The present essay responds to Dr. Catherine Sider Hamilton’s Abide with Me: Thoughts on Christian Unity. Inspired by a recent conversation that she had with Dr. Ephraim Radner, it appears online and in hard copy in the January 27, 2020 issue of The Morning Star: The Wycliffe College Community Newsletter. The blurb at the bottom of the last page describes The Morning Star as “a weekly e-newsletter geared specifically towards students and residents [italics mine].” To this target audience I return shortly.
The ecumenical consortium of colleges known as the Toronto School of Theology, affiliated with and located on the main campus of the University of Toronto, counts among its member institutions of theological learning two Anglican schools directly across the street from each other, belonging to the same diocese of the Anglican Church of Canada and operating under the authority of the same bishop: Trinity College, where I am enrolled for my doctoral program, and Wycliffe College, where I have resided and taken my meals from August 2016 to the present. I have taken one course at Wycliffe, Dr. Radner’s Human Sexuality in a Christian Perspective, during the Winter 2014 term as part of my MA in Theology program. My final paper for his course provided an opportunity for me to begin fleshing out the theological and spiritual insights which culminated a year and a half later in my MA thesis, A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love (to be read in conjunction with A Bed Undefiled: A Partial Retraction). Dr. Radner characterized my paper as “meaty theological fare” in one of his written comments, and offered invaluable suggestions for how to strengthen my arguments in support of the Church’s sanctification of same-sex love in her sacramental economy. An eyewitness related to me that, at a theological conference some two months after reading my paper, Dr. Radner stated within hearing of numerous interlocutors and onlookers that his views on same-sex marriage were moving in a more affirmative direction. This differed notably from his widespread reputation on the subject and from what he had taught during the entire preceding semester.
Trinity College, while liturgically “high church,” typically represents a more liberal approach to contemporary theological questions; Wycliffe College, liturgically “low church,” a more conservative approach. (I mean no disrespect by using the conventional nomenclature of “high” and “low” church, which some of my Anglican friends embrace and others dislike.) Wycliffe identifies in fact as evangelical Anglican, a distinction of which I was unaware when I first walked into Dr. Radner’s class six years ago.
Incidentally, Wycliffe College produced one of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s most strident critics, former Anglican priest and current Orthodox priest, Father Lawrence Farley of the Archdiocese of Canada of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).
The theological divergence which typifies Trinity and Wycliffe came sharply to the fore in the matter of same-sex marriage, which was put to a vote at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in July 2019. (See The Anglican Church of Canada & Same-Sex Marriage: An Invitation to Dialogue, at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and Marriage Canon Amendment Fails to Pass at General Synod. at the Anglican Journal.) Predictably, representatives from Trinity College lobbied in favour of the amendment, and from Wycliffe College—including Dr. Radner, I am told, despite his positive reception of my paper and informal comments at the conference shortly after—against it.
I offer the following response in a spirit of friendship. While Dr. Hamilton and I have never met in person, two or three years ago we exchanged a number of emails when I considered auditing her New Testament Greek class. She looked forward to my helping her and her students in their transition away from Erasmian phonetics. In the end, I was unable to fit it into my schedule. Dr. Radner and I have retained a cordial relationship since I took his class six years ago. He sat on my doctoral committee until I changed the focus of my proposed dissertation from an Orthodox theology of same-sex love broadly construed to Father Pavel Florensky’s pioneering work in the same (briefly summarized here and here) a hundred years ago, an area to which Dr. Radner felt that it lay beyond his scholarly competence to contribute. He and I continue to enjoy greeting one another warmly in the hallways of Wycliffe.
Given that Dr. Hamilton’s subtitle, “Thoughts on Christian Unity,” frames her essay as presumptively ecclesiological in focus, her opening line surprises her readers by making clear what she really wants to do: voice her opposition to same-sex marriage and position it as the obstacle to the elusive quest for Christian unity and the cause of ever widening divisions within and among ecclesial communities. I found it difficult to avoid the painful inference—whether intended by Dr. Hamilton or not—that she sees the existence of concrete gay persons (rather than just “gay marriage” as an abstraction), and our call for the Church to formulate a more holistic pastoral, theological, and soteriological paradigm of human sexuality, as responsible for creating further fractures in Christian unity.
It especially troubles me that this anti-gay polemical exercise should occupy a full half of a newsletter produced for the benefit of both students and residents at Wycliffe. Most of us who pay room and board here are neither Anglican nor theology students. A few of us subscribe to religious faiths other than Christian or to none at all. Several of us fall somewhere along the LGBTQ spectrum. Even among Wycliffe’s theology students, not all are Anglican, and some identify as LGBTQ.
One wonders whether Dr. Hamilton and the editors of The Morning Star fully considered the spiritual, emotional, and psychological effects of her essay on the individuals in its intended audience. Indeed, a number of theology students and dormitory residents—both gay and straight, Anglican and not—have shared their dissatisfaction with me and welcomed my suggestion that I attempt to compose a fraternal response.
To be clear, I have no wish to stifle Dr. Hamilton’s voice in the discussion of sexual and gender diversity in human nature and ecclesial life. I question only whether The Morning Star—given its religiously, culturally, sexually, and genderly diverse readership—constitutes an appropriate forum for this discussion to take place and for potentially harmful things to be said.
I do not use the word harmful lightly [see Carol Kuruvilla’s Faith, Queer Identities, and Suicide], but neither do I wish to imply that Dr. Hamilton deliberately meant to harm anyone.
In conversations with my Anglican friends at Wycliffe there seems to be general consensus that Dr. Hamilton’s discussion with Dr. Radner, their apparent conflation of ecclesiology predominantly with a proper doctrine of marriage (rather than, say, baptism and eucharist, or Nicaean/Chalcedonian christology, or Constantinopolitan pneumatology, or the meaning and content of apostolic succession, etc.), and their lament over the current rupture in the Methodist Church on the question of same-sex marriage, seem to rest upon a kind of Anglican amnesia:
First, my friends agree that, technically, the Anglican Church is itself a schismatic body and contributor to Christian disunity, insofar as it separated from the Roman Catholic Church. The Methodist Church is in schism from the Anglican Church. And so on.
Second, notwithstanding the complex interplay of unequal doctrinal, political, and other factors which undergird any schism, in the Anglican case the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back can hardly be construed as a high theology of marriage. When I was doing my MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary from 1986 to 1989, I took a break from a writing assignment one evening in the library and perused the current issue of several periodicals. One was a national Anglican magazine which contained a full page ad: It goes without saying that a church started by a man with four wives believes in forgiveness. I said to myself, “They’re boasting about this?” In fact, since Dr. Hamilton’s article appeared I have asked a number of Anglican MDiv students—i.e., men and women preparing for ordination—if the Anglican Church imposes a canonical limit on the number of times a person can divorce and remarry. Not one of them knew the answer to what I presumed was a simple question.
Third, prior to the ordination of Gene Robinson to the episcopate and everything that followed in its aftermath, the single most divisive Anglican event in living memory has surely been the ordination of women—an anti-unity development from which Dr. Radner’s wife and Dr. Hamilton have both benefited. I recall reports of mass defections of Anglican individuals and families at the time—including the aforementioned Father Lawrence Farley and former Archbishop Seraphim (Storheim)—and even of some entire parishes, in the wake of the first women’s ordinations. In the context of the broader project of Christian unity, the ordination of women effectively reversed any momentum that had been gained in talks of possible union between the Anglican Church and either the Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church.
Why, my Anglican friends ask, should Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Radner scapegoat gay people and our need for the Church’s affirmation in the sanctification of our love as any more deleterious to Christian unity than women and their need for affirmation in their ordination to the priesthood and the episcopacy? How does the one represent any more than the other a capitulation to “the world” and its secular values? By what logic can we posit the one as a violation, and the other as a legitimate expression, of Christian tradition and “abiding with Jesus?”
It bears repeating that these observations reflect, as accurately as I understand them, the thoughts that my Anglican interlocutors have shared with me. As an outside observer of Anglicanism I feel somewhat awkward in serving as their spokesman. Yet suffice it to note that, among those who know me well and in global Orthodox circles well beyond my personal acquaintance, I have become known for reserving my harshest criticisms for the Orthodox Church’s institutional failures ever to live up to the Orthodox faith.
Dr. Hamilton’s bio at the end of her article describes her as a professor of New Testament at Wycliffe. This in itself raises questions for me when she writes that
…[heterosexual] marriage goes right to the root of our lives, both as human beings and as Christian people. “This is a great mystery—the cleaving together of husband and wife—“and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). The marriage of man and woman is deeply involved precisely in Jesus’ abiding with us. Marriage matters, not just as an ethical or social or justice or identity issue, but because the marriage of man and woman in Christ is a place where Jesus gives to the church his abiding and its redeeming power.
This accords with Dr. Radner’s view of marriage as I understood it six years ago. I hope that I do not do him the disservice of oversimplifying or mischaracterizing when I recall that, for him, marriage seems to occupy so central, so essential, so indispensable a place in the Gospel that it (marriage) not only stands as a metaphor for Christ and the Church, but the covenants both old and new—at their core—consist most fundamentally in God’s gift of, and each individual believer’s participation in, marriage and procreation. In a word—as I understand Dr. Radner and now Dr. Hamilton—God creates man in the beginning, and becomes man in the fulness of time, not so that we can become God (as virtually all of the Greek fathers of the patristic era understood creation and redemption), but so that we can get married and have children. If this does not reflect Dr. Hamilton’s and Dr. Radner’s meaning, I find the inference impossible to avoid. So insistent was Dr. Radner on this point in class that he rejected the ever-virginity of the Mother of God in stronger terms than I have ever heard from a Protestant and disdained monasticism in one or two cursory sentences as a corruption of the Gospel and illegitimate form of Christian life.
As a lifelong reader of the New Testament for half a century (but without, admittedly, a degree in New Testament studies), I have never found the least support for such an ideological posture on marriage and childbearing anywhere in the New Testament canon, much less in the lives of John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, and of course, the incarnate Son of God Himself. Indeed, if some were called away from tax-collecting and others from net-mending to become disciples of Christ, Venerable Bede (7th century) cites a tradition according to which John the Evangelist was called away from marrying. He literally abandoned his bride “at the altar,” as the story goes. He did this in order to love Christ, to be faithful to Him, to abide in Him—and to write the most theologically and spiritually sublime Gospel of the four from his unique position as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and who “lay in the bosom of Jesus” in a manner (according to Origen) analogous to that of the Son in the bosom of the Father.
Must we consider the Baptist, the Apostle to the Gentiles, the Evangelist, Jesus Christ Himself, as somehow failures at “Christian living” because they did not marry and sire biological children? Or can we see something else going on in Holy Scripture, in both the New Testament and the Old, pertaining to marriage?
Whatever positive the New Testament may say about marriage, we cannot excise it from its much broader, antinomical, and ultimately symbolic scriptural context. What about eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven? What about Christ’s command—yes, command— to hate—yes, hate—father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters? What about Paul’s recommendation that Christians not marry, and his apparent concession to marriage for otherwise unmanageable libidos? What about the early gnostic sects which understood the New Testament as requiring, and not merely recommending, that Christians renounce marriage? What about the Roman Church’s eventual transition from widely customary to canonically mandatory clerical celibacy? Beneath the weight of hard questions such as these, the house of cards of modern evangelical “gamolatry” (marriage-worship) must surely collapse. (I say this to the growing chorus of evangelical-style polemicists and rhetoricians in the Orthodox Church as well—a phenomenon never seen in Orthodox history prior to the present “need” to dispossess queer people of any share whatever in an ecclesial life transfigured by grace.)
From its first pages to its closing chapters—from Adam’s joyful “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” to the wedding at Cana, from the Psalmist’s princess approaching her King in her many-coloured robes to Isaiah’s joyful and exultant bridegroom decked with a garland and bride adorned with jewels, and finally to the great multitude’s thunderous, joyful, and exultant “The marriage of the Lamb has come!”—Holy Scripture concerns itself with only one marriage: the marriage of Yahweh and Israel, Christ and the Church, the Lamb and His Bride, God and man. For what man ever “left” His Father and His mother to become fully one flesh with His bride, if not the eternal Son of God in His incarnation, and to make her fully one flesh with Him in the Eucharist, the marriage supper of the Lamb? Only in this light can we really hear St. Paul: This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.
With the exception of me, Dr. Radner’s class six years ago consisted entirely of MDiv students preparing for ordained ministry. On the first or second day of class he announced their final assignment as producing a syllabus on sexuality and gender for parish teenagers. As the semester progressed I became increasingly alarmed: there was no engagement of any kind with medical, biological, psychological, autobiographical, or theoretical literature, and the only alternative view that I recall being assigned was a defense of polyamory by Mark D. Jordan. Over coffee à deux one afternoon I commented half-jokingly to Dr. Radner that I felt as if I were sitting through a semester-long sales pitch for heteronormative marriage.
Closer to the end of the semester, when Dr. Radner spoke at greater length on the expectations for the MDiv assignment, I put up my hand: “I have to say something.” I explained to my classmates that sexual or gender variance in children often becomes “set” before they are even old enough to start school, and often begins to manifest itself to their own consciousness well before the age of ten, even if they lack the conceptual framework or vocabulary to articulate it to themselves. I finished my remarks with something along these lines:
If you have a group of teenagers sitting in front of you, the statistical likelihood that some of them are gay or transgender is very high; and if they are, they already know this about themselves. Nothing you say will change that. But if you make these already vulnerable young people think there is no place in the Church for them, no place with God, no place in heaven, no place in a meaningful relationship celebrated by their brothers and sisters in Christ, when your lecture is over you may very well have a suicide on your hands.
The inflexibly ideological posture on sexuality and gender which seems to underlie Dr. Hamilton’s article and Dr. Radner’s course as taught six years ago represents, I believe, a profound pastoral failure—not because of their position on same-sex marriage considered in isolation, but because it frames life in Christ, transfigured by grace divine, as a necessarily, exclusively, essentially heterosexual, cisgender, and normal-bodied project. (I add “normal-bodied” because I wonder by what criteria Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Radner would consent to solemnize the marriage of intersex Christians. Examine their genitals and, on the basis of what predominates “down there,” inform them of which gender they may marry?) Nowhere in Dr. Hamilton’s short article or Dr. Radner’s twelve weeks of teaching do I detect any pastoral concern for the spiritual, emotional, and social needs of human beings created in the image of God, and beloved of God, who are not fully cishet; any interest in the hard work of theological creativity (by which I do not mean “making stuff up,” as anyone who has spoken with me knows about me) to address questions of sexual and gender variance in human nature with which the Church has never been confronted before; any appreciation of the fact that an ecclesial response to these questions can only be undertaken under the rubric of theological anthropology, not of “morals” or “ethics;” and finally, any acknowledgment that two men or two women who love each other enough to commit to the asceticism of lifelong monogamy really, genuinely, and authentically do love each other after the likeness of Christ and the Church.
If God is love, and love is of God, and those who love are born of God, and God abides in us and perfects His love in us when we love one another, we have before us a theological, spiritual, and pastoral task of the utmost urgency: to recognize, affirm, and celebrate authentic, sacrificial, Christ-like love wherever it takes root and springs to life between two human persons, and to exclude no one from the marriage—the marriage of the Lamb—to whom He wishes to wed Himself for all eternity.
See the following sections in our Archives 2017-19 and/or Archives 2020: Anglican Church and Same-Sex Marriage, Bridging Voices, Fifty Years after Stonewall, Sexuality and Gender, and Warwick Files.
Giacomo 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.
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