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Topic: The Church and Homosexuality: A Meditation

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The Church and Homosexuality: A Meditation
« on: September 06, 2018, 07:22:18 PM »
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
—Romans 8:18

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful.
—Mark 10:21–22
It was a busy night for Jack Phillips, when his ship hit an iceberg in the frigid North Atlantic. He was in charge of the Titanic’s telegraph radio and of course after the collision he was frantically sending SOS signals to any ships nearby. But he had been busy before the crash too. The radio hadn’t worked the previous day and there was a backlog of personal messages to be sent ahead to New York via the nearest radio relay at Cape Race in Newfoundland. The Titanic’s passengers were having a grand time, and they had money to spare for sending trivial text messages across the Atlantic.
Morse code was time-consuming, of course, and it could be loud or faint as the transmitting radio was near or far. Cape Race was far, its signals faint. The S.S. Californian was near, and her Morse signal blared in Jack Phillips’ ears warning of danger ahead from ice. But Phillips wasn’t interested. “Keep out! Shut up,” he shot back, “I’m working Cape Race!” He had more pressing business—after all, his ship was unsinkable.
The Titanic launched out into the Atlantic at the dawn of a promising new century whose glory was still undimmed by World War I. Her maiden voyage was a dazzling emblem of human progress, and for many passengers, the Atlantic crossing was more cruise than voyage: getting to Manhattan wasn’t really the point. But few among those motivated more by ship than by land would have chosen to make their permanent home with the Titanic on the ocean’s floor. This tower-of-babel opening to a century full of appalling tragedies continues to sound a sober warning: when you go to sea (barring something very unusual) you’ll either end up safe back on land—or you’ll have drowned.
The Ark of Salvation
“They that go down to the sea in ships…” Perhaps Jesus chose fishermen as his disciples in part because he wanted men who knew the threat of water. It can be no accident that the disciple who began to sink as he walked on water towards the Lord is the same Peter who wrote in his epistle about Noah’s great ark as a figure of the Church and of salvation from something much worse than drowning (cf.Ps. 106/107:23; 1 Pet. 3:21).
The Church really is on a voyage; her destination is the safe harbor of the Age to Come. Her captain is Christ; her officers: bishops and priests. And she has a crew: everyone whom she has drawn up out of the baptismal waters and whom she has branded—not with iron but with chrism—as enlisted warriors of Christ. Warriors, because this is no luxury cruise ship! The Church is a battleship, and her course lies through seas plagued with piracy: Satan and his demonic hosts who hate the Name of Jesus and who seek the ruin of Christians.
Such are the enemy forces without, but they have agents inside the Church as well, because they have found that infiltration is often more effective than direct attack. The devil wants the Church to change course and so get lost at sea and come to shipwreck. But he keeps this goal hidden from his agents—or rather his dupes. These insiders are usually officers—bishops and priests, that is—and they think the Church should alter its course (by just a few degrees!) in order to sail in less hostile weather. For these officers, arrival at the advertised destination isn’t really the point. In fact, they find the old belief in the stark alternatives of safe harbor or ocean floor to be either very naive or very heartless. Heaven-or-hell theology bores them, but as officers they must play their part for the time being. Quietly and gently, but persistently, they ask their questions, they sow their doubts. “Did God really say…?” Thus they lay the groundwork for mutiny.
Ever-Changing Culture
In his 2011 essay, “A Pastor’s Thoughts on Same Sex Marriage,” Fr. Robert Arida challenges his readers with a series of questions:
If the Church is going to respond to the legalization of same sex marriage/union it seems that it should begin by considering how to minister to those same sex couples who being legally married come with their children and knock on the doors of our parishes seeking Christ. Do we ignore them? Do we, prima facie, turn them away? Do we, under the rubric of repentance, encourage them to divorce and dismantle their family? Or, do we offer [them], as we offer anyone desiring Christ, pastoral care, love and a spiritual home?
Here we have a multiple-choice question, and clearly there’s only one correct answer. That the Church must offer gay couples “pastoral care, love and a spiritual home” should be obvious to anyone whose heart is not made of stone.
Fr. Robert is aware that this constitutes new territory for the Church. Indeed, he strikes a nautical theme when he writes that the Church today is “sailing through uncharted waters.” But having first sketched the complex history of both divorce and slavery in the Church, he suggests that a moral reversal such as this is not without precedent, and that “our history teaches us that what is new need not compromise Christ who is the ‘same yesterday, today and forever.’”
He would expand this theme three years later in a piece offered to the youth of the Orthodox Church in America.[1] There he contrasts the never-changing Christ with an ever-changing culture, such that the Church in a pluralistic society must “expand the understanding of itself and the world it is called to save.” He avoids explicitly saying what such an expansion would involve, but he does refer to “issues … related to human sexuality, the configuration of the family, the beginning and ending of human life, the economy and the care and utilization of the environment including the care, dignity and quality of all human life.”
There can be few who would dispute the need to preach the Gospel in a way that resonates within particular cultural contexts. As Fr. Georges Florovsky put it, “Of course we must speak so that it is understandable.” But, he says,
One cannot forever fit the Gospel to the so-called modern man … It is simply impossible … One isn’t dealing with a linear development of thought. It goes in zigzags … Modern man changes so quickly that it is impossible to keep up with the ins and outs.[2]
Thus looking to same-sex marriage as an element in missionary enculturation is not only erroneous but futile. For it has never been an enduring element in any human culture throughout history, including North America. It is an element that, to repurpose a theme from Fr. Robert’s article, is “new and alien.”
Certainly, homosexual acts are not new. They were frequent enough in polytheistic societies, but they were almost never viewed as an alternative form of marriage and family life. And despite their presence in the surrounding cultures of the day, in both the Old and New Covenants they were always, without exception, forbidden. If Scripture has any authority at all, then the absolute exclusion of homosexual activity from the Jewish and Christian ethical vision cannot be an aspect of “ever-changing culture,” but must be integral to the unchanging substance of the Gospel. “From the beginning of the creation,” Christ declares, “God made them male and female.” This reality is stamped on every layer of revelation and woven through the whole seamless cloth of our faith.[3] Christ is himself the Bridegroom of the Church, and we await the consummation of the Kingdom at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the New Jerusalem adorned as a bride for her husband (cf. Mk. 10:6; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25; Rev. 19:9, 21:2).
These broad nuptial themes that permeate Scripture are the key to a meaningful treatment of sexual differentiation in human nature and how that bears on Christian theology, cosmology, and morality. The Church has never before faced anthropological and moral heresies of the scope we’re seeing today. Much hard work is therefore required from those bishops, pastors, and theologians who, in the face of the zeitgeist, would maintain the integrity of the Faith and an untroubled conscience. The elements are all there in our tradition, but they need to be more fully unpacked and synthesized.[4]
Is this the aim, though, of those who repeatedly call for “conversation” and “dialogue” about sexuality? Too often such invitations are disingenuous, as they come from those who have already set their minds and hearts (to say nothing of their actions) against the moral law, but who know that in a Church characterized by extreme conservatism, they must accomplish their goals slowly and incrementally.
Indeed, Fr. Robert can be credited with laying a foundation which others—particularly priests and academics in the OCA and the GOA—have been building on with increasing forthrightness and success; that is, if success can be measured by the relative silence of their hierarchs and of senior clergy. Fr. Robert made effective use of questions as a rhetorical tool, since he knew that in the early stages of this revolution, questions would be safer than blunt statements of false teaching.
A Spiritual Home
“…Do we, under the rubric of repentance, encourage them to divorce and dismantle their family? Or, do we offer [them], as we offer anyone desiring Christ, pastoral care, love and a spiritual home?”
Fr. Robert doesn’t define what “pastoral care and love” means; he assumes it will be understood. But he indicates something of his meaning by contrasting it with what he derides as the “rubric of repentance.”
Is this a meaningful contrast, though? What exactly is the content of “pastoral care and love”? What is its aim? A pastor’s primary task is surely to rescue those drowning in passions and sins, and to bring them to the harbor of the Kingdom. It is, in other words, the shepherd’s task to deliver Christ’s rational sheep from ravenous wolves, leading them to safety through the gate of the sheepfold (Jn. 10:7 ff.). And this sheepfold has only one entrance: the “gates of repentance,” gates which are barred to no one. The Lord himself gave a warning to those who thought of themselves as righteous—who thought of themselves as in no great need of repentance: “The tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” Why? Because unlike the chief priests and elders, they believed the preaching of John the Baptist (Mt. 21:31–32). And the whole of John’s preaching hangs on the one word: Repent.
You cannot have unrepentant sin and communion with God at the same time. More to the point, in the words of a modern monastic elder, “Sexual sin makes prayer impossible.”[5] Why must this be so? C. S. Lewis explains:
Repentance is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen.[6]
Yet Fr. Robert contends that the Church should offer a “spiritual home” to people who are, as a matter of public identity, inflexible in their commitment to grave sin.
And this “spiritual home” is itself an odd expression. Certainly the Christian tradition has used many images for the Church: ship and sheepfold we’ve already seen, but the Church is also imaged as a body, a bride, a temple, an army, and a hospital. And all these images have something in common: none of them is its own end. Each image points beyond itself to a corresponding purpose or goal. A body has a head; a bride has a bridegroom; a temple has a sacrifice; a sheepfold has sheep to keep safe from wolves and robbers; an army has a war to fight and a commander to lead the fighting; a hospital has patients who need healing and a physician to heal them; and a ship voyages towards a destination.
But a spiritual home? According to the Scriptures, our citizenship is in heaven. Here, we’re taught, there is no abiding city, but we seek the City that is to come (cf. Phil. 3:20; Heb. 13:14).
And yet to refer to the Church as spiritual home is perhaps to hit upon the one image likely to resonate with a practical atheist! The more traditional images all indicate that this life points beyond itself to our true, eternal home. But according to the secular mind (even among those who embrace things spiritual), putting all your eggs in the basket of the “Age to Come” is foolish—and teaching others to do so is callous. Fulfillment and true happiness are only available here. Home can only be found here. And since, as the saying goes, home is where the heart is, then for the secular-minded love is only to be found here.
Yes, the heart of man longs for home. Yet home remains elusive. True life, true love: man searches for these with urgency, he pines for them, he will have nothing stand in the way of them. But every time he seems to have attained his goal, something goes wrong, something impedes his desire or disappoints his hope.
The Church’s answer is Christ’s answer: How long can you keep water in your cupped hands? Try holding on to your life—your home, your love—with both hands and clenched jaw, and it will run through your fingers and you will certainly lose it for ever. Open your hands, let it go, pour it out on God’s altar, and rivers of living water will begin to flow from your heart. A cup brimful of life will be placed in your hands, life in abundance, “pressed down, shaken together, running over,” the finest vintage. Drink from it as much as you can, gulp it down, inebriate yourself on its rich sweetness: it will never be exhausted, and it will never make you sick. (See Mt. 16:25; Jn. 7:38; Lk. 6:38; Ps. 22/23:5 LXX).
Such is the life of a Christian. You renounce something that promised to enrich your life with depth and purpose, and you find yourself seated at a banquet of imperishable sustenance and delight. A Christian is one who recognizes that he’s a pilgrim—he’s an exile, not a tourist. So he presses forward to the City of the great King, the New Jerusalem, where God and men are at Home together, and where sighing and sorrow are no more (cf. Is. 25:6; Matt. 8:11; 1 Pet. 2:11; Phil. 3:13; Ps. 47/48:2; Rev. 21:3–4). It is our sweetest Christ Jesus who promises to wipe away every tear from every eye—there.
But here, he does not promise dry eyes and contentment. True, at times we may be given a foretaste of the eschatological banquet, but this happens only when we are bearing our cross and following Christ in what for him was the way of sorrow and for us sinners is the path of repentance. Here, he weeps with us, he suffers with us, he is lonely with us. Here we offer him our weakness, our desolation, our storms of dark thoughts, and he touches them all, one by one, and slowly transforms them (cf. Jn 15:20; cf. Jn. 11:35; Lk. 22:44; cf. 1 Pet. 5:7). Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex puts it thus:
Sorrows are very important in our life, because without them we are unable to understand either the Gospel or the ‘man of sorrows’ referred to by Isaiah [53:3]. Without godly suffering, our heart cannot be enlarged so as to embrace all Adam. We read in the psalms [4:1]: ‘Thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress.’ …
The sufferings endured ‘for conscience toward God’ [1 Pet. 2:19] are an invaluable source of wealth for us, which will be transformed into everlasting glory at the bodily resurrection of all.[7]
This is what the Church has to offer to passion-plagued humanity who, in Fr. Robert’s words, “knock on the doors of our parishes.” This—and nothing else—is what the Church can offer to console, to build up, and to save those who come to her with sexual desires or relationships that, however celebrated and glorified by our contemporaries, remain incompatible with the Gospel. To offer anything else is a disservice.[8]
But if people come to the Church with something else in mind, if they come hoping to have their passions affirmed or their false beliefs validated, then the Church is not what they’re looking for. Like the rich young man who approached our Lord, they might indeed “go away sorrowful” (Mk. 10:22). We will pray for them; we will sorrow for them; but, like Christ, we must allow them the freedom to depart.
The Church cannot impose her views on them, but neither can they impose their views on the Church. Thus, if (as may happen) they come to us not as open-minded inquirers but as cunning zealots of a new, secular pharisaism, in order to test us and entangle us in our words, then we, as sheep in the midst of wolves, must be innocent as doves, yet wise as serpents (cf. Mt. 22:15; Mt. 10:16).
If, however, we encounter “same sex couples who…knock on the doors of our parishes seeking Christ,” if they truly want Christ, then we must bring them where they will find him: the foot of the Cross. If they are looking for the way home, we must not provide a faulty map. We cannot give a stone to those asking for bread. To those hungry for the imperishable sustenance of the Kingdom, we cannot instead dish out the prodigal son’s pig slop. We know the way to the Father’s house, and sodomy lies in the opposite direction (Lk. 15:16; Lk. 17:29–32).
Two Ways
The Church is “the Way” (Acts 9:2). But not all roads lead home. “There are two ways,” as the Didache says, “one of life and one of death, and great is the difference between the two ways.” Progress along either of these ways is measured not in numbers of miles but by the gradual interior transformation of the heart. For with every act of our will we are either restoring or disfiguring the image of God within us. Every decision, in word, in deed, even in thought, carries us farther along one of these two roads. And when we’ve gone the wrong way, repentance is the u-turn that puts us back in the right direction.
But death is the point of no return.
The path that leads to destruction, “the broad and easy way,” was made not by God but by man, and we are at liberty to take it or not. God has given us free will: God is love, and thus he desires that we would freely love him in return. He does not force himself upon us; he does not coerce. Hell exists, then, precisely because God is love (cf. Mt. 7:13; 1 Jn. 4:8).
But because God is love, “he desires that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” And the Church—here’s one last image for our list—is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” Because God is love he has appointed in the Church apostles, bishops, and priests, commissioning them to teach everyone “to observe all that I have commanded” (Mt. 28:20; see also 1 Tim. 2:4 and 3:15).  And because God is love, there are times when those with responsibility for the Church must say “no, you cannot do that, or believe that—or teach that—and be recognized as a member of the Orthodox Church.”
But, some might respond, isn’t the Church for everyone? Didn’t the Lord himself quote from Isaiah, saying, “my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples”? Yes, all are invited, to be sure, but not all have prepared themselves. Christ teaches this in one of his parables: the invitation is given to all, the banquet is laid for everyone, but you must come wearing a wedding garment—the garment of repentance—or be cast out. Indeed, on one occasion, in the Temple, the Lord made ready for his own use a whip of cords. Zeal for his Father’s house consumed him.[9]
“That’s not very Christ-like!” some might retort. And yet there it is. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. His love is a consuming fire (Heb. 10:31; 12:29). And if the Gospels show us anything, they reveal the wrath Christ has stored up for clergy and spiritual teachers who pervert the commandments of God to cater to the passions of men—particularly their own (cf. Mt. 23:13–15; Mk. 7:8). Those who use clerical rank, academic standing, or moral authority to give a blessing for sin, to call evil good, to cause the little ones who believe in Christ to stumble—it would be better for them, according to Christ’s own terrifying words, if they had a millstone hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea. Those who give a stone to people hungry for bread starve others; they drown themselves (Is. 5:20; Lk. 17:1–2; cf. Mt. 7:9).
Floating and Sinking
Unlike millstones, however, and indeed unlike the Titanic, the Church herself can never be sunk. Christ promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail (Mt. 16:18). But even though the Church is unsinkable, individual crew and officers have no guarantees. The Captain, our Savior and our Lord, will without fail guide his Church through every peril, but officers or crew are free to frustrate his work, free to ignore his voice.
We’ve been describing the Church as one ship, but we could also think of her as an entire fleet, all united under the one admiralty of Christ, all sharing the same life and the same destination. Yet any single ship in this fleet can fall prey to mutiny or plain negligence: our history teaches us that entire local churches can forsake the Apostolic Faith. St. Paul warned Timothy of this in 2 Tim. 4:3–4: “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth.”
On that April night in 1912, the ship closest to the Titanic was the Californian. After its radio man sent the warning about ice that so irritated Jack Phillips, he waited awhile for a more serious (and courteous) reply. None came. After some time he switched off the radio and went to bed. An hour later, Titanic was sinking, but the closest ship couldn’t be radioed for help.
Conditions in the North Atlantic that night were such that those on watch in the Titanic’s crow’s nest could scarcely have seen the ice before it was too late. But low visibility would not have proved fatal had the warnings sent by radio been heeded.
Every era of human thought and culture has its own characteristic blind spots, its own vulnerabilities. As the Church, we must recognize impaired visibility in society and compensate for it. In the twenty-first century, our cultural blind spot comprises everything relating to sex. Even if we strain our eyes, we find it difficult to discern in sexual sin the degradation and destructiveness that were so obvious and so troubling to our forebears. We have itching ears for speculation and experimentation of all kinds—homosexuality is just the beginning. Dazzled and captivated by promising new vistas of human self-definition, we are oblivious to the icebergs ahead. But those who have gone before us see more clearly, and they’re calling back to us. Their shrill warnings interrupt our amusements and blare in our ears. So we cut them off: “Keep out! Shut up! I’m working Cape Race!” We’re unsinkable, we think. What could go wrong?

I have not hearkened to thy voice, I have not heeded thy Scripture, O Giver of the Law. But accept me in repentance and call me back to knowledge. Let me not become the possession and food of the enemy; but do thou, O Savior, take pity on me.
 —Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, ode four

[1]“Never Changing Gospel; Ever Changing Culture,” Wonder, October 2014. This article was quickly removed from the OCA website, however it remains posted on the website of the Cathedral of the Diocese of New England.
[2] In Elsa Breen, “Det gamle budskap i ny emballasje?”, Familien [Oslo], 3 January 1968, 14, as quoted in an online response to Fr. Robert’s article posted by Father Matthew Baker. (This, along with all the other comments, was removed from Wonder soon after Fr. Robert’s article was itself removed.)
[3] There have been countless hermeneutical attempts to minimize or overturn the theological and moral significance of the Bible’s absolute proscription of homosexuality. They are roundly refuted in Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville, Abingdon Press: 2002. See also his videos online, such as this.
[4] Two significant examples of such work are (1) Christopher Roberts, Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2008 (and on YouTube); and (2) Angelo Cardinal Scola, The Nuptial Mystery, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
[5] Jean-Claude Larchet, Elder Sergei of Vanves. Monks of the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, trans. Manton, Calif.: Divine Ascent Press, 2012, p. 41.
[6] Mere Christianity, in chapter 9, “The Perfect Penitent.”
[7] Archim. Zacharias (Zacharou), The Engraving of Christ in Man’s Heart. Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 2017, pp. 288 and 290.
[8] Indeed, one of the comments posted in response to Fr. Robert’s 2014 article is as poignant as it is succinct: “Reading this sort of thing can be extremely painful for those of us same-sex attracted who are struggling to live faithful to the Church’s teaching.”
[9] For example: Is. 56:7; Mk. 11:17; Mt. 22:1–14; Jn. 2:15, 17; Ps. 68/69:9.
President Harry S. Truman said: “The fundamental basis of this nation’s laws was given to Moses on the Mount.  The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings…  If we don't have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the state.”


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