Kyiv Pride. June 2016. (Radio Free Europe)

On May 14 UNIAN reported that Ukraine ranks 35th out of 49 European countries on an index of LGBTQ rights and protections. The methodology for creating this ranking is described at ILGA Europe, while the full list of countries and rankings is found on its Rainbow Europe page. Rainbow Europe is funded by the European Union.

With the refreshing exception of Greece—which fares at #14 even better than such countries as Germany, Ireland, and Iceland, and where the Pew Research Center reports among Orthodox Christians an unexpectedly high rate of acceptance of homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular—majoritarian Orthodox countries fall predictably low on the list. Yet Montenegro at #22 and Georgia at #24 score higher than Switzerland at #27 and Italy at #34. Russia lands with a thud fourth from the bottom at #46, surprising no one. Only Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan score worse.

Ukraine’s poor performance squares with Amnesty International’s Ukraine: Attack on LGBTI Event Highlights Police Failure to Confront Far-Right Violence and my own Sexuality and Citizenship in Ukraine, both of which appeared in May 2018.

President-elect Zelensky’s commitment to Ukraine’s full EU membership, coupled with the fact that growing numbers of Ukrainians are taking advantage of the visa-free regime with the EU to experience the comparative openness of Western society for themselves, gives reason for hope that Ukraine will move to become a more welcoming place for its own LGBTQ citizens to live and work and for LGBTQ tourists to visit—and spend their money. Like it or not, economic benefits often prove the decisive factor when the pursuit of social justice for its own sake does not suffice for the body politic to do the right thing. 

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) can provide bold leadership in this initiative in two overlapping spheres: the one external to the Church, having to do with her role in creating a more just civil society where all feel welcome and safe; and the other internal, having to do with exploring questions of sexuality and gender from a deeper theological and pastoral perspective.

In A new political theology for 21st-century Ukrainian Orthodoxy I proffered the following vision for the Ukrainian Church’s engagement with civil society:

Rather than rely on state power to make Ukraine more Orthodox, the Ukrainian Church must renounce worldly power and manifest herself as a gentle partner with the state to make Ukraine more just—for all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, ethnic and linguistic origins, socioeconomic status, political persuasions, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. In this way the Church reveals—subtly, invitingly, and not coercively—the attractiveness of the Gospel and of a spiritual manner of living not for oneself but in humble service to others precisely in their radical otherness.

As head of Ukraine’s largest religious body, Metropolitan Epiphanius of the OCU occupies a unique position of influence from which to urge the All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations to reverse its longstanding opposition to civil rights and protections for Ukraine’s LGBTQ citizens. This will require enormous spiritual courage on his part. As reported by Gay Alliance Ukraine in December 2015, the OCU’s predecessor church took a harsh position on this question. In March 2016 Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church—with whom Epiphanius enjoys cordial relations—took a similarly unenlightened view on human rights for LGBTQ people. Yet in a 21st-century secular democracy such as Ukraine has already made commendable strides to become, faith communities derive no benefit from depriving those outside the walls of their churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples of their rightful place in a pluralistic civil society. Quite the contrary: in working tirelessly for the expansion of freedoms for everyone, they shine a light on the truth and beauty of their religious beliefs as caring for all and oppressing none.

In this way the OCU would set a shining example not only for the Orthodox Church in other Eastern European countries, but even for the Orthodox Church in the West.

The task of exploring contemporary questions of sexuality and gender through the lens of Orthodox theology and pastoral practice has been well underway in the West. For supporters and detractors alike, the three Orthodox publications that stand out most conspicuously for their work in this field are Fordham University’s Public Orthodoxy, the independent journal The Wheel, and perhaps most voluminously, my own Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

The Spring/Summer 2018 issue of The Wheel (in which my Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love introduces the topic of my proposed doctoral dissertation) was devoted entirely to these kinds of questions. Significantly, the guest editorial was written by world renowned Orthodox theologian, Father Andrew Louth of the Russian Orthodox Church in the UK, and the foreword by no less important a figure than Metropolitan Kallistos (aka Timothy) Ware of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the UK. Ware’s book The Orthodox Church has brought countless numbers to the Orthodox faith over many decades.

My MA thesis, A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love, has also garnered a level of attention beyond all expectations.

Yet another resource for contemporary Orthodox thought on sexuality and gender is a collection of essays by several international authors under the title, “For I Am Wonderfully Made”: Texts on Orthodoxy and LGBT Inclusion.

In separating herself canonically from the Moscow Patriarchate, and aspiring to be the Church in and for a progressive European nation, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been freed from the anti-Western hysteria which Kremlin and Patriarchate spew with a united voice. Over time the Ukrainian Church will discover the multiple layers on which her new freedom exists. One of these will most surely be the intellectual and spiritual freedom to explore complex theological questions in a spirit of openness, unshackled by the Russian Church’s shameless complicity with the divide-and-conquer geopolitical fantasies of arguably one of the West’s greatest threats.    

In this new climate it’s easy to hope that Ukrainian theologians will emerge to join us in the Orthodox Church’s important work on the proper place of sexual and gender diversity in Christian life.

This article appeared earlier today at the Kyiv Post. On this topic see also Ukrainian Voices from Abroad: Giacomo Sanfilippo’s Advice for Zelenskiy.
See the extensive Ukraine and Sexuality and Gender sections in our Archives by Author.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian of Ukrainian and Lemko descent on his mother’s side, a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and the founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College, both in 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 work for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary near New York City. The father of five and grandfather of two, he was a priest from 1988 to 2002. His religious commentary for the Kyiv Post is archived here.

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