Dialogue, Church Teaching, and the German Orthodox Bishops’ Letter on Love, Sexuality, and Marriage

by Will Cohen

In a 2015 address at the University of Munich, Metropolitan John Zizioulas observed that “[t]he agenda of Theology is set by history.”  By “history” he meant the concerns and questions particular to a given age, as he underscores in adding, “This was known to the Fathers of the Church who were in constant dialogue with their time.”

If the Church’s theology must accept the questions of history in order to be vital and serve humanity, the same is not true of the conclusions history may hurriedly reach. Christians have sometimes not readily enough accepted history’s questions and sometimes too readily accepted its answers. Of relevance to this dynamic is how Church teaching is understood—specifically, in relation to the place of dialogue in the Church.

When in the flow of history an issue erupts, becoming a real question for human beings, the fact that there is already Church teaching on it—if that is the case—can be taken to mean it is unnecessary and even impermissible for Christians to take it seriously as a question. Instead of rediscovering and deepening the teaching through the question, those who appeal to the teaching in order to beat the question back cannot really speak to the question the present age has posed, because they have not entered into it in a sufficiently real and searching way. 

On the other hand, when Church teaching is viewed as merely transient and malleable, it cannot function properly to keep the engagement with history’s questions from being conducted on history’s terms (even if on a surface level dressed in the language of tradition). Church teaching has an obviously integral role to play in creating a certain distance, including a space of time, in which for the Church to work out, according to her own inner logic, whether history’s pressing take on a given matter is one she can accept, and if so how so or if not why not.

The recent letter of the German Orthodox Bishops Conference addressed “to Young People concerning Love — Sexuality — Marriage,” is unusual for how it holds together the value of dialogue and the value of Church teaching. The letter presents neither as canceling out the other.

From the start, the letter signals that it will not offer broadsides against modernity, in which diversity and dialogue are held in high regard.  In writing that “[t]he world is moving ever closer together. And the burning issues of our time come increasingly to the fore. They are of profound concern to human existence — your existence: God places the present and the future in your hands,” in effect the bishops are endorsing the drama of history and the great significance of being alive in it.  From here they identify the “peace, freedom, democracy and human rights” that Germany preserves as God’s blessings. These are to be defended because they are inherently consistent with the scriptural notion of the person as created in God’s image. “In the ability of human beings to decide for themselves, we see one of the characteristics of this divine image.”  The Christian importance of individual freedom continues to be emphasized—even as the bishops pivot to speak of the “complete responsibility” it entails—with affirming references to “open discussion,” “dialogue”, and the “spiritual advice” by which the Church accompanies her faithful, instead of just by “formulat[ing] rules in a mechanical way.” When the letter mentions realities like pre-marital sex, interfaith marriages and same-sex unions, it is in no rush to express judgment or alarm about them. Readers accustomed to quicker clarification may begin to wonder if there is some equivocation going on with regard to what the Church believes and teaches.

But in fact the letter proceeds to reaffirm teachings of Orthodoxy at odds with contemporary cultural orthodoxies, and to do so in simply expressed statements, at once unaggressive and unconcealed.  With respect to “marriages between Orthodox and other Christians,” the question of receiving Holy Communion is broached. “The position of our Church is still:  Such reception is only possible if there is complete unity in faith.  Such unity is not present in inter-denominational marriages.” This blunt statement is obviously in conformity with traditional Orthodox ecclesiology rather than pluralistic notions of inclusion.  Yet it is delivered without triumphalism: “Here we are all confronted with a situation which is painful and manifests itself as a theological challenge.  This has to be acknowledged in all honesty.  And so we ask God to help us soon to overcome the separation and to find our way to the unity of all.”  However humbly expressed, the principles invoked here, of unicity and objectivity, suggest Orthodoxy’s distance from the modern (or post-modern) spirit.

Farther along when the bishops write, “A burning issue today is the question of homosexuality and homosexual partnerships,” it may seem just a simple way of introducing the next topic, but it is more than that, for here the move the bishops are making is really that of giving dignity to the question, and, by extension, to all those wrestling with it from whatever perspective and basis of experience.  In most treatments of this topic, the pattern in the Orthodox world today is either only to decry bigotry against gay people or only to reassert the Church’s traditional teaching.  The German Orthodox bishops do both.  “[H]omosexual men and women were ignored for centuries,” they write, “and even oppressed and persecuted, as for instance in the time of National Socialism.” They also write: “[A]ccording to Orthodox understanding the mystery of marriage requires a union between man and woman” and therefore “the marriage of homosexual couples is not possible in our Church.” The idea, favored by many conservatives, that our desires need not rule us is articulated: “Like any physical inclination, this one too is overcome by exercising restraint, the moderation of unbridled passions, and chaste asceticism, such as we learn in fasting.” The notion favored by many progressives, that not everything about this complex issue is so settled in tradition that there is nothing further to talk about, is also expressed: in a general way (“That this topic is discussed openly in our society can in principle be seen as a good thing”) and in terms of biblical interpretation (“In Holy Scripture, both in the Old Testament and also in the New Testament, there are statements against homosexuality.  The value of these statements is the subject of controversial debate today”). As differences over hermeneutics and theological anthropology continue to be engaged, we are enjoined “to show love and respect to all men and women” in our parishes and elsewhere.

The German bishops’ letter does not present dialogue as displacing what has been long understood to be the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage, reiterated at Crete in broad strokes and here also by the German bishops themselves.  Neither does it present the teaching as a kind of insulation to keep us from being touched or troubled by the real and honest questions being wrestled with by so many today.

Genuine questions and debate exist; the teaching stands amidst them. Since responses of alarm over the former and impatience with the latter only feed each other, and since it is likely to be decades before the apparent tension between the dialogue in all its flux and the teaching in all its immobility comes to be resolved, the German bishops’ letter is a kind of invitation to people uncomfortable with the given state of affairs for very different reasons to coalesce: not yet in the unity of mind which must remain the purpose of our ongoing struggle to see the “burning questions” of our time more deeply and clearly, but in the knowledge that our providential discomfort must continue to serve this great and meaningful purpose.

The German bishops’ letter is addressed to “young people.” Perhaps no accumulation of years or knowledge is enough to exclude any of us from the category.  With its straightforward honesty and refreshing way of troubling the usual polarities, the letter offers rejuvenating encouragement and hope that our ecclesial conversation, by going deeper, may also go beyond familiar ruts to reveal concerns and commitments binding us together in ways and to a degree that may yet take us by surprise.

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Scranton and President of the Orthodox Theological Society in America (OTSA). 

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.