It was a normal Greek summer day in July 2022, before an Orthodox baptism provoked a fervent debate, or another episode in the “culture wars,” regarding the requirements (are there any?) of a child being baptized in the Church. Although Greeks are accustomed to reading about Church activities in newspapers and on social media, for instance on ecclesiastical property or the interference of the Church in political issues, this was something different in nature. It brought to the fore a series of crucial questions related to Christian identity in a secular age. Are there any specific theological, or other, preconditions that permit or prevent a person’s baptism? Does the Church accept same-sex marriage?
On July 9, 2022, Archbishop Elpidophoros, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, visited Athens to baptize the children of celebrity fashion designer Peter Dundas and Evangelos Bousis in a parish outside of Athens (Viouliagmeni). This parish belongs to the jurisdiction of the Metropolis of Glyfada, one of eighty dioceses that constitute the synodal system of the Church of Greece. Soon this seemingly ordinary baptism became a battlefield for the local bishop and other traditionalists who reacted against it for various reasons: on the surface, for jurisdiction, but essentially for homosexuality, since it involved children of a same-sex couple.
The first reaction came from Metropolitan Antonios of Glyfada, who raised the issue of jurisdiction. According to him, Elpidophoros acted somehow arbitrarily, without requesting adequate permission to perform a baptism within the canonical territory of his diocese. Not long after the baptism a family photo was posted on social media (notably neither from the side of the official media of the Archdiocese of America nor on the profile of the children’s parents) presenting His Eminence, Archbishop of America, between the parents and other celebrities. Without reading the comments posted under the photo or being aware of the details, one would immediately have the impression upon seeing the photo that the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of America approves the same-sex marriage. This actually seemed to be what triggered Antonios’s reaction, against Archbishop of America, He accused him for not informing his diocese about the nature of the children’s birth or the sexuality of the parents, that it concerned children of a same-sex couple.
This was not, however, the only reaction. Soon after, the former Metropolitan of Kalavrita Amvrosios took it one step further by deciding to sue Archbishop Elpidophoros. According to Amvrosios, “Because by this act the orthodox teaching and traditions are unrepentantly trampled upon, and prostitution is legislated, i.e. the illegal conjugal union of two people of the same sex, for this reason I sue and denounce the archbishop of America Elpidophoros.” Amvrosios continues: “Elpidophoros indirectly but clearly recognizes and legitimizes the unnatural conjugal relationship and the unnatural carnal mixing of two persons of the same sex, a relationship which the Creator God condemned without words.” It is quite clear by this that homosexuality was the underlying issue here.
The lead among these reactions was then assumed by Mount Athos, the well-known ascetic community with a history of over one thousand years. As in various cases where the holy community releases comments or official letters on various topics (surprisingly except in the case of the role played by the Russian Patriarchate in the invasion of Ukraine), here again a strong letter was released defending the traditional nuclear character of the family as “proclaimed in the Gospels.” This is especially strange since elders on Mount Athos have no experience on family affairs or the challenges that a family faces today. Quoted from this letter: “It is clearly foreign to the teaching of the Gospel and the Orthodox ethos to allow it to be understood that a ‘same-sex couple’ can be considered as a family and to recognize in it the right to adopt children, since any such form of adoption is contrary to the gospel teaching, human nature but also to the ethos and tradition of our people (i.e., the Greek people), while at the same time violating the basic rights of innocent defenseless people, who do not have the possibility to choose a normal family environment.” It is once again clear that homosexuality is the core problem, which this letter clearly stresses.
Taking into account the turbulence caused by the baptism, the holy synod of the Church of Greece decided to send an official letter to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, protesting the way things happened and highlighting the negative impact such actions could have on the flock of the local Church. While waiting for the official reaction of the holy synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, let us consider more deeply a few aspects regarding these reactions.
From the outset the reactions raised several theological and pastoral questions: If Christ commands his disciples to allow children to meet him (Mat. 19, 14), who would go against his commandment not to baptize children as future citizens of the Kingdom of God? By no means should any controversy take place over a canonical baptism, to which all children are, at least in principle, entitled. At the same time, is there a need for a bishop, or an archbishop in this case, to secure permission to perform a baptism outside of his jurisdiction, to attach along his permission letter to the local bishop a certification of Christian beliefs (meaning, here, whether the parents represent a traditional, nuclear family?) in order for the latter to grant or deny the permission? As stressed by John Chryssavgis, what would be the decision of the local metropolitan if the couple addressed him directly to perform the baptism himself? Would he reject it altogether or would he take into account the pastoral (not to say financial for the parish) impact of his refusal? It sounds quite strange and awkward even to not welcome, not to embrace someone who voluntarily approaches the church (whatever the reason, cultural or existential), in other words not to offer an opportunity for salvation, without consideration of the use one will make of his or her free will in adulthood. In my view, the main problem raised in this regard was the pastoral abuse on the part of a Church toward the newborn children and their family in favor of a cultural war against homosexuality, which is still considered unacceptable by the majority of the traditional Greek society, despite certain legal regulations, gay parades, and secular discussion in the last years. We have to admit that there is indeed a homophobic spirit among certain Orthodox Christians (bishops and faithful alike) who share a manichaistic view of the world—a worldview of good vs. evil—that often diverts attention away from the core pastoral issue at stake: the relationship between God and the children of this couple, in other words the divine-human communion that is the goal of every human being, at least from a Christian perspective. But to be honest, do those who reacted against this baptism really care about the theosis of those children?
However, the reactions against this baptism appear to be deeply problematic for theological reasons as well. If one accepts, without compromise (of color, religion, nationality, and sexuality) the dignity and irreducible character of each and every human being created in the image and likeness of God, then how can one “cast the first stone” (John 8,7), how can one decide to cut off a baby or an adult from the fountain of life, which is the body of Christ, based primarily on sex, class, color, or nationality (the latter being the major temptation and divisive challenge Orthodoxy has faced throughout the centuries). If all people are called to communion with God, then this communion takes place at the level of personhood (namely, of freedom and love) and not at the level of nature, which in its fallen state is corrupt and needs transformation. If homosexuality is regarded as a problem for the Church, then this problem should also indicate a failure on the part of the Church to properly communicate the ideal of personhood so as to ensure that all people, despite natural qualities, have the same fundamental right to enter the kingdom. In this vein, one should refer here for support to the document “For the Life of the World: The Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church” published a couple of years ago, which anticipates modern “cultural” debates of this sort. This document stresses the fundamental human right for people of all sexual orientations to be free from discrimination and legal disadvantages (no. 19). It is a human right that is dependent on the presence of the image and likeness of God and not upon sexual or other orientation (no. 19). But again: Who among Christians, and especially Church officials crying in favor of the moral purity of their communities, defines a human being today without taking into account more seriously its class, power, and social status instead of the truth of being just human?
The baptism earlier this summer then directs our attention to the diachronic but still open question, Who, am I? We humans are definitely sinners, but we are also created in the image of God and, despite our deviations and failures, are constantly searching for our fullness. To move beyond sterile polarizations, we need as Churches to find the courage to finally discuss seriously, on both the level of synodal and theological deliberations, the status of being human. This frank discussion should occur not in opposition and negation of the various current social and scientific developments (after all, this is the world we live in and not some bygone, glorious byzantine or Russian past). Instead, the discussion should unfold in a way that, without giving up the rich and often normative tradition (regarding imago dei and personhood), can address in a theologically meaningful and pastorally sensitive way the challenges posed by modernity, including, among others, homosexuality. Let me conclude by referring to the words of Elpidophoros, which express this compassionate and embracing spirit of Christian faith: “Every person, no matter who they are, or what they have done—for better or for worse—is worthy of God’s love. And if they are worthy of God’s love, then they are worthy of our love, too.”
For Further Reading:
Nicholas Denysenko, “To Baptize or Not? God’s Love and Image”
John Chryssavgis, “Do the Gospels Really Worry about Supporting the Nuclear Family?”
Nikolaos Asproulis is Deputy Director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies and Lecturer at Hellenic Open University.
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.