The executive editor of a major academic publisher has invited Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s editor Giacomo Sanfilippo to submit a book proposal on his vision for an Orthodox theological, spiritual, and pastoral approach to same-sex love. As “sample chapters,” in the interests of time, he included with his proposal the introduction and conclusion from his MA thesis, A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love. We have already published the introduction here. The conclusion follows below.
If you download the full thesis, it should be read in conjunction with Sanfilippo’s A Bed Undefiled: A Partial Retraction, Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love, and From the Fathers: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like…Two Men in Bed Together?
The limitations of a master’s thesis have allowed me to do no more than lay a foundation for a more fully developed theology and spirituality of same-sex love. Much remains unsaid, much unexplored in the foregoing chapters. For one thing, my sources represent an admittedly androcentric focus; yet my pastoral concern extends to girls and women of same-sex orientation no less than to boys and men. I hope to correct this imbalance in a much more thorough, more detailed future study. I undertook this task not under the illusion of offering anything exhaustive or conclusive, but in the more modest hope of fostering a conversation which the institutional church has proven singularly unwilling to have.
It becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the irrational fear that underlies much of the discourse in the Orthodox Church, incited by the imaginary existential and moral “threat” posed by same-sex oriented persons. Custodians of a Tradition known for the depth and nuance of its theology and scriptural hermeneutic, its spirituality and soteriology, its approach to the canons, contemporary trends in its theological anthropology, and its care for the human person, we would do well to ask ourselves why—on this one question of same-sex orientation alone—we flee for shelter under the cover of a literalist fundamentalism entirely foreign to the spirit of Orthodoxy and entirely inadmissible in any other domain of Orthodox theological inquiry.
Orthodox pronouncements rejective of the moral equivalence of same-sex and opposite-sex orientation—even within the context of a loving, covenanted relationship—betray an obsessive preoccupation with the graphically imagined sexual practices of same-sex couples. They reduce same-sex love to “acts,” isolating sex as a thing-in-itself, apart from the communion of persons that it expresses and actualizes even at its most promiscuous. They close their eyes to the heightened sense of inner communion experienced by same-sex partners through the bodily enactment of their spiritual love. They ignore the fact that same-sex couples, no different from their opposite-sex counterparts, commit themselves to lifelong fidelity not in order to have sex, but to devote themselves more fully to each other’s bodily, spiritual, emotional, and material care, and to forge a spiritual partnership within the asceticism of monogamy. An Orthodox same-sex couple’s love for each other and their shared love for Christ and the Church subsume each other indivisibly. Their relationship opens itself to the transformative action of divine grace, and becomes over the years of their life together ever more participant in, ever more reflective of, divine love. They experience ever more profoundly, in their shared trials and joys as in their reciprocal giving and receiving of bodily pleasure, the “knitting” of their two souls into one. The Orthodox same-sex couple becomes a “little church,” the “two or three” gathered in Christ’s name, a beacon of God’s luminous presence and a harbinger of the life to come in the little corner of the world given to them to inhabit.
The living testimony of human experience demonstrates that same-sex orientation, no more reducible to its sinful aspects than opposite-sex orientation, bears within itself the seed of the inscrutably and indelibly transcendent mysteriousness of erotic love, created very beautiful by God as a reflection of and participation in the unitive love of uncreated trinitarian being. Certainly, in the fallen conditions of human life, same-sex and opposite-sex orientation share the propensity to miss the mark in carnal pleasure for its own sake, in the objectification of sexual partners as instruments of self-gratification, in the perpetration of psychic and bodily violence. Yet they also share the innate capacity of the human person’s unitive impulse, whether oriented emotionally and spiritually towards one’s own gender or the opposite, to be purified through uncreated grace and lifelong ascesis into a more resplendent image and likeness of divine love.
For a few Orthodox Christians in every generation—whether same-sex or opposite-sex oriented—the ascetical struggle for the purification of eros assumes a strictly sublimatory form in a life of monastic abstinence, freely chosen and uncoerced. We revere monasticism as the “angelic life” because it anticipates here and now the future aeon of the resurrection, in which “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
Yet the great majority of Orthodox Christians—regardless of their sexual orientation—feel neither called nor suited to monastic life. For them the project of life transfigured in Christ seeks its proper locus within the asceticism of a covenanted relationship of spiritual, emotional, and sexual monogamy. We cannot stress this enough: in a world that promotes with increasing aggressiveness an unlimited range of sexual possibilities for persons of whatever orientation, where even the married find no lack of social and cultural inducements to gratify their desires and curiosities elsewhere when spouses do not share the same sexual tastes or interests, the fact that two Orthodox Christians of whatever sexual orientation should desire to consecrate their souls and bodies to a mutually sacrificial life of monogamous coupledom constitutes an ascetical commitment no less radical, no less heroic, no less chaste than that of monasticism.
Paradoxically, Moberly and Zion agree with the fundamental premise of this thesis: namely, that same-sex oriented persons enter into coupled relationships to fulfil legitimate spiritual and emotional needs. While Moberly sees a non-sexual same-sex relationship as a necessary stepping stone to “normal” opposite-sex relations through the remediation of early childhood deficits, Hopko and Zion express serious reservations that such an orientational reversal can occur. Moberly never makes clear whether her “healing” of same-sex orientation entails the actual eradication of same-sex desire or simply the ability to perform opposite-sex coitus to completion—an ability, incidentally, that a great many men and women who identify as same-sex oriented already possess. Zion affirms, more unambiguously than Moberly or Hopko, that sexual orientation represents a fundamentally emotional affinity to one’s own or the opposite gender from early childhood. He alone accepts, pastorally and pragmatically, the need of same-sex oriented persons to form permanent couples. He acknowledges the difficulty of making tidy distinctions between “sexual” and “non-sexual” gestures of affection in a coupled relationship, and recognizes that same-sex couples can be expected to desexualize their relationships no more realistically than opposite-sex couples. Yet he remains conflicted on the morality of bodily enactments of same-sex love much beyond holding hands, while he admits their inevitability.
Florensky wrote during an era in cultural history that had witnessed a growing awareness and even limited acceptance of same-sex orientation by the educated classes of Western Europe and Russia. Certainly he did not regard his own enduring attraction to men as problematic, but rather as the inspiration for a central aspect of his theology and ecclesiology. The product of a vibrantly creative intellectual and religious milieu vastly different from that of today’s culture wars, this married priest, theologian, pater familias, and eventual martyr for the Faith had the freedom to offer the modern Orthodox Church, without ecclesiastical censure, a pioneering theological vision of the beauty, holiness, and traditional foundations of monogamous Christian male coupledom. He portrays these pairings as permanent spiritual partnerships, sealed in the rite of adelphopoiesis, indistinguishable from opposite-sex marriage in their inner spiritual content and the expectation of lifelong exclusivity. The principal and perhaps sole difference resides in the non-procreative nature of the same-sex relationship: whereas sanctified Christian marriage creates “one flesh,” sanctified Christian friendship creates “one soul.” Yet this “friendship” subsumes the mysteriously unitive force of eros between two men and entails no disembodiment of their love. Florensky describes as a matter of course a range of bodily expressivity for their oneness of soul that includes cuddling, kissing, and sleeping in the same bed. As spiritual paradigms for Christian male couples united in an exclusive, lifelong, covenanted relationship, he cites David and Jonathan, the organization of the Twelve and of the Seventy “two by two,” the frequent pairing of male saints in hagiography and liturgical commemorations, and ultimately Jesus and John.
The rite of adelphopoiesis, which Florensky calls uncontroversially a sacrament, has a complex history for which the existing record leaves many questions unanswered. Its use by the higher echelons of Byzantine society to solidify dynastic, military, and economic alliances offers few clues to the proper meaning and purpose envisioned for it by the Church. We find no evidence upon which to draw an exact analogy between adelphopoiesis and today’s ideas of same-sex marriage, nor to suppose that the Church ever condoned or even turned a blind eye to the full range of bodily expressivity associated with same-sex love, but much evidence to the contrary. Throughout this thesis I have sought to distance myself from the fanciful historical revisionism of Boswell, but equally from the wilful blindness of his detractors to the possibilities latent in this sacramental mystery for pastoral application today. In the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church, where Prosper of Aquitaine’s lex orandi lex credendi est carries especially significant weight, the variant recensions of the adelphopoietic rite achieve the sacramental sanctification of extraordinarily close bonds of spiritual intimacy between two men, and presupposes an essentially ecclesial vision of their relationship. Several points of resemblance exist between the rubrical details of Adelphopoiesis and those of Baptism, Marriage, and Holy Orders. The sanctification of the male couple culminates in their partaking of Holy Communion together.
The ambiguities in both the historical record and the liturgical texts for Adelphopoiesis may prove paradoxically to be its greatest strength: it has shown remarkable adaptability to shifting pastoral needs over the course of its long history. It seems eminently feasible that the holy mystery of Adelphopoiesis might provide the vehicle for the Church to bless same-sex couples who wish to consecrate themselves to a vocation of faithful monogamy in sacrificial service to each other, to Christ, to the Church, and to the world.
Some church fathers view the love of David and Jonathan as no less a type of the nuptial union of Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church as St. Paul writes of marriage. The inauguration of this nuptial union at the first Eucharist sees Christ clinging not to a woman, but to John, the disciple whom He loved, whose Gospel depicts a close analogy between their relationship and that of the Son to the Father. This anticipates Florensky’s observation that exclusive Orthodox male friends and lovers, committed to lifelong co-ascesis, discover in their life together their “other self,” their “other I,” their “one soul,” the first fruits of consubstantiality to be perfected in the future kingdom already in our midst. The appointment of John 17:18-26 to the adelphopoietic liturgy—uttered by Christ while holding, or immediately after having held, John in His arms—further conveys the understanding that the male couple sacramentally united stands in a direct line of typological and spiritually genealogical descent from David and Jonathan, Jesus and John, the paired apostles, and the paired male saints of every era, foremost among them Sergius and Bacchus.
In no way do we wish to represent David and Jonathan, Jesus and John, or Sergius and Bacchus as “gay,” or “married,” or “having sex.” Our friends in other churches who do this miss the point entirely—and in the case of Jesus and John, they fail to grasp that, as perfect God and perfect Man, Christ anticipated even in His earthly life and relations that “angelic aeon” in which sexual desire as symbol transcends its momentum towards bodily climax in the fulfilment of ecstatic union in the heavenly kingdom. Yet this in no sense “emasculates” Christ. His human erotic energy remains not only intact but all the more empowered through being deified, purified, perfected unto the image and likeness of the passionless passion or passionate passionlessness of divine eros. Christ the Bridegroom loves His bride the Church erotically, unitively, ecstatically for all eternity; and as a foretaste of this during His time on earth, culminating in the undivided moment of the Supper and the Cross, He drew into the tenderness of His nuptial embrace the disciple whom He loved. As a man on earth, the eternal Son of God discovered His “other self,” His “other I,” His oneness of soul, in John.
Compulsory “gender complementarity,” predicated mechanistically on an impersonal biological determinism, imposed externally as an inflexible law for all, regardless of personal factors, exposes itself as no more than a contrivance having no basis in Tradition. David and Jonathan, Jesus and John, Sergius and Bacchus bear eloquent testimony to the naturalness, the holiness, the divine origin of the phenomenon that some men discover their complement—the one who “completes” them spiritually and emotionally—not in a woman, but in a man. All three of these male couples enact their love with a range of bodily performativity. All three follow a model of headship not unlike that of marriage, retained implicitly in the rite of Adelphopoiesis by the placement of the elder and younger partner in the positions assigned respectively to the husband and wife in the rite of Marriage.
Salvation for an Orthodox Christian entails not his or her behavioural compliance with external moral absolutes in order to “go to heaven when they die,” and much less the destruction of the self that he or she has gradually come to know, the self bestowed on him or her as a gift from God in the specific sociohistorical moment in which he or she is born and lives. Salvation consists rather in the ascetical refinement of the whole self—body, soul, and spirit—in synergy with uncreated grace unto the perfection of the divine image and likeness. Orthodox same-sex couples, united into a single soul in the sacrament of Adelphopoiesis, work out their common salvation in their inward imitation of Jesus and John. Thus may the Lord grant them a bed undefiled.
O holy martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, pray for us.
See the following sections in our Archives 2017-19 and/or Archives 2020: Sexuality and Gender, The Wheel 13/14: Responses, Fifty Years after Stonewall, Warwick Files, and Bridging Voices.
Giacomo Sanfilippo (formerly Peter J. SanFilippo) is an Orthodox Christian, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, former priest, father of five, and grandfather of two. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College, both in Toronto, is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and completed the course requirements for the MDiv earlier in life at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.