THE ORTHODOX CHURCH AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION: SOME RECENT HISTORY by Giacomo Sanfilippo

The following excerpt is taken from my MA thesis (available here), “A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love” (pp. 13-19). I cannot guarantee that the URLs in the footnotes still work. 

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Clockwise from top left: Patriarch Bartholomew, Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch Daniel, Metropolitan Leo

Episcopal Actions and Statements

In late 2014 Robert Arida, a senior priest of the Orthodox Church in America,[1] posted an essay on the OCA website’s Wonder blog[2]—a platform for discussion among Orthodox young people of high school and university age—in which he proposes for reflection a wide range of pressing social, cultural, and political issues.[3] Metropolitan Tikhon (Mollard), primate of the OCA, ordered the removal of Arida’s essay and the substitution of his own.[4] Tikhon’s response makes three things clear: first, many of the comments following Arida’s essay had entailed an exchange of views on same-sex orientation, a topic not directly named by Arida himself; second, Wonder must not host a discussion of same-sex orientation for Orthodox of high school and university age; and third, the Holy Synod of the OCA has resolved once for all time the matter of human sexuality in three documents to which Tikhon directs his young readers.

The first, “Encyclical Letter of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on Marriage” and released in 1976,[5] articulates the Church’s theology of marriage without reference to same-sex issues.[6] The second, “Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life” and dated July 1992, states that “[h]omosexuality…is not to be taken as a way of living and acting for men and women made in God’s image and likeness,” and that unrepentant same-sex oriented persons “may not participate in the Church’s sacramental mysteries.”[7] The last, “Synodal Affirmation of the Mystery of Marriage” and drafted in response to the June 2013 decision of the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage, reiterates that “the Church does not, and cannot, condone or accept marriages apart from those involving one man and one woman….”[8]

In September 2009 Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) and Bishop Basil (Essey) signed the Manhattan Declaration,[9] a testimony to a peculiarly American brand of conservative Christian political activism containing no trace of a uniquely Orthodox contribution. Its signatories from groups as disparate as the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, various Protestant denominations, and the National Organization for Marriage[10] proclaim, “No one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage. …[T]he religious liberty of those for whom this is a matter of conscience is jeopardized.”[11] This non sequitur fails to consider the religious liberty of those who, as a matter of conscience, disagree with the Declaration.

In September 2013 the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America (subsequently reconstituted the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America), released its “Statement on Marriage and Sexuality,” expressing its “deep concern over…the legalization of same-sex unions.”[12]

Denunciations of same-sex orientation echo around the Orthodox world. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople gave voice to the Lord’s and the Church’s condemnation in a homily in Estonia in September 2013: “To our Lord Jesus Christ…and to His Body, the Orthodox Church, the partnering of the same sex is unknown and condemned.”[13] In June 2012 Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, during a visit to Finland, expressed his displeasure with the Finnish Lutheran Church’s endorsement of same-sex unions.[14] In a January 2013 interview he named “alcoholism, drug addiction, lust, prostitution, homosexuality”[15] as equivalent evils. In a homily in July of the same year he characterized the advance of same-sex marriage throughout the West as “a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse” and “a path of self-destruction,” and applauded the criminalization of all public expressions of same-sex orientation in Russia.[16] Patriarch Daniel of Romania, addressing the Committee of the Orthodox Churches’ Representatives to the European Union in May 2014, lamented the “increasing number of those who treat marriage as a simple contract or partnership between two people of different genders or of the same gender.” [17] That same month, the Holy Synod of Cyprus issued a lengthy condemnation of same-sex orientation in anticipation of an impending Pride parade in Nicosia.[18] Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, in April 2015, issued a strongly worded rebuke to a Greek website for its insinuation that the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church might consider the “approval or acceptance of [the] lifestyle” of “sexual minorities.”[19] 

Many Orthodox bishops consider the issue an insurmountable obstacle to ecumenical dialogue. The Moscow Patriarchate “severed all relations” with the Lutheran Church of Sweden over its blessing of same-sex unions in 2005.[20] In May 2011 Orthodox hierarchs meeting in Athens from around the globe conveyed their position to the Lutheran World Federation that “we consider the issue of homosexuality to be very serious and potentially Church dividing.”[21] In September 2014 the Russian Church suspended doctrinal dialogue with the Finnish Lutheran Church over the latter’s refusal to pre-approve a joint condemnation of same-sex orientation as a precondition to holding the very session in which the topic would have come up for discussion.[22] As recently as June 2015 the Russian Church terminated “formal contacts” with the United Protestant Church of France and the Church of Scotland on the grounds that “[c]hurches that have deemed homosexuality morally acceptable have rejected Christianity and are preparing their followers to accept the Anti-Christ.”[23]

The Orthodox Church of Finland

The Church of Finland has demonstrated an unusual willingness to allow uncensored debate on the question of same-sex orientation. This makes for a fascinating counterpoint to the uncompromising stance of the Orthodox Church in other parts of the world.[24]

The activities of Orthodox priests and laypersons—unhindered by the hierarchy—to promote the acceptance of same-sex orientation in national and church life figured prominently in the mass media as early as 1990. The ecumenical organization Community, launched in 2003 to work for the social and ecclesiastical equality of persons of same-sex orientation, boasted a disproportionately high Orthodox representation on its founding committee. In 2006 a group dedicated to the same aims was established under the name Orthodox Rainbow Society.[25] In late 2007 the Episcopal Synod sent a memorandum to the Ecumenical Patriarchate[26] stating “that sexual ethics represented by the movement Community doesn’t fight against Orthodox tradition, and there is no need to prohibit Orthodox priests from participating in the activities of the movement.”[27] In an interview published in December 2008 Metropolitan Leo (Makkonen), primate of the Finnish Church, states that the “Orthodox Church is cautious and do [sic] not take up a strong position in the question of sexual ethics,” but he affirms that the “foundation of the sexual ethics of the Church is anyway always the family.” He implies an unwritten don’t ask, don’t tell policy towards Orthodox same-sex couples in legally registered relationships, but states unambiguously that “a person living in a registered homosexual relationship cannot be a member of the clergy.”[28]

Tolerance of same-sex orientation in the Finnish Church has not gone unopposed. Some have threatened to leave its jurisdiction. According to an unconfirmed report from 2007, the Moscow Patriarchate had contemplated establishing a rival diocese in Finland over this issue.[29]  

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and a contributor at Milwaukee Independent.

[1] Hereinafter “the OCA.”

[2] Wonder, accessed May 28, 2015, http://wonder.oca.org/.  

[3] Father Robert M. Arida, “Never Changing Gospel; Ever Changing Culture,” accessed May 16, 2015, http://holytrinityorthodox.org/articles_and_talks/Never%20Changing%20Gospel.pdf. This document is found on the website of Arida’s parish.

[4] Metropolitan Tikhon, “Metropolitan Tikhon Responds to Wonder Blog,” Wonder, accessed May 16, 2015, http://wonder.oca.org/2014/11/01/never-changing-gospel-ever-changing-culture/. 

[5] OCA archivist Alexis Liberovsky supplied the year, missing from the online version of the document.

[6] http://oca.org/holy-synod/encyclicals/on-marriage, accessed May 16, 2015.

[7] http://oca.org/holy-synod/statements/holy-synod/synodal-affirmations-on-marriage-family-sexuality-and-the-sanctity-of-life, accessed May 16, 2015.

[8] http://oca.org/holy-synod/statements/holy-synod/synodal-affirmation-of-the-mystery-of-marriage, accessed May 16, 2015.

[9] “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” accessed May 24, 2015, http://manhattandeclaration.org/man_dec_resources/Manhattan_Declaration_full_text.pdf.

[10] See http://manhattandeclaration.org/man_dec_resources/list_of_religious_leaders.pdf, accessed May 24, 2015, for the list of signatories. See pg. 9 of the Declaration itself for the names of the drafting committee members.

[11] “Manhattan,” 6.

[12] http://assemblyofbishops.org/about/documents/2013-assembly-statement-on-marriage-and-sexuality, accessed May 16, 2015. The URL gives trouble every time I try to access it. One may have to search for this document under “News” and then “Press Releases.”   

[13] “Pat. Bartholomew: No to Homosexual Marriage,” The Observer: The American Orthodox Institute Blog, accessed May 16, 2015, http://www.aoiusa.org/blog/pat-bartholomew-no-to-homosexual-marriage/. The full Greek text of Bartholomew’s homily is found on the website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (http://www.ec-patr.org/docdisplay.php?lang=en&id=1732&tla=gr, accessed May 16, 2015).

[14] “Patriarch Kirill Meets with Heads of Christian Churches in Finland,” The Russian Orthodox Church: Department for External Church Relations, accessed May 16, 2015, https://mospat.ru/en/2012/06/13/news65839/. 

[15] “Main Threat for Russia Is Loss of Faith,” Interfax Religion, accessed May 16, 2015, http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=interview&div=97.

[16] “Russian Patriarch Says Gay Marriage ‘Sign Of Apocalypse,’” Radio Free Europe, accessed May 16, 2015, http://www.rferl.org/content/patriarch-russia-gay-apocalypse-kirill/25052758.html.

[17] “Family in the Current European Context,” Romanian Orthodox Church: Official Site of the Romanian Patriarchate, accessed May 17, 2015, http://patriarhia.ro/family-in-the-current-european-context-5566-en.html.

[18] “Cyprus Church Steps Up Battle with Island’s First Ever Gay Pride Planners,” The Pappas Post, accessed June 4, 2015, http://www.pappaspost.com/cyprus-church-steps-battle-islands-first-ever-gay-pride-planners/.

[19] “Communiqué (25/04/2015),” Ecumenical Patriarchate, accessed May 17, 2015, https://www.patriarchate.org/-/communique?redirect=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.patriarchate.org%2Fhome%3Fp_p_id%3D101_INSTANCE_03OPCWysZcX6%26p_p_lifecycle%3D0%26p_p_state%3Dnormal%26p_p_mode%3Dview%26p_p_col_id%3Dcolumn-1%26p_p_col_pos%3D1%26p_p_col_count%3D2.

[20] “Russian Orthodox Church Condemns Lutheran Gay Weddings,” Pravda, accessed May 17, 2015, http://english.pravda.ru/society/family/30-12-2005/9460-gay-0/.

[21] “Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue Between the Orthodox Church and the Lutheran World Federation: An Inter-Orthodox Evaluation of the Dialogue (1981-2011),” Ecumenical Patriarchate, accessed May 17, 2015, https://www.patriarchate.org/search?p_p_id=3&p_p_lifecycle=0&p_p_state=maximized&p_p_mode=view&_3_struts_action=%2Fsearch%2Fsearch&_3_redirect=%2Fsearch%3Fp_p_id%3D3%26p_p_lifecycle%3D0%26p_p_state%3Dmaximized%26p_p_mode%3Dview%26_3_groupId%3D0&_3_keywords=homosexuality&groupId=32008.

[22] “Russian Orthodox Church Cancels Lutheran Dialogue over Gay Rights,” Pravmir: Orthodox Christianity and the World, accessed May 16, 2015, http://www.pravmir.com/russian-orthodox-church-cancels-lutheran-dialogue-gay-rights/#ixzz3aKgbsaFf.

[23] “Churches Embracing Homosexuality Prepare Members to Accept the Anti-Christ: Russian Orthodox Leader,” Free Republic, accessed June 7, 2015, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/religion/3297404/posts?page=13.

[24] “A Report on the Homosexuality Debate in the Orthodox Church of Finland,” The Brotherhood of Saint Kosmas of Aitolia, accessed May 16, 2015, http://www.kosmas.fi/PDF-files-veljeston%20paasivu/Finn_Ort_Probl_2009_Autumn.pdf. I unfortunately have no access to information after 2009.

[25] “Report,” 4.

[26] The Church of Finland is an autonomous church under the canonical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

[27] “Report,” 4-5.

[28] Ibid., 69. The Orthodox Church typically holds the clergy to a higher standard than the laity in questions of marriage, remarriage, etc. It makes sense in this context not to extend the tolerance of same-sex relationships to the clergy or to candidates for ordination.

[29] “Homosexual Debate Complicates Relationship between the Orthodox in Russia and Finland.” AOIUSA: American Orthodox Institute, accessed May 3, 2015, http://www.aoiusa.org/the-question-about-homosexuals-is-complicating-relationships-between-the-orthodox-in-russia-and-finland/.

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