A VIRTUAL LISTENING TOUR: A seminarian speaks out

This is the eighth instalment in Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Fifty Years after Stonewall: A Virtual Listening Tour. 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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I write these notes “from the road,” so to speak. As a bisexual Orthodox Christian convert, my life of faith has not been an easy journey. As someone who inhabits all these experiences and feels a call to ministry, it has recently become even more challenging. Finishing my first year of seminary, I am only now beginning to realize the many obstacles our Church has placed before my desire to serve God’s people.

I speak to our bishops as one with a deep love for our faith, and I carry a sorrow that the fulness of this faith has been denied to my LGBT brothers and sisters, many of whom have been excommunicated from the Church. I cannot imagine the heartache that cradle Orthodox Christians must feel when their loves are demonized and they lose their place in the Church that has been a home for them for their entire lives. But as a convert, I do know what it means to feel like a stranger in one’s own country, and it is my continual desire to welcome all people into the family of God as surely as I have been welcomed.

I was raised in an evangelical Presbyterian parish. I was catechized well through our vibrant youth ministry program, but the teaching of the broader church on Sundays suffered from a suspicion of the outside world and a shame-based ideology of the self. As I began to have the first inklings that I might be bisexual around age 15, our parish had already begun to draw battle lines and to consider leaving the denomination if they permitted same-sex marriage.

It was at this time that God began to draw me toward the Orthodox Church. Its incarnational love for the body, its emphasis on theosis and the Christian life as a journey toward light and transfiguration, these truths were lifelines at a time when my church environment was becoming increasingly hostile to my existence. After coming out to my parents at age 17, I knew I could no longer remain evangelical. My youth leader, a wise man who would make a good monastic geronta, encouraged me to find my own path toward Christ. As I continued to pray and study the Orthodox faith, my love for Christ deepened and became more personal. I came to understand God’s love as a sure foundation in my heart. I knew that whatever the Church might say, God loves me as I am and shapes every part of my life, including my sexuality. In my limited way, I experienced perhaps a foretaste of that deep inner peace that pervades the hearts of God’s saints.

In college, as I worshipped in Orthodox parishes, had long talks with Orthodox folks and started catechism, I began to meet other LGBT Christians. Some were Orthodox, some not. Many of them were barely clinging to what was left of their faith after the Church had told them they were “sodomites,” “intrinsically disordered,” and other names indicating the Church’s opinion that they were unlovable. It broke my heart.

Many of them asked me how my faith had stayed fairly consistent through the ongoing assault of both Protestant demagogues and Orthodox “culture warriors.” A few of them asked me how I could convert to Orthodoxy, having a full knowledge of what I was getting into. I never felt like I had a perfect answer I could give them. But what I came to realize more and more was that my path as an Orthodox convert who came to the Church through a crisis of faith had led me on a path straight to the heart of our Holy Tradition. My time in the spiritual wilderness had kept me fairly isolated from contemporary debates of sexuality and the fear of modernity to which we as Orthodox Christians have caved at times. My reading companions were not the angry American priests protesting Obergefell, or the Old World bishops encouraging laity to “spit on” LGBT people. I came to the faith through the words of the Desert Fathers, through the mystics and the Athonite hesychasts, through Syrian theologians writing at the edge of empire.

And what I learned was that our faith has so much to offer queer folks of all backgrounds, if only our hierarchs would open their eyes. When I had been told, “Your body is a vessel of sin,” the saints said, “Your body is an icon of Christ.” When I had once heard, “All desire is shameful and you are destined to be lonely,” the Church encouraged me to be “smitten with yearning” for Christ, and told me that the desire we feel towards a lover can, by grace, become a path toward full personhood. Where Christian and secular homophobes painted “the gay lifestyle” as a kind of living death to be exchanged for a disembodied “Heaven”, my newfound faith helped me to celebrate queer community as a sign of the Resurrection. I learned to take joy in the gifts of love, friendship, pride, and communion here and now, for “Christ is risen from the dead, tramplig down death by death.” I stand amidst the great cloud of witnesses, our holy forebears who loved Christ and one another so much as to lay down their lives for the Kingdom of God. I think of those who lost their lives to anti-gay hate crimes, and I can’t help but feel that whether they knew Christ by name or not, in living unapologetically as themselves they were laying down their lives to witness to the Resurrection.

It is my hope that our church authorities will realize that our Tradition already recognizes the beauty of love, intimacy, and communion between all persons, the ways that God is glorified whenever queer Christians live lives of solidarity, celebration, and hope. Christians have always been strangers to the world, and they shocked the empire by their scandalous love for one another. If the witness of Holy Tradition has taught me anything, it is that my queer life in Christ is not a break with God’s work in the Church, but a new movement of that work.

As I study in seminary, and prayerfully prepare to serve the Church in whatever way I can, I’m beginning to understand why my comrades have found it so difficult to hold to the beauty of our faith. When I consider the priesthood, I am told that my sexuality is a barrier to the possibility of ordination, regardless of whether I am single or partnered. When I consider a lay vocation, I am told that the same concern remains, and that “there is only one ministry of the Church,” that of the priesthood. At times I begin to doubt whether I have a vocation, if the Church I love so much is so determined to keep me from using my gifts to help it flourish and grow in Christ. I want to give back to a community that has given so much of the love of Christ to me. I’m single now, but I worry about bringing a partner, man or woman, into the Church. How can I make them see the heart of the faith when its guardians seem so intent on keeping people out? How could I raise my potential children in a church whose leaders see me and my partner as a source of depravity? How could I teach them to love the faith as I have come to love it?

I am asking for our hierarchs’ help on this. Priests, bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, you have the power to speak up. You have the power to make lasting change for the inclusion of faithful LGBT Orthodox whose gifts will enrich the Church greatly. We are already here with you. We chant in your choirs, we serve the poor with you. We teach Sunday school, passing on the time-honoured truths of our Orthodox faith. We pray with you, laugh with you and cry with you, pursuing the sacramental journey toward theosis together. We ask, nay, demand for the sake of Christ and His saints, that you listen prayerfully to the deep voice of our Holy Tradition. That you consider how certain canons have been a hindrance to the resounding voice of love our faith proclaims, and do something about it.

Those who are afraid of God’s new work, who are afraid of the scandalous witness of the saints who have come before us, these people will always be present in our midst. They will complain and cry foul no matter what you do. But you leaders have the chance to proclaim in harmony with the church across the ages, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” No shadow, no shame, only queer and straight Orthodox Christians loving and serving the Lord in full equality together.

When we accomplish this, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”

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