The following is part of a correspondence with a friend of mine, who asked that I refer to him by his baptismal name: Basil. The question originally asked was, "How do we know that the rejection of same-sex relationships is Orthodox?" I hope to publish further portions of my responses in the next few weeks.
I apologize in advance for the length of this email. I also apologize for the time it has taken me to respond to your original email. I delayed for a couple of reasons. First and most obviously, the questions you asked are significant and deserved a measure of consideration before I could offer a suitable response. Second, I cannot escape the feeling that the standard responses to these questions, which we typically see in a wide variety of Orthodox apologetic literature—sermons, articles, podcasts, books, retreats, and even hierarchical epistles—are somehow threadbare and inadequate, if not for Orthodox insiders, then certainly for the people of our generation outside the Church to whom we are trying to give an answer for the hope that lies within us.
If our audience lay within the Church, or if this were another time in history, I might find a response easier. If you asked at that time, “How do we know that the rejection of same-sex relationships is Orthodox?” I might first appeal to custom and say that the Orthodox Church rejects same-sex relationships because it has always done so. This answer may well satisfy the insiders; in a more conservative time, it may also have satisfied non-Christians who valued conformity, duty and honour to a given cultural tradition. However, our contemporary society, particularly in the West but rapidly on a global level, no longer upholds such values. Perhaps we have witnessed too many historical instances in which cultural conformity, duty and honour have produced nothing but violence, death and destruction. Even as an Orthodox Christian, I see some of my fellow Orthodox devoting themselves to slavish obedience over practices and teachings that are trivial at best and destructive at worst. Even if I were to appeal to custom in answering your question, I might well be reminded of the words of St. Cyprian of Carthage, “Custom without truth is merely the antiquity of error.”
Perhaps I might appeal to Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers to bolster my argument from custom. I could point to the various verses that you mentioned in your first email, the strictures (supposedly against same-sex relationships) from the Old and New Testaments. I might dredge the sayings and writings of the Fathers for quotes that supported the ongoing practice of the Church. Again, if you were already convinced of the matter, no doubt this scriptural and patristic evidence would suffice. If you spent some time considering these texts, though, you might find yourself increasingly troubled. In your first email, you correctly pointed out the problems involved with using scriptural verses to legislate on our contemporary situation. Scriptural proof-texting, even at its most sophisticated, is not sufficiently compelling to a postmodern generation that tends to be suspicious of any attempt to assign texts of any sort, let alone Scripture, with inherent objective authority. To put it simply, if I were to answer your question, “How do we know…?” by saying, “Because it is in the Book,” you might be convinced, but no one else would be.
The appeal to the Fathers would suffer from a similar problem as the appeal to Scripture. You pointed out the very real absence of sustained patristic theological reflection that focuses on healthy sexuality, other than to comment on lust and fornication, and uphold celibacy as the Christian ideal. That is more or less accurate, with a few exceptions that prove the rule. While some Orthodox thinkers might seek to excuse or gloss over the lack of patristic commentary on what it means to be a non-celibate in the world, I do not. I believe perhaps controversially that we face social, cultural and technological issues that the Fathers did not and could not envision. Though we must certainly be guided by their spirit through a sympathetic but intelligent reading of their work, we are responsible to take their project forward and reflect on matters about which they had, frankly, not enough to say.
Having had limited success with the appeal to custom and scriptural or patristic texts, I might finally try to shore up my argument with an appeal to nature: Orthodox Christians reject same-sex relationships because our bodies are built for heterosexuality. I might even argue that heterosexuality is essential because it is procreative, which is an essential component of non-celibate sexuality. I would then have to demonstrate from scientific observation that homosexuality is an aberration and non-procreative, not just in the human species, but in the plant and animal kingdom as a whole. Since this is patently not the case, my appeal to nature would be shaky at best. Additionally, I would be hard pressed to show that procreation is a necessary condition for Christian salvation in a non-celibate relationship; Roman Catholicism may make this case, but I would not follow them. In other words, the “book of nature” argument, like the appeals to custom and text, might be convincing to those who are already convinced, but it cannot speak convincingly to anyone on the outside or, like you, persons on the inside who are seeking a deeper understanding.
While the arguments I have presented (perhaps in a simplified fashion) may have compelled a previous generation of Christians, our generation is looking for a more solid basis on which to take a stand. The question is what is that basis? If our generation rejects social and cultural conformity, our defense cannot call them to conform simply because it is customary to do so; we must uphold a truth that engages them on a profoundly personal level, even as it calls them to personal completeness in community. If our generation rejects the objective authority of texts and the ideas that they express, our defense cannot be merely to point to a book and command them to do as it is written; we must relocate truth from the symbolic abstractions of the text to the particular, lived experiences of real human beings. Far from being the main pillars of our defence, custom and text must primarily serve as a testimony to a greater foundation.
This brings me (at last) to answer your question, which was ultimately an epistemological one: how do we know that the rejection of same-sex relationships is Orthodox? I would say we know neither on the basis of text nor of custom, but on the foundation of Jesus Christ, who is met and known personally within the continuing communal experience of the Orthodox Church. The Apostle Paul sums up this conviction when he declares, “I have decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” It is beyond doubt that St. Paul and all the other Apostles believed that they could only know anything about anything if they first knew the Jesus Christ, who they saw crucified and who revealed Himself to them after His resurrection in the opening of the Scriptures and the breaking of the bread. This fundamental, personal encounter then became the ‘canon’—the rule—by which everything else is measured and understood.
I could demonstrate this assertion about the Apostolic testimony at length, but I will just assume that you have seen what I have seen and agree on this point. I will simply say that, speaking as an Apostolic Christian, I follow the Apostles and make their same assertion. Jesus’ identity as a person that you and I know it within the Church ultimately determines our attitude, not just towards same-sex relationships, but towards sexuality as a whole. Our generation may rightly reject our appeals to text or custom; I believe it would be far more difficult for them to dismiss, and far more compelling to accept and embrace, our personal-communal experience of the truth as a living person.
In this sense, Apostolic Christianity (and more fully, Orthodox Christianity) is uniquely privileged to offer our postmodern age a compelling response to its questions, because for us, the locus of revelation and truth is not a text, nor merely a culture. Our faith—our Scriptures, liturgy, saints, icons, canons—exist not as ends in themselves, but to testify to the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Everything we do in the Orthodox Church—textual or cultural—exists to lead us towards Him and into Him so that we can become Him, seeing everything through Him and acting as Him in our own personal contexts. Thus we can provide our generation a truth that is at once highly particular and even relative to our individual encounter with the Lord, but also absolute and universal in that our unique testimony is of the same Lord Jesus Christ that the Apostles encountered and proclaimed, a proclamation and encounter that was received and handed to those who followed them, from generation to generation, to the present day. Again, this living chain of testimony is not primarily textual or cultural, but rests on the personal testimony of the saints (those who have come before us in the faith) to the Person of Jesus.
If our generation ultimately chooses not to act on the basis of this testimony, so be it. In a postmodern world, however, no one can invalidate us, since all testimonies rooted in personal experience are valid and potentially compelling, according to the postmodern understanding. As long as we continue to rest our faith on textual or cultural bases, we exclude ourselves from a place at this postmodern table. If we begin, however, on the personal, Christological basis as I have articulated it, we not only secure ourselves a place, we also have a voice. The pluralists around us may consider that our place and our voice is just one among many, but we need not feel anxious or concerned. Rather, we can be confident we are not lone individuals and lonely voices. Sitting beside us are the saints, both living and glorified, and the Apostles, who all share our testimony of the one Lord. And ultimately, we are not sitting at some earthly table, engaged in a democratic struggle to raise our voices above the others. Rather, we sit at the heavenly table with our Lord Jesus Christ, at the right of God, and our voice is His voice, which created the world and continues to uphold it with its power.
It is on this basis that we can and must address the issue of sexuality that has been tabled in our present day. Given this foundation, the task at hand becomes clearer. Indeed, I can more easily answer your second question: “Even if the Church has rejected same-sex relationships in the past, is there no room for doctrinal change?” If the identity of Jesus Christ is indeed the source of our understanding of sexuality, and we confess that Jesus Christ is indeed the same yesterday, today and forever, then whatever we say about sexuality is indeed not subject to change in its essence. If our sexuality is shaped by a person, and that person is the same person we have always known, then our approach to sexuality must itself maintain a personal integrity and historical consistency with the source of its inspiration. That being said, the cultural and historical expression of sexuality—what might be called gender—has certainly changed and continues to be subject to change today. It may be controversial for me to say this, but there is no doubt from history that the roles of men and women have changed through history, and any Christ-centred articulation of sexuality must also account for the relationship between sex and gender: biological differences between males and females and the different roles to which they have led in society and the Church, including the priesthood.
Finally, you asked, “Under some circumstances, could the Church permit persons to remain within the Church while practising a same-sex relationship?” This is a pastoral question, and to answer it we must return to our basic hypothesis. If our Christian vision of sexuality begins and ends in the person of Christ, then that vision is inherently personal, which means that it must be worked out within the particular circumstances of our each human being. While we who live in the Church face an imperative to embody our sexual beings as a full incarnation of the person of Jesus Christ, our act of embodiment is necessarily a work in progress. In reality, all of us are struggling for a more authentic sexuality, not just those with same-sex attraction. To attain our goal, we must begin by contemplating Jesus Christ, regardless of our particular sexual modus operandi. However, only within the life and experience of the Church can we fully immerse ourselves in this contemplation. It is my conviction, then, that everyone, whatever sexual state they begin with, should be offered a space in which to make a start on a way of life which will lead them to the fullness of human personhood, including sexuality. Of course, a person can only receive the fullness of sacramental communion when he or she commits to working for a specifically Christ-centred vision of sexuality, rather than just coming to Church because he or she is looking for someone to validate his or her self-centred understanding of sexual fulfillment…
I have reached the end of this email without having explained exactly what is the ‘Christ-centred vision of sexuality.’ To be fair, that wasn’t really the question you asked… You asked, “How do we know?” and I believe that I answered to the best of my ability. If you want to know “What is it that we know?” that would be the subject of another email. Whatever your questions or comments, I look forward to hearing them!
In Christ’s love, Fr. Richard