While Orthodoxy in Dialogue encourages priests to write for us on sexuality and gender using their full name in the byline, the author of this open letter presented a sufficiently compelling reason to remain anonymous. We can vouch for his identity and have confirmed his good standing in the AOCA.
Addendum 1/17/20: See also On Josiah Trenham: Why the Deafening Silence from Metropolitan Joseph? after reading this Open Letter.
Metropolitan Joseph (Al-Zehlaoui) and Archpriest Josiah Trenham of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese
I’ll get straight to the point of this article—on issues related to homosexuality, politics, and the Church, Father Josiah Trenham of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese (AOCA) has done incalculable damage. As I will highlight in this article, not only has this damage led to numerous people leaving the Orthodox Church, but it also seems to have spurred a discussion going in the opposite direction of his approach, with arguments being made to accept same-sex marriage as a norm. Most importantly, this uncharitable approach has deeply wounded many of our faithful who struggle against same-sex attraction and try to lead a godly life. If we Orthodox are to care for all people who come to us in a way that allows us to stay true to our Holy Tradition, our hierarchy must ensure that priests like Father Josiah are tempered in the same manner as others who have spoken out on opposite sides of the spectrum.
My purpose in writing this article is to bring attention to Father Josiah’s words and actions because I am quite certain that my brother clergy and the vast majority of the faithful are unaware of these things. Certainly, had they been aware, there would have been an effort to speak with him privately to remove his material from the internet and to cease speaking and teaching in the manner outlined below. Related to that, I wish to state at the outset that I do know Father Josiah personally, and we have spoken about our disagreements. (Unfortunately, with the current climate on this topic in the Antiochian Archdiocese, I feel forced to publish this article anonymously).) I have even worked with him towards common goals on issues where we are like-minded. I am not calling for Father Josiah to be “punished;” I simply want his teachings that are contrary to the Orthodox faith and witness to be corrected and for those materials to be removed from the public sphere.
If this article moves you to protect the Church from Father Josiah’s harmful actions, you can let the leaders of the Archdiocese know your thoughts via the following:
[Editor’s note: You need not be a member of the Antiochian Archdiocese or even Orthodox to phone or email your concerns about what follows in this open letter.
You may also contact CEO John Maddex at email@example.com to request that all of Father Trenham’s content be removed from Ancient Faith until thoroughly evaluated for its appropriateness.]
I also want to state at the outset that this essay is not an endorsement of the controversial and recently retracted article by Father Aaron Warwick of the Antiochian Archdiocese [Pastoring LGBTQ Individuals in the Orthodox Church and Public Statement]. I have several substantial disagreements with that article, but elucidating those is not my point in writing here. My point is to call attention to the fact that there is a reason priests and laypeople are reacting to Father Josiah Trenham: he has been implicitly endorsed by our church hierarchy who allow him to keep his un-Orthodox and uncharitable material available online—even promoting some of it for sale. My hope in writing this article is very simple. I do not wish to “tar and feather” Father Josiah: I simply hope that our clergy and laity will encourage our hierarchs to privately instruct Father Josiah about the damage he is causing and will have him retract and take down his deeply offensive and un-Orthodox material.
I should note that I personally know a number of people who have left the Church not only due to Father Josiah’s behavior, but, even more specifically, because of the Church’s silence and inaction, which they believe implicitly condones this behavior. I wish I could wholeheartedly disagree with them. I still want to believe that the hierarchy simply don’t know the extent of what he is doing or saying, or perhaps they just don’t understand the cultural impact of his actions. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to do so.
I will outline below, in chronological order, four egregious instances (there are many more) in which Father Josiah’s behavior and words related to same-sex issues have done significant damage to the spiritual well-being of many of our parishioners, as well as irreparable harm to the Orthodox Church’s reputation as a loving hospital for sick souls. Because of his actions, he is now listed as a religious figure promoting hate by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and People for the American Way.
Whatever one’s opinion of either of these groups may be, it is important to note that they do not label churches or individuals as hate groups simply for being morally opposed to homosexuality. Rather, they identify figures who, through their words or actions, harmfully disparage and contribute to the persecution of marginalized groups. Sadly, I must agree with them that Father Josiah’s words and actions, both of commission and omission, have clearly crossed these lines. And in each of the following four cases, he has harmed the faith of many Orthodox Christians, a number of whom have left the Church.
Summer 2008—California’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban
Father Josiah posted to his parish’s website an announcement that they would begin praying the paraklesis on a regular basis in order to “stem the rising tide of sodomy in our state.” The subtext for this announcement was California’s ballot proposition to amend the state constitution in order to prohibit state recognition of same-sex marriage. (Note: The parish website has been significantly reworked since then and this page can no longer be found.) At the time, I was pastoring ten college students who had recently converted to the Orthodox faith, several of whom even were planning to vote in favor of this prohibition of same-sex marriage (i.e. they were opposed to same-sex marriage being legalized).
Nevertheless, Father Josiah’s announcement scandalized all of them for two main reasons. The first was his use of the heavily charged term “sodomy.” The second reason the students were scandalized, however, struck me even more deeply. They wanted to know why, out of all the social ills going on in the world, from famine to homelessness to wars that our own hierarchs correctly and bravely oppose as unjust, Father Josiah was singling out the LGBTQ community as a menace worthy of special prayer services. One of these young people, who knew the Bible and church history like the back of his hand, wanted to know why Father Josiah was using a politically-charged term like sodomy, and not focusing on what the Bible indicates was the sin of Sodom: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ez 16:49). As this student correctly noted, this is the underlying sin of America.
I assured this young man that Father Josiah’s views were not representative of the Orthodox Church as a whole. But gradually, over the next decade, because no one challenged Father Josiah’s attack on the LGBTQ community, because no one redirected him to Ezekiel’s and Jesus’ attacks on those who fail to care for the poor and needy, over half of these young people no longer attend Orthodox churches, despite the fact that they are still fully committed to living out the Gospel teaching.
June 30, 2015—Fallout Over the Same-Sex Marriage Ruling of the Supreme Court
Father Josiah continued his uncharitable attacks on gays and lesbians over the next several years, but they appear to have intensified significantly in 2015. (The previous Patriarch of Antioch and the previous Metropolitan Archbishop of North America had passed away in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Perhaps this is relevant, or perhaps it is a mere coincidence, but it is worth noting that Father Josiah’s behavior has intensified since these changes at the top of the Antiochian hierarchy.)
On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. Faithful Orthodox Christians have been understandably divided on their reactions to this ruling, and I have my own mixed feelings. What is undeniably clear, however, is that Father Josiah’s ensuing behavior the following Sunday was deeply offensive and in flagrant violation of church traditions. At the Sunday Divine Liturgy of June 28, 2015, Fr. Josiah vested in black vestments and preached a sermon entirely focused on the Supreme Court and its ruling, with no reference to the appointed Gospel for that Sunday. (Ironically, he could have easily preached on the appointed Gospel, Mt 8:5-13, and indicated that Christ could heal people struggling with their sexuality just as he healed the centurion’s servant.)
I was, of course, serving at my own parish that Sunday morning and not in attendance at Father Josiah’s parish; but there was a text message on my phone that afternoon from someone who was there and was concerned. I was somewhat in disbelief and assured the parishioner that Father Josiah had simply overreacted and this issue would “blow over.”
But then, two days later, Father Josiah proudly published the transcript and audio of his sermon (with description of his actions) on Ancient Faith Radio (listen here). It should be noted that, according to its website, “Ancient Faith Ministries is a department of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America with a pan-Orthodox outreach.”
Since this material was posted on a website that is a department of the AOCA, I thought for certain that these actions and comments would be chastised. I felt confident that the transcript would, at the very least, be removed, and, hopefully, an apology issued. And yet, more than four years later they remain in a public location, and one that is often a first stop for inquirers, catechumens, and the faithful. Sadly, I have received many more concerned questions about these remarks and actions since they were published, meaning people are still viewing this uncharitable material.
It should be pointed out that black vestments are used so rarely in services that many priests/parishes do not even own any. They are for use only in the first week of Lent and Holy Week, and often are reserved solely for Great and Holy Friday. Yet Father Josiah wore them (and instructed all of his concelebrants to wear them) at a Sunday celebration of the resurrection of Christ! To replace festive gold with the black of mourning on a day celebrating the resurrection is inexcusable and disrespectful to the symbolism and tradition of our Church. Father Josiah further explained that what had happened that day in America was worse than if a parishioner had died: “You’re wondering, probably, who died, and I haven’t told you yet. Much, much worse than that, brothers and sisters. I wish that, instead of the cause for wearing black vestments today, I had only the sorrow to tell you that one of our beloved passed away….”
Father Josiah has never worn black vestments when American bombs have rained down killing innocent children (many of them Orthodox) in the Middle East—in wars that our hierarchs have vocally and correctly opposed as unjust. Father Josiah has never worn black vestments to mourn the homeless crisis in California that a UN inspector has deemed one of the worst situations in the world. Instead, a Supreme Court ruling that did not directly affect the life of the Church warranted this action in his eyes.
If he did these things without the blessing of his bishop, there should have been a sharp reprimand and his sermon should have been removed from Ancient Faith Radio—and it still should be removed now. If he did these things with the blessing of his bishop, then we have an even bigger problem, and the Antiochian hierarchs themselves need to be called out for their hypocrisy and the pastoral harm they are actively countenancing. It is well past time for this rebuke to come, an apology to be issued, and for this sermon to be taken off of a prominent Orthodox website. It continues to do damage to our faithful, as well as to our reputation as a place of love and healing.
May 15-18, 2016—The World Congress of Families and the SPLC HateWatch
Because Father Josiah’s behavior was not disciplined, he went on to catch the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for his disturbing remarks at the World Congress of Families in the nation of Georgia. The SPLC characterized the gathering as a whole a showcase of “anti-LGBT rhetoric and conspiracy theories,” but described Father Josiah’s address as “one of the more virulently anti-LGBT speeches” at the four-day event. [See the SPLC report here.]
Some lowlights include Father Josiah’s declaration that “today the USA has a national ambassador for the promotion of sodomy,” and his dire warning that the “lavender mafia, these homofascists, these rainbow radicals” will turn Tbilisi into a city like San Francisco, “where there are 80,000 more dogs in the city limits than there are children.” Most horrific of all, Father Josiah—who ordinarily has nothing but mockery and scorn for Muslims, Muhammad, and their sacred texts—referred to the Qur’an with implicit approval, stating, “Muhammad is recorded as ordering the execution of anyone practicing sodomy.” Several in the crowd actually applauded this comment—applause that Father Josiah did not reprimand during the speech, and applause that he danced around when interviewed about the topic, as I will show below.
The use of such extreme, conspiratorial, and apocalyptic language—in a nation like Georgia, where violence against LGBT individuals remains quite high—is at the very least wildly irresponsible. Groups like the SPLC and People for the American Way are understandably concerned that it can incite violence. Journalist Natalia Antelava gave Father Josiah the opportunity to clarify his position and asked him specifically if he had considered that it could incite violence in Georgia. While he claimed he did not approve of the death penalty for homosexuals, he gave literally no answer for why he did not rebuke the crowd for their applause, only noting that he disagreed with it and so just continued his speech without much pause. You can hear this interview for yourself here: the segment on Father Josiah begins at the 36:45 mark. The applause can be heard at 38:05. There is also a transcript of the interview towards the bottom of the linked webpage.
With complete disregard to widely available statistics and well documented news reports, Father Josiah told Antelava (in the recorded conversation linked above) that he does not believe violence against homosexuals is of any significant concern. He even went so far as to suggest—with no evidence whatsoever—that it is the LGBT community who is a violent threat to religious conservatives! This is despite the fact that the BBC [here] and New York Times [here] both reported on violence (led by Georgian Orthodox priests!!) against LGBT Pride parades in Georgia in both 2012 and 2013.
Antelava specifically pointed out the problems with Father Josiah’s invocation of Muslim death penalties, telling him, “A lot of people took that as an incitement of violence in a country which is known for really bad violence against the LGBT community.” He responded, “You’re suggesting things to me about Georgia that I do not agree with and do not accept. It’s been my experience that those who are for provocation and violence are the LGBTs themselves who are very aggressive and very openly mocking people of traditional faith, so the idea that somehow they are a threatened minority, I think that they are doing the threatening….” Such brazenly false and dangerous assertions about the dangers that marginalized communities pose have historically incited violence, not only against LGBT peoples, but against Jews, Blacks, Indigenous peoples, etc.
Again, despite the SPLC and other groups writing stories about Father Josiah’s extremely dangerous remarks, the hierarchy seem to be turning a blind eye. Father Josiah’s video of this talk is still available on his YouTube channel. He has not been required to take down the video. No apology has been issued. Father Josiah’s voice and propaganda sadly continue to go unchecked.
Our Church’s name has been dragged through the mud, more Orthodox faithful that I know have left, and pious and faithful parishioners struggling with same-sex attraction and following the Church’s traditional teachings with respect to that have been deeply wounded. Again, these wounds are not only because of Father Josiah’s words and actions, but because the church hierarchy has seemingly turned a blind eye to them, implicitly endorsing his behavior and words.
July 2018: “Patriotism” and Patristic Nectar Publications
If there were any hopes that Father Josiah may have been privately reprimanded after his remarks in Georgia, they were dashed by his speech at the Parish Life Conference in Portland, and his subsequent audio series on his website Patristic Nectar Publishing, entitled “Patriotism: The Duty of a Christian to His Nation.” This five-part series is riddled with conservative Presbyterian theological concepts that have dubious place in Orthodoxy. It is worth noting here that Father Josiah has degrees from two Protestant institutions, the evangelical Westmont College and the Presbyterian Westminster Seminary, but no academic degrees from any Orthodox institution.
There is no room here to tackle the numerous problems throughout this series, but a few quick observations are important. First, Father Josiah adopts a stance throughout this lecture series that America is a “Christian nation,” and that its identity as such derives from its enshrinement of Christian morality in our laws. In order to make this claim, one would expect him—especially as an academic—to at least address the racism, misogyny, slavery, Indigenous genocide, and countless other immoral actions and beliefs of the majority of the founding figures of this country. Instead of making any such argument, Father Josiah waves off concerns about these aspects of American history as “nonsense.”
Second, Father Josiah’s argument fuses classic Protestant theological affirmations of America with anachronistic readings of the Bible and the church fathers in order to endorse American exceptionalism from a Christian perspective and to claim that we now live in a “degraded” and “post-Christian” society. For Father Josiah, a culture that has abandoned the horrors described above, given women equal rights to men, abolished slavery, and ended racial segregation and Indigenous genocide has somehow become degraded and post-Christian because it has legalized same-sex marriage.
Father Josiah thus makes arguments that come close to theonomy, a form of Christian totalitarianism popular in conservative Presbyterian circles. Theonomists hold that there should be no distinction between Christian morality (Christian law) and secular law. The most extreme adherents claim that all criminal punishments in Leviticus should still be in effect. Father Josiah does not explicitly go this far, but he adamantly defends the idea that Christians have the right to “impose their morality” on others because “all legislation is imposed morality.” America’s status is once again exceptional as a Christian nation, despite centuries of genocide and slavery, but will now bring the curse of the prophet Isaiah (Is 5:20) upon us because we now are practicing the “exaltation of sexual anarchy and sexual perversion.”
Relying on these deeply problematic misrepresentations of history and on non-Orthodox theological “foundations,” Father Josiah feels confident enough to openly mock a gay California politician for stating that he has struggled with his sexual orientation and his spirituality. He cackles at this same man for his “intellectual deficiency,” for being “against nature,” and “for living in open sodomy.” He endorses conversion therapy (which is not and never has been a part of the Orthodox response to same-sex attraction), and he audaciously conflates it with Orthodox conversion and repentance.
Once again, our bishops continue to do nothing. In fact, Father Josiah is allowed to charge $15 just to listen to his hateful and condescending nonsense.
The offensive and destructive implications that these attitudes have for marginalized groups throughout American history is massive. Our college-educated young people are rightfully disturbed. I have witnessed significant numbers of people have crises of faith and simply withdraw. I have seen so many others leave altogether. But perhaps most importantly, I have seen our brothers and sisters, faithful Orthodox Christians who struggle against same-sex attraction and work tirelessly to commit themselves to celibacy, be deeply harmed by Father Josiah’s words, and by the implicit condoning of these words by our hierarchs who allow this material to be publicly available or even sold as valuable Orthodox insights.
I will conclude by asking my brother clergy and my fellow faithful of the Antiochian Archdiocese and the broader Orthodox Church here in North America: What kind of Church do we want? Is it a Church that alienates the spiritually thirsty from what we all so desperately need? Do we really want to implicitly (or worse yet, explicitly) endorse the words and actions of Father Josiah Trenham as they relate to same-sex attraction, relationships, and marriage? Or is it an open, confident, warm, and loving Church that teaches a message of hope and a path to salvation that is relevant to all? Is it a Church that stands by its traditional teachings in a loving and welcoming way, or is it a Church that allows its priests to incite violence against marginalized groups and to deeply wound its faithful who are doing their best to live according to the fulness of the Gospel?
If you want a Church that welcomes all people and encourages them (as the Church has historically done)—no matter what their struggles—then your bishops need to hear from you. [See phone numbers and email addresses above.] We cannot continue to allow these types of uncharitable and harmful teachings to pollute holy Orthodoxy. We must ensure that these types of videos, sermons, and speeches are no longer available to be viewed online, and most especially on websites that are official departments of our Church.
Editorial addendum 1/14/20: Until the Archdiocese responds to the concerns outlined above we will accept comments at firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion in a single post. If you’re a layperson, sign with your first name, second initial, and city of residence. If you’re hierarchy or clergy, sign with “A bishop/priest/deacon of (your jurisdiction),” no name or location needed.
See Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s “The Good Wife” According to Father Josiah Trenham: Does Metropolitan Joseph Approve? for our unsuccessful attempt to elicit a response from Metropolitan Joseph to Father Trenham’s poisonous, misogynistic “teachings” on marriage and, more recently, to our grave concerns about several other Antiochian priests in our Editorial: The “Morality” of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese?. The latter includes links to all of the articles that we have published on Father Trenham, which have been read by tens of thousands of our followers around the world.
See the Fifty Years after Stonewall and Sexuality and Gender sections in our Archives 2017-19 and Archives 2020.
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