THE AMSTERDAM SYMPOSIUM ON PASTORAL CARE AND SEXUALITY AND THE OCA METROPOLITAN COUNCIL by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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On November 16 the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) website posted the minutes and reports from the September 19-22 meeting of the Metropolitan Council. The Council “consists of the Metropolitan as Chairman, the Chancellor, the Secretary, the Treasurer, two representatives from each diocese, one priest and one layman elected by the Diocesan Assemblies, three priests and three laymen elected by the All-American Council.” The membership of the Standing Synod in the Metropolitan Council, although not mentioned in this description, must be assumed because of the names of the hierarchs present and absent in the minutes.

The Chancellor’s Report by Father John Jillions shows, on his calendar since the previous meeting of the Metropolitan Council, that he attended the June 7-9 Symposium on Pastoral Care and Sexuality at the Amsterdam Centre for Orthodox Theology. (See page 9 of Officers’ Reports—page 12 of the PDF—here.) On the preceding page he notes that he gave a paper at this Symposium. His report is listed as item E on page 4 of the minutes.

Item I on page 6 has the heading, “Return to Father Jillions and the Chancellor’s Report.” The discussion seems to have revolved almost entirely around his participation in the Symposium on Pastoral Care and Sexuality, which had figured only as a minor entry in his report:

Fr. John Jillions was asked about the Amsterdam Conference, why he attended it, and what benefit was it to the OCA.

Met. Tikhon remarked that there are many complex sexual issues and proposed that a Bioethics Committee be established to provide answers to questions such as what is a person and how do we love God. He continued that we have to know what to say within the Tradition of the Church.

Bp. Paul remarked parents are coming to him with issues of children’s sexual/gender identity. He asked how we are to deal with those not living according to the teaching of the Church and that talking about how to pastorally address these situations doesn’t mean abandoning the Tradition of the Church.

Fr. Chad Hatfield remarked that St. Vladimir’s Seminary adopted a statement affirming the Traditional teaching of the Church.

After additional discussion, Met. Tikhon remarked that we have failed, for a long time, to address the bigger issue and posed a question of what is our missionary vision.

Abp. Michael remarked that is important to discuss these issues but, in secret, is not a good thing and that if it cannot be done openly it probably shouldn’t be done.

Additionally, we must think carefully about who is sent to represent the OCA. As the youngest autocephalous Church, we do not need to be seen as those deviating from the Orthodox Church.

Recognizing that Igumen Joseph (Hoffman)’s minutes offer but an incomplete and not always clear record of the conversation, I should like to raise a few observations and questions:

  • The only report on the Symposium that I have found on the internet is the Amsterdam Centre’s press release. It notes that an “international group of Orthodox theologians and pastors…reflect[ed] on a wide range of matters concerning human sexuality as addressed by science and natural law, theological anthropology, legal issues, psychology, and pastoral care…in a conversation about how the Orthodox Churches might consider and respond to current pastoral questions while remaining faithful to Christ, the Gospel, and Orthodox Christian Tradition.” Given that questions of sexuality and gender represent one of the contemporary Orthodox Church’s greatest theological and pastoral challenges, the Amsterdam Centre is to be applauded for hosting, and each of the participants for attending, such a timely symposium on such an urgent but potentially controversial and divisive topic. Importantly, a wide spectrum of views was represented by those invited. 
  • It seems odd that Father Jillions was asked why he attended, and what “benefit” accrued to the OCA by his doing so. As reported in the minutes, there appears to have been much more concern about institutional “benefits” and the OCA’s “reputation” as a Church whose autocephaly is accepted by almost no one nearly half a century on, and much less concern about children, youths, women, and men who are starving for a coherent Orthodox theological, spiritual, and pastoral response to sexual and gender variance in their own lives and the lives of their loved ones—a theological response based on actual knowledge and to which they themselves have been primary contributors.
  • Metropolitan Tikhon is to be commended for his recognition of the complexity of human sexuality and gender. Yet it seems unclear how these questions—and even more so, questions of the theological meaning of personhood and how to love God—fall under the purview of a bioethics committee. The minutes record no action taken on his proposal to establish such a committee.
  • His Beatitude is also to be commended for acknowledging the Church’s failure “to address the bigger issue”—while we are left to wonder precisely which “bigger issue” he has in mind.
  • Archbishop Michael is to be commended for calling for an open, not secret, discussion of sexuality and gender in the Church. This agrees with our position at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. (See our several articles and editorials under the category of “Sexuality and Gender” here.) Yet it is unclear whether he means the secrecy of the Amsterdam Symposium or the Metropolitan Council, and whether “open” means truly open to hearing all voices within the Orthodox Church—as well as the voices of the empirical and social sciences and their never-ending studies of sexuality and gender. As a world-renowned colleague in Orthodox theology recently wrote to me, “I don’t want science dictating our theology, but we cannot do theology without good science.”
  • The July 24 statement of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, referenced by Father Chad Hatfield in the minutes quoted above, seems to shut the door on any further meaningful, creative theological engagement with sexuality and gender at St. Vladimir’s. This augurs an unfortunate shift from 2006, when Eric Iliff of blessed memory was encouraged to write “Homosexuality and the Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition,” an MDiv thesis sympathetic to the sanctification of same-sex love in the Church. He writes in his Acknowledgments:

For my parents, Monica and John, and their constant loving support.

 

I also gratefully thank Fr. John Behr, professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, for suggesting this thesis topic in the first place, and Dr. Peter Bouteneff, professor of Dogmatic theology also at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for his guidance as my advisor throughout the thesis writing process. I also wish to warmly thank Fr. Michael Plekon, professor of sociology at Baruch College, City University of New York, and Stephane Sollogoub, for their interest and comments regarding drafts of this work. Lastly, I wish to thank Fr. Alexis Vinogradov for his constant pastoral guidance. [Thesis available at TREN.]

The task of formulating an Orthodox theology of sexuality and gender—a theology which fully takes into acccount, first, the living testimony of those most directly affected; second, the latest advances in the empirical and social sciences; and third, the fundamentally ascetical nature of Christian life for all—is far too important, too complex, and too vast an undertaking to delegate to a “committee” or to an individual jurisdiction of the North American Church.

The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America—perhaps in concert with its largely invisible and inactive Canadian counterpart—seems best positioned to do two necessary things at the same time: first, to establish a permanent consultative commission on sexual and gender diversity in human nature, with no point of view and no one’s voice disallowed a priori from contributing; and second, to establish a formal program of pastoral outreach and welcome to Orthodox Christians and others who identify anywhere on the LGBTQI spectrum.

It was an enormous relief to note that, for the first time in two or three years, the Assembly elected not to issue yet another harmful condemnation of same-sex love after its annual meeting. This important first step towards a better way on the part of our hierarchs must be applauded. It must also be followed by many more, equally important steps.

The North American Orthodox Church need not be afraid to take the lead in this endeavour, “for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow [it]. You might even be found opposing God!” We have nothing to fear. 

One final word: In the Orthodox Church monks and nuns are accepted as the experts on monastic life and its theological elucidation. Married priests, deacons, and lay theologians are considered to be the experts on the theological vision for married life. The Church must allow, indeed trust, her LGBTQI sons and daughters to be the foremost articulators of a theology and spirituality of their life. For there is but one life in Jesus Christ, imparted to all in the Church by the Holy Spirit according to the personal circumstances and abilities of each. LGBTQI Orthodox Christians stand ready not only to receive pastoral ministry, but to offer it.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He holds an Honours BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, and is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. His doctoral dissertation will examine the text and biographical, historical, social, and cultural context of Father Pavel Florensky’s “Friendship” in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. He volunteers once a week with child cancer patients and their families at SickKids Hospital.

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