In a recent blog piece I looked at the issue of gay Orthodox Christians who embraced and celebrated their homosexuality and who were sexually active and who received Holy Communion in Orthodox churches. In this piece I would like to look at the issue of homosexual Orthodox Christians who embrace the teaching of their Church that homosexual desires are disordered and who struggle against giving in to those desires through sexual activity. I will not deal here with the question of whether or not one is “born” with such an orientation or the question of whether or not such an orientation can be overcome. I will look rather at the question of what the path might be for a gay Orthodox Christian as he or she strives to please God in an Orthodox Christian parish.
In all instances, a Christian (and especially a pastor) must embrace the homosexual with love, even if the gay person is not yet ready to repent and strive for wholeness. I remember one person in an Orthodox community in the American mid-west. He shared with the priest that he wanted to join the Orthodox Church, but said that he was gay and asked if this was a problem. The priest replied, “No, not at all, but you would have to repent of homosexual activity and embrace chastity.” The person responded that he was not ready to do that, since he was currently in love with his boyfriend. After much conversation and listening, the priest and the inquirer prayed together, embraced, and parted as friends. When later the young man got a tattoo, he came straight back to the priest the same day and asked him to bless his new tattoo. The priest was happy to do so. The man knew that the Church could not change its dogmas or alter its standards for him, but he still felt loved and not condemned. He was welcome to attend worship, though he could not become a catechumen. I am told that he still regularly visits the Church for Liturgy and enjoys the warm loving atmosphere found in the parish.
What about homosexual Christians who have repented and who struggle to embrace chastity? Their way is a hard and heroic one, for they sometimes find themselves vilified by Christians who reject them simply for having homosexual desires as well as by those in the gay community who vilify them for refusing to celebrate and express their homosexual desires. Thus, adding to the burden of embracing chastity is the added burden of loneliness. That is why (to quote from 1992 OCA episcopal encyclical Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality and the Sanctity of Life), they are “to be helped to admit these feelings to themselves and to others who will not reject or harm them”.
In this they are in principle no different from anyone else in the church community who struggles with addictions and sinful desires (an addiction to pornography comes to mind). In striving for victory over these desires, they should seek help through prayer, confession, weekly Holy Communion, and perhaps the encouragement of close friends whose love they trust. They need not feel that they are left alone in their struggle, since in Christ everyone must help bear the burdens of the others. It may be helpful to point out that the homosexual Christian who has committed to a life of chastity and celibacy deals with the same or similar struggles as a heterosexual single Christian does. Though the single heterosexual Christian may one day marry, while their singleness lasts, the struggle for celibacy is also a burden sometimes hard to bear.
In that encyclical mentioned above, one also finds the words, “Men and women with homosexual feelings and emotions are to be treated with the understanding, acceptance, love, justice and mercy due to all human beings… Assistance is to be given to those who deal with persons of homosexual orientation in order to help them with their thoughts, feelings and actions in regard to homosexuality”. This assumes (correctly) that homosexual desires are not sinful in themselves, any more than a heterosexual desire for fornication is sinful in itself. Rather it is the fulfillment of such desires through action that alone is sinful. The homosexual Christian is primarily a brother or sister in Christ, and must be treated as such. He or she is defined by that commitment to Christ and their communicant status, not by their homosexual desires. Their homosexual desires constitute part of their brokenness, but in fact every communicant in broken in some way. As long as one renounces one’s sin and strives against it in a struggle for wholeness and holiness, that brokenness is not a barrier to communion with Christ.
It also should not be a barrier to normal relationships in the parish. There is no reason why a homosexual man (or woman) should not run the Sunday School or the Youth Group or sit on Parish Council or read liturgically or serve in the altar. Like anyone else in the parish they should be included in the day-to-day sharing of social life, lunches, and parish events. Their inner struggles and temptations should have no bearing upon their place in the Church, any more than the struggles of anyone else should. After all, they are communed with the same formula as anyone else. When they stand before the Chalice, the priest does not say, “The homosexual N. partakes of the precious and holy Body and Blood”, but rather, “The servant of God N. partakes of the precious and holy Body and Blood”. Life is more than sexual orientation, and our life and ministry in the Church cannot be defined by orientation or ascetical struggle.
The current western battle for the full legitimation of homosexuality, often pursued with draconian fervour, has become perhaps the issue of our age, and the sounds of battle can sometimes deafen us to other noises—noises such as the song of the coming Kingdom. Now is the time for struggle, as faithful Orthodox homosexual Christians struggle for sanctity, other faithful Orthodox singles struggle to preserve chastity, and all faithful Orthodox struggle to survive the deluge of lies which inundate us all. But a time is coming when such struggles will be a thing of the past, when we will step into the calm and sunlit meadow of the age to come to sing a song which knows no ending and enjoy a day which will know no evening. Then all our struggles will find their full and true reward, and sanctity will come as effortlessly as breathing. Even now we stand on tip-toe and await that day. We can struggle knowing our painful podvigs will not last forever. The cry of all Christians, homosexual or straight, married or single, is Maranatha! The Lord is coming, and He is bringing our eternal reward.