AN OCA DIOCESE’S GAY PURGE OF 1977 by Giacomo Sanfilippo

axios3

It is commonly assumed that the strident homophobia of the contemporary American Orthodox Church has been imported with the influx of thousands of unconverted converts from Evangelical fundamentalism since the late 1980s to the present. Many of these seem to regard the Orthodox Church as the last bastion of Christian social conservatism. While this phenomenon may certainly account for a marked exacerbation in our Church’s inability to have a rational discussion on sexual and gender variance in human nature, the following very brief excerpt from my MA thesis (2015) offers a more nuanced historical perspective.

Response and Counter-Response: A Brief Pastoral History 

To my knowledge, the earliest instance in which same-sex orientation surfaced as a public pastoral issue in the North American Orthodox Church occurred in the late spring or early summer of 1977 at St. Seraphim of Sarov mission parish in Long Beach, California. Samuel Garula, a freshly ordained priest acting under orders from Archbishop John (Shahovskoy) of the Diocese of the West of the Orthodox Church in America, excommunicated en masse the dozen same-sex oriented members at his new parish assignment within weeks of his arrival in May. The excommunicants’ appeal for pastoral understanding, mailed to priests throughout Southern California and signed “Your gay Orthodox brethren in Christ” was met with howls of laughter.[1] The congregation of some seventy weekly worshippers, largely supportive of their same-sex oriented brothers and sisters, quickly began to dwindle. The parish folded after a protracted death, and Long Beach’s once vibrant, rapidly growing English-language Orthodox mission became a distant memory.[2]

Out of the ashes of the Long Beach conflagration Axios[3] eventually arose, an attempt to form an Orthodox counterpart to the Dignity movement for Roman Catholics. Some forty members met once a month for Vespers, potluck, and discussion. Two members betrayed the group after three years by sending its confidential mailing list to Bishop Basil (Rodzianko), who had succeeded Archbishop John in 1980. Basil instructed his priests to deny Communion to Axios members and to discontinue the practice of general confession for fear that it allowed those of same-sex orientation to evade detection. This effectively sounded the death knell for Axios on the West Coast.[4] From the group’s website its current level of vitality there or in other regions is impossible to ascertain.[5] The site commends its visitors to the controversial scholarship of John Boswell as a legitimate resource for Orthodox of same-sex orientation.[6]

In an effort to provide a spiritual home for Orthodox Christians of same-sex orientation, the establishment of a few congregations under one or another bishop of unknown provenance ensued. One of these bishops shepherded a flock called the Rainbow Orthodox Church. An internet search uncovers no clues to whether any of these churches has survived to the present. Various platforms of online support have also come and gone over the years. Some individuals with no connection to the Orthodox Church have undertaken online outreach to same-sex oriented Orthodox Christians, with predictable doctrinal, liturgical, and ecclesiological irregularities.

I mention the uncertain orthodoxy or uncanonical status of these groups and individuals in no way to disparage the sincerity of their efforts where the Orthodox Church has frankly failed, but to emphasize the extreme urgency of bringing this conversation and ministry into the very bosom of the canonical Church. 

[1] I personally remember my parish priest’s derisive reaction to their letter when he shared it with me. For a first-hand account of this episode see “Founding and Experience of Axios at Los Angeles, California,” AXIOS – Eastern and Orthodox Gay and Lesbian Christians, accessed May 14, 2015, http://axios.org/doku.php?id=st_seraphim_axios.
[2] Justin R. Cannon, ed., Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church (self-published, http://www.gayorthodox.com, 2011), 77-78.
[3] Greek for worthy (ἄξιος), used liturgically to proclaim a man’s worthiness during the vesting ceremony at his ordination.
[4] Cannon, 79-80. In “general confession,” used in some places and contexts as a supplement to, or even instead of, private confession, the priest pronounces absolution over the congregation after a brief interval for internal reflection on one’s sins.
[5] AXIOS: Eastern and Orthodox Gay and Lesbian Christians, accessed May 28, 2015, http://axios.org/doku.php.
[6] I engage more directly with Boswell and his critics in subsequent chapters.

Addendum (12/6/17): The Axios website appears not to have been updated since May 1997. Many of its internal links no longer work, although they were working in 2015 when I wrote my thesis.

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 submitted “A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love” in 2015 as his thesis for the MA in Theology at Regis College/St. Michael’s College. The full text can be accessed at the University of Toronto’s TSpace. The excerpt published above is found on pp. 11-13.

See also our editorial of August 27, “Same-Sex Love: The Church Needs a Conversation.”

Please consider spending a portion of your Christmas shopping budget to feed the homeless on Christmas Day. Click here for details on how you can help. The Lord bless you for your generosity.