A VIRTUAL LISTENING TOUR: Sexual and gender diversity at the dawn of modern Orthodox theology

This article by Giacomo Sanfilippo appeared on June 12 as an op-ed at the Kyiv Post. It marks the third instalment in Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Fifty Years after Stonewall: A Virtual Listening Tour. Although written for a Ukrainian context it applies equally to Canada, the US, and other locales around the world.
We urge our readers to forward the articles in this series to their diocesan bishops and parish priests. We beg our hierarchy and clergy to listen, attentively, reflectively, and prayerfully.
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Artur Korniienko’s Lawmaker Again Sues to Ban Kyiv Pride, Uses Anti-LGBTQ Hate Speech of June 8 serves as a case in point for my recent appeals (May 17 and June 2)  to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) to encourage President Zelensky and the Verkhovna Rada to  safeguard and expand civil rights for Ukraine’s LGBTQ citizens. Many of these are faithful Orthodox Christians. Many more would come if the Ukrainian Church followed the lead of her sister Orthodox Church of Finland and offered a safe spiritual home for Ukraine’s LGBTQ Christians to live their life in Christ out of the closet and in the Church.

The fact that lawmaker Ihor Mosiychuk feels justified to call on “God’s help” to defame his fellow human beings and citizens as “perverts, degenerates, genetic garbage,” and a threat to Ukrainian children makes it all the more imperative that the OCU and the entire membership of the All Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) condemn the diffusion of such hateful rhetoric in the name of religion. Time and again we see, where such toxicity is allowed to proliferate unchecked, that a social climate is perpetuated in which physical violence against LGBTQ people and a higher suicide rate than the general population inevitably ensue. Communities of faith have a moral obligation to protect all minorities from the depredations of the dominant society, including sexual and gender minorities. Yet too often—in the present as in the past—organized religion has taken the lead as society’s preeminent discursive and physical persecutor of anyone whose ethnic, linguistic, racial, religious, sexual, or gender identity is perceived as a threat to the established order. For her part in these persecutions, the Orthodox Church must repent.

I have also appealed to the Ukrainian Church to promote a spirit of open theological inquiry into questions of sexual and gender diversity in human nature. Here we have a significant precedent from a century ago, at the very dawn of modern Orthodox theology—in Russia, of all places.

Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), a Russian priest executed by the Soviets and widely regarded today as both a saint and one of the 20th century’s foremost Orthodox theologians, was already married, ordained, and the father of his first child when he published the world’s first Christian theology of same-sex love in a 1914 essay entitled “Friendship.” (For a more detailed account of the following, see my Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love.) In it he sets forth his theological vision for a lifelong, monogamous union of two Orthodox men which resembles marriage in virtually every aspect except procreation, including the presumption of bodily intimacy as only natural. He regards the ancient Orthodox liturgy of brother-making as the proper vehicle for the Church to sanctify this relationship. He calls the two partners each other’s sputnik zhizni, or “co-wayfarer of life”—an expression which refers virtually always to one’s husband. In my own work I have taken my inspiration from Florensky and created the expression conjugal friendship as a theological substitute for “same-sex union,” on the basis of the broader meaning of conjugal as co-yoked in a range of marital and non-marital contexts.

What makes “Friendship” all the more remarkable as a spiritual testimony to the innate goodness of same-sex love is its autobiographical character. It memorializes for posterity the relationship that Florensky had shared for several years with Sergei Troitsky, his roommate at the Moscow Theological Academy when the two were in their 20s. They were known as a couple to the faculty and their fellow students at the Academy, their friends, their families, and even the elderly monk who served as their spiritual father. They dreamed of spending the rest of their life together in an izba in the forests of Kostroma after completion of their theological studies. Florensky wrote homoerotic love poems to Troitsky.

A number of factors intervened to cut their plans short. Yet Florensky continued to love Troitsky with aching tenderness from afar, even after their respective marriages and Troitsky’s shocking death at the hands of a murderer. Although “Friendship” was written while the two were still a couple, Troitsky did not live to see it published.

In addition to the question of same-sex love and how the Orthodox Church might sanctify these relationships in her sacramental life, Florensky engaged with the nascent field of gender theory decades before its “discovery” in postmodernity. He considered it indisputable that gender existed in a fluid state and there could be no question of concrete gender. He posited the absence of an essential correlation between gender and biological sex to account for his own predilection for men and lack of interest in women.

From our retrospective vantage point today the irony in all this consists in the fact that Florensky was raised from infancy in Tbilisi, and to Tbilisi he took Troitsky to meet his family—where just over a hundred years later the American priest Josiah Trenham traveled to spew his homophobic hysteria at the 2016 World Congress of Families.

The month of Kyiv Pride and the Equality March represents a clear opportunity for Metropolitan Epiphanius and the OCU to muster the courage to begin reaching out in a spirit of nonjudgmental dialogue and pastoral love to the LGBTQ members of Ukrainian society and to those in hiding in the Church. These are neither perverts, nor degenerates, nor genetic garbage, nor a threat to the children of Ukraine. They are fellow human beings made in the image of God.

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