At the conclusion of the “Bridging Voices” conference in Oxford in 2019, I thanked the distinguished group of participants for restoring my confidence in the church as a discursive society bound by love of and in Christ. Our meeting was demanding, at times very tense, and inconclusive, but commitment to working through some of the most challenging questions of our day kept a large group of thinkers with divergent perspectives together productively at one table. As far as I am aware, no factions formed at the conference and no participant found it necessary to denounce or reprimand any other. Most attended the divine services together and many remarked on the importance of the liturgical unity of the gathering. Patience and humility made space for attentive listening, transformative encounter, and the refinement of theological argumentation without fear.
It is therefore disheartening to read the latest statement of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America on same-sex relationships and sexual identity, which appears to intend to stifle genuine, faithful intellectual inquiry and cultivate a climate of fear. Much in this text is unremarkable, little more than a rehearsal of apologetic tropes, and a repetition of statements issued previously. Nobody can honestly claim that the position of the Holy Synod of the OCA on these topics is unclear. The same conclusions, the same small body of proof-texts, the same appeal to the unanimity of the tradition, and the same assertion of synodal authority over these issues have been repeated time and again. So why issue yet another statement?
The answer perhaps lies in a discernible shift in tone and a pronounced concern to terminate open and accountable discussion of these live, complex pastoral questions. Two injunctive paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
We call upon all clergy, theologians, teachers, and lay persons within the Orthodox Church in America never to contradict these teachings by preaching or teaching against the Church’s clear moral position; by publishing books, magazines, and articles which do the same; or producing or publishing similar content online. We reject any attempt to create a theological framework which would normalize same-sex erotic relationships or distort humanity’s God-given sexual identity. The holy apostle Paul writes that such teachings will “increase to more ungodliness,” and that such a “message will spread like gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:16-17), misleading the faithful and inquirers seeking the truth.
Any clergy, theologian, teacher, or lay person who contravenes our directive thus undermines the authority of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America by disregarding the Holy Synod’s consistent and unwavering teaching on these matters. We call on any such persons to cease their disruptive activities, which threaten the peace and tranquility of the Orthodox Church in America, cause scandal and uncertainty, and tempt those who struggle against their disordered passions to stumble. Consequently, those who teach these errors become participants in the sin of those whom they have tempted or whom they have failed to correct, and thus should seek remission of this sin in the mystery of holy confession. Those who refuse correction open themselves to ecclesiastical discipline.
It is clear that the OCA’s Holy Synod not only considers the matter closed (an assertion that it is at liberty to make, however unwise) but now feels the need to threaten discipline against any member of the church who dares to suggest otherwise—at least, in print, preaching, or teaching. This statement therefore apparently seeks to terminate open and accountable theological discussion of one of the most pressing topics in contemporary church life. Let me repeat, for the sake of clarity: the statement does not claim only that the Synod’s position is unambiguous and must be accepted as such, but also that no member of the church may question any aspect of it without the expectation of ecclesiastical discipline. This should be a cause for alarm.
There is no space in this essay even to begin to address the theological and pastoral questions that arise in relation to same-sex relationships and identities. But two important realities have been highlighted repeatedly over recent years—not only by the “Bridging Voices” project but also by other initiatives including public conferences and numerous publications—that underscore the importance of continuing to discuss these topics openly:
The first is that, while a broadly-negative attitude towards same-sex sexual relations is fairly long- and widely-attested within the Christian tradition, it was apparently not the product of considered theological reasoning. In fact, this is almost equally true of attitudes expressed by Christians in the past towards sexual and companionate relations of all kinds. These attitudes often appear to historians today to be inextricable and indistinguishable from ambient cultural attitudes, the Christian pedigree of which is frequently unclear. Our tradition has taken seriously the instruction to be “prepared always to give a defense to all who ask [us] for an explanation concerning the hope that is within [us]” (1 Pet. 3:15) and so we should be unsettled by the truth that our theological reasoning on these important contemporary issues is plainly deficient.
The second is that frameworks for the conceptualization of sexuality, sexual relations, sex, and gender are historically conditioned and thus subject to change—and this is true for everyone, past and contemporary Christian theologians included. In historical terms, it is simply indefensible to claim either that the Christian tradition (even in the pre-modern period) is completely unanimous or that the historical meaning of key terms, concepts, and discussions is immediately available to us without considered investigation. Rigorous scholarship has shown that key pillars of late-modern “conservative” Christian theological argumentation totter precariously on modern and late-modern (rather than pre-modern, let alone antique) foundations; our common pursuit of truth behooves us to enter into honest engagement with the tradition.
These are big challenges! In my assessment, the theological grounding for current pastoral practices related to same-sex relations and identity, which many both outside and within the church recognize as deeply damaging—not only psychologically and socially but also spiritually—remains very unclear. Yet, I do not anticipate that holy synods will immediately dispense with, let alone publicly overturn, their stated positions. Those who wish to maintain the “received tradition” plainly have the upper hand to the extent that they appear to be in the majority and change would be painful and costly. It is, therefore, all the more perplexing to me that such a stark condemnation of discussion of these issues has been forthcoming. I can only understand it as the manifestation of a deep fear that has yet to be driven out by the light of faith.
There is everything to be gained by encouraging—indeed, blessing—rigorous research and debate on issues related to same-sex relationships and identities (and more besides). But this will require us to admit that all parties to contemporary debates on these topics are engaged in constructing theological frameworks for their positions, both because historical reasoning on these issues is deficient and because the terms of the debate have changed and continue to change. Lamentably, this latest synodal ban occludes this truth and seeks to silence the relatively small and (frankly) quite successfully marginalized group of thinkers who are prepared to raise dissenting voices. This statement is to be rejected and resisted in the name of a perfect truth and love that casts out fear (cf. 1 John 4:18).
Gregory Tucker is a Junior Fellow of the DFG Centre for Advances Studies “Beyond Canon” at the University of Regensburg, where he researches the theology and history of liturgy. He was an Additional Partner and coordinator of the Exeter-Fordham “Bridging Voices” project on sexuality, gender, and Eastern Orthodoxy (2018–20).
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.