Thinking Out Loud: In Response to the OCA’s Curbing of Intellectual Freedom

by Very Rev. Dr. Isaac Skidmore

thinking figure
Image: iStock.com/Benjavisa

I would like to respond to the Statement on Same-sex Relationships and Sexual Identity, issued by the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America during the recent All-American Assembly in Baltimore in July. I believe it will be evident I have concerns about the statement’s curtailment of intellectual and academic freedom. In particular, I would like to share my reaction to the following paragraph:

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.

When I read these words, I feel a combination of sadness, fear, and anger, because, to me, they mean that the Synod might be posed to intrude upon my intellectual and academic freedom, which I consider to be integral to my own wellbeing, and the necessary context and precondition for any genuine statement of faith.

Without freedom of thought, I believe, conformity in matters of faith cannot be distinguished from the compliance that arises from coercion and threat. These words suggest to me that the Synod does not recognize a distinction between the spheres of academia and church life. If this is not recognized, I wonder if the implication is that the Church sees itself as the arbiter of truth and the decider of how truth is to be explored and expressed in every corner of life and society. I wonder if this means that political issues fall into the same reality—and if the Church will not see itself also to be the ultimate authority in political and civic decisions.

I wonder, if a member of the OCA were a biologist, would that biologist be required to engage in research and discourse with colleagues only as that work intends to arrive at conclusions about sexuality and gender that are the same as those arrived at by the OCA? If someone who is member of the OCA is a teacher or professor, will that person be expected to engage with colleagues and educate students only insofar as these activities appear not to challenge the OCA’s definitions of sexuality and gender? Must statements made in the classroom match those are made from the ambo? If a member of the OCA is a physician, psychologist, or a mental health therapist, must that professional’s treatment of patients be only such as leads patients towards conformity with the OCA’s understanding of sexuality and gender? Are such professionals obliged to prioritize the OCA’s understanding of sexuality and gender above codes of ethics and standards of practice that are normative within their fields, when those codes and standards forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity—and when those standards advocate for patient-centered care, in which treatment is not to reflect an imposition of the professional’s point of view? I ask these questions only because it seems to me that the OCA’s directive casts doubt on the ability of OCA members to utilize their own discernment in these matters.

When I read the OCA’s statement, I wonder what its benefits are imagined to be. I picture a chill in conversations by OCA members, not just in academic and professional settings, but in informal settings in which people freely ponder ways in which they think about themselves, their relationship with God, and about society. I believe we have grown use to such freedom in a society that, until recently, has been unquestioningly affirmed as democratic. The legacy of secularism and pluralism, whatever challenges it may present for people of faith, has also, I think, instilled in us the expectation that our consciences have space to explore and articulate without undue fear of censure or judgment. A directive that seems to challenge this is unlikely not to raise alarm. I wonder if even bishops can feel as at ease in conversation amongst themselves, with the prospect that something one might say could approach the edge of what is deemed acceptable.

I wonder about the motivation behind the words, “We reject any attempt to create a theological framework which would normalize same-sex erotic relationships or distort humanity’s God-given sexual identity.” Does this statement arise from the Synod’s belief that exploration of concepts related to sexuality and gender can arise only from the intention to “distort,” and never from the intention to understand more fully? Will the OCA’s limitation about what can be proclaimed from the ambo apply retroactively and preemptively to all scholarly or exegetical work that precedes it? Will exegetical or theological exploration that does not result in conclusions that support the OCA’s statement be recognized as possessing any merit, integrity, or creative potential? If not, has the Synod considered how this perspective might diminish the capacity of OCA members to contribute to the advancement of biblical and theological research—which is, by nature, creative and trans-denominational? Will our seminary curriculums become, more and more, glorified courses in apologetics, training students and future Church leaders to defend against what are seen as the errors of the surrounding academic world, or will they prepare students for serious participation in biblical and theological studies? How will this prohibition affect conferences, retreats, and seminars? Respected Orthodox scholars, including the newly-departed Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (may his memory be eternal!), have expressed their belief that topics around sexuality and gender remain worthy of discussion. Will the OCA forbid their participation in such events?

How might curtailment of freedom in scholarship render even what is proclaimed from the ambo increasingly hollow, when it is known to issue from a context that does not allow engagement with differing perspectives? Without such engagement, how can ambo pronouncements continue to be seen as intellectually credible? I anticipate that this directive might reinforce society’s impression that dogmatic statements are inconsistent with freedom of thought—that they are imposed upon believers in an authoritarian way, rather than being the expression of human words and intellect finding their fulfillment in the telos marked out for them in Christ. The prohibition against engaging in dialogue about certain topics makes it difficult for one to be seen as an adherent to the dogmatic tradition and, simultaneously, an unprejudiced seeker of truth. This, too, lends weight to the suspicion that tenets of faith cannot survive intellectual consideration.

I wonder, does the Synod believe that our understanding of gender cannot in any way be usefully illuminated by research from biological or social sciences? It seems to me that, if there exists any possibility that we, as Orthodox Christians, might be enriched—especially in our understanding of what it means to demonstrate love—through engagement with the full range of scholarly and theological thought, the categorical prohibition of our engagement with it is difficult to justify. Further, what is to prevent similar limitation of discussion, at some point in the future, for other issues about which there exist varying opinions: for example, the question of whether women might, someday, be ordained? What are the criteria for determining that a particular question has been so conclusively settled, that any further discussion of it is deserving of Synodal prohibition? It does not seem inappropriate to me to ask these questions, given the potentially far-reaching implications of the Synod’s statement.

Finally, it is hard for me to avoid seeing the OCA’s restriction on intellectual freedom as part of a bigger cloth, sharing content and tone with a movement in US and international politics towards intolerance of dissent in behavior and thought, and a growing emphasis on unquestioning loyalty and obedience. Some strands of this movement pay explicit homage to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who openly opposes free speech and press. The OCA’s limitation of academic freedom occurs in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s strict limitations on what people can publicly say about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Patriarch Kirill’s naming the existence of “gay parades” as justification for that invasion. A significant portion of the US Republican party espouses the banning of books and the firing of teachers who discuss issues of sexuality, gender, or the history of US slavery. As recently as ten years ago, these trends would have been labelled as threats to democracy and civil liberty. Now they are promoted as ideals for a “Christian America.” The OCA’s announcement, whatever its intentions, occurs against the backdrop of these shifts. These are some of my reactions to the OCA’s Statement on Same-sex Relationships and Sexual Identity. My initial impression is that, for reasons mentioned above, it casts a cloud over our celebration and proclamation of truth’s radiant splendor.


The Very Reverend Dr. Isaac Skidmore is a licensed therapist in Oregon. He is an auxiliary priest at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Ashland, Oregon.

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.