox women and men struggling to understand their feelings of sexual attraction toward members of the same sex. Even if they choose not to pursue sexual relationships and struggle to remain celibate—a path imposed on them by the church, rather than a gift genuinely given by God—His Beatitude believes that they are condemned by virtue of their being in “a sinful state of self-delusion.”
How are homosexual Orthodox Christians to grow in love, virtue, and relationship with God if they are categorically excluded from the sacramental life of the Church? I have no answers to the questions here posed. This is a messy situation. The ancient faith I love so deeply lives in tension with our modern culture. As I have written in previous posts, I am embarrassed by the way in which some of our members behave, and I would prefer certain aspects of our tradition to remain in secret.
I choose to live within this tension because I believe that it is not God who is doing the excluding, but rather our fallible traditions and leaders. All of Scripture stands as witness to the fact that God desires to be in relationship with us. Orthodoxy believes that no one is worthy to receive God’s love—and yet God offers it. In a line from the prayers traditionally prayed by Orthodox Christians before receiving communion, St. Basil the Great says, “You did not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners. ...Lord Jesus Christ, my God, may my partaking of Your pure and life-creating Mysteries not bring me into judgement, nor may I become weak in soul or body, for I partake of them unworthily” (emphasis mine).
Rather than focusing on external conditions of worthiness, I believe that the heart of Orthodoxy lies in the simultaneous recognition of one’s own unworthiness and the immensity of God’s love.
And that is a secret worth sharing.