On August 27 Orthodoxy in Dialogue published an editorial entitled, “Same-Sex Love: The Church Needs a Conversation.” We stand in awe of Gregg Webb’s courage in publicly putting a human face on this appeal.
All of my life I have been Orthodox. My decision to pursue life as a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church is a commitment I must make daily each time I recite the Nicene Creed in my morning prayers.
My daily struggle to keep the faith is complicated by my persistent romantic and physical attraction to other men. As a gay man existing within an Eastern Orthodox culture, I’ve often struggled to find space to simply be. It quite often feels like I have to push into the mire of Orthodox culture to make even a small place to simply exist, rather than something that I’m welcomed into.
I’ve continually chosen to commit, and recommit myself, to what I believe is the true teaching of the ancient Christian Church regarding sex and marriage. I’ve chosen to pursue celibacy as a way of life to maintain cohesion both with my values and theology, as well as those of my Church. This places me in an often difficult and challenging place on the boundary lines of many of today’s fiercest debates.
As a celibate gay man, and more broadly as a sexual minority existing in the Orthodox Church today, I have wrestled to find my place within theology and within the Church. I’ve struggled to identify thinkers and theologians, as well as pastors and caretakers, who I believe have a vested interest in truly understanding and pressing into the more complicated areas of my life.
Most often, the rehashing and restating of the Church’s concrete theological positions grate against me. It pains me not because I personally disagree with its conclusions; rather, I find it lacking in practical advice or teaching that actually helps make sense of the life I’m called to live. Discussions around celibate relationships, committed friendships, life in community, sexual abstinence, and many others just don’t happen. I’ve found the Church leery of engaging in these gray areas for fear of somehow failing a test of “Orthodoxy.” Simply even engaging with the lived experiences of queer people in the Church is dangerous, or has the possibility of contaminating what is seen as “pure” theology.
I want to affirm the need for theological preservation, and for ancient truths to continue to have a place in the teaching of the Church. But the problem comes when it starts to feel as if I’ve been forgotten by the Church or reduced to a theological anomaly.
One of the frequent things I find especially disheartening is how quickly any discussion of what a real life might look like for a sexual minority in the Church is shut down because of suspicion and fear that it deviates from orthodoxy.
I want to affirm the good desire to maintain truth, and to uphold valuable theological fundamentals that apply to everyone’s experiences of sexuality in a fallen world.
However, the experiences of sexual minorities always seem to be regarded with greater suspicion. Frequently it seems economia is used liberally when it comes to discussions of divorce and remarriage, and premarital sex, but for LGBT people grace and empathy are often replaced with suspicion and immediate theological rebuke.
What I hope is that those in authority and positions of theological influence listen empathetically and seek to better understand the motives and questions behind our discussions of sexuality. If sexual minorities within the Church are called to live celibate lives focused on the Church, then help support us in our arena of martyrdom rather than questioning our intentions the moment we ask for a glass of water.
All of human sexuality has been wounded and marred by the fall.
Because I fear it needs repeating: All of human sexuality has been impacted by the fall.
A husband’s desire to sodomize his wife is no less condemnable in the eyes of the Orthodox Church than a gay man’s. The straight high school student who slips up with his girlfriend and sometimes moves past faithful boundaries for marital intimacy is just as culpable and worthy of chastisement as the young lesbian who finds herself physically engaged with a close girlfriend. What is it that your gay teens desire when they fall into sexual encounters that your straight teens don’t? A naive pursuit of love and connection can physically manifest itself easily, no matter the sexual orientation.
Rather than condemning one and tacitly accepting the other, a high standard must be maintained for all. If the bar for self-control and sexual perfection is enforced unflinchingly when it comes to sexual minorities, it becomes hypocritical when it is weakly applied when the sin is more “common” or relatable.
My hope and vision for these discussions within the Church is that we can start trying to see each other at our best, rather than seeking to immediately uncover the worst in each other.
This goes for all sides and positions in these conversations. Those on the progressive front pushing for broad acceptance of LGBT sexual expression and relationships need to be willing to engage vigorously with the best theological arguments that are presented defending the historical view. I have yet to encounter what I felt was a truly robust Eastern Orthodox affirming theology. Our non-Orthodox friends and neighbors have engaged with these theological discussions with much greater rigor and theological depth. We’d do well to take these discussions into consideration.
Likewise I hope that those upholding the Orthodox Church’s historical view of sexuality take the experiences of Orthodox sexual minorities seriously and approach discussions with empathy. I’ve seen several Orthodox priests point to flawed studies that try and scare people into not wanting their kid to be gay because they’ll be dead by 50. I regularly get the impression that those having these kinds of conversations don’t actually know and love gay people in their daily life.
Any discussion of sexual minorities that begins with sex has missed much of the point entirely and always will come across as hollow.
Like so many topics today it seems nearly impossible to have a heartfelt, honest, and humble discussion of any important issue. A discussion that hopes for each other’s best and is filled with love and humility, rather than discussions where each side feels they must win at all costs.
I will continue to offer up my voice as a lifelong member of the Orthodox faith in a small attempt to bring some understanding and empathy into this conversation.
I pray for strength as I attempt to live each day as faithfully as I am able, and ask for grace when I fail to do so. I know God is working in my heart. It is my daily struggle to listen and struggle to purify my soul, through His grace, in order to know Him more fully.
Gregg Webb is a provisionally licensed professional counselor living in Chicago. He grew up in St. Louis and has spent time in Greek, Romanian, Antiochian, and OCA parishes. He contributes to Spiritual Friendship and can be followed on Twitter.