“…For there must be also heresies/divisions among you, that they which are approved/tested-and-proved-reliable may be made manifest among you.” (1 Cor 11: 19)
In this “Time of Troubles” of the Orthodox Church, many Orthodox Christians, particularly those in the Moscow Patriarchate, are contemplating either changing “jurisdictions” or taking a time out from the whole church thing. I find the above-quoted passage helpful in this context, because it reminds me that our dire state of church affairs is nothing new, nor even unusual. It is inherent to the historical reality that is “Church” or “ekklesia” (from the Greek verb ekkaleo, which means “to call out,” so as Church we are those “called out” by God and are responding to that call, according to our various vocations). Today we are “called out” or challenged in a special way, to re-discover what “Church” truly is, and who we truly are, as Church. Now is an “apocalyptic” time for our Church, in the literal sense of the word “apocalyptic,” which means “revelatory.” What is being revealed to us, first of all, is what “Church” is, and what it is not. Secondly, “we” are being revealed or “made manifest,” as the holy Apostle says, as to how reliable we are, as Church, or members thereof.
To a casual reader of social media, it may appear that the culture war battles in the Orthodox circles around human sexuality have finally ceased, especially compared to the raging 2010s. I think that, rather, the lines have been drawn, and most of the combatants have retreated to their respective camps. Certainly the need for intellectual and spiritual freedom to continue the important anthropological and theological work in the Church is an issue that is much broader than the limits imposed by the nature of social media interactions. Yet I ponder what has emerged from the fray as the paradigm of “compassionate denial.” This position can be summarized along the lines of “My heart breaks for people in the Church who struggle with same-sex attraction, and we should counsel them and offer them support with love in their ascetic endeavor to carry the cross of chastity.”
It may be due to the temporary distance from this discourse that the pitfalls of the “compassionate” approach struck me anew. Of primary concern is that it provides the well-meaning “traditionalists” with a comfortable alternative to the toxic hatred propagated by a subset of Orthodox culture warriors. It allows the satisfaction of feeling loving and accepting while at the same time remaining within the comfortable confines of an officially prescribed position: we are fully accepting of our homosexual brothers and sisters as long as they satisfy the requirement to forsake their need for human companionship.
“I know how weak and puny my soul is. I know the magnitude of this ministry and the great difficulty of the work. More stormy billows vex the soul of the priest than the gales that trouble the sea.” (St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood)
At the end of the 4th Century, over 1600 years ago, a not-yet-ordained St. John Chrysostom was engaging with the deeply personal question of whether to move forward in answering a call to the priesthood. Many of his insights into the challenges of ordained ministry are no less relevant for 21st century Eastern Orthodoxy in America as they were for the Church of 4th and 5th century Antioch. Priests of the Eastern Orthodox Church are precious and unique members of the Body of Christ, with roles and expectations that place them at the center of the spiritual lives of the people and communities they have been called to serve. The challenges that they and their families face in carrying out their sacred work in an increasingly secular culture cannot be underestimated, something which both ancient patristic wisdom and modern social science affirm.
In a moment of unprecedented closings and cancellations, how should the Orthodox Church and her members faithfully navigate the risks and complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic? For many Orthodox jurisdictions and individuals, the pandemic is an opportunity to show a panicked world the extraordinary steadiness of the Orthodox faith and of those who uphold it. One of the ways of doing this is by continuing to hold services as we always do, kissing icons and receiving the Eucharist with a common spoon as we always do. The recent directive of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese asking parishioners to venerate icons by bowing before them without touching one’s mouth to them (much as we temporarily refrain from kissing those in the flesh whom we love not only if they’re ill but if we are, or have reason to be concerned we could be) has been received by many Orthodox Christians both within the GOA and outside it as an egregious accommodation to the spirit of fear abroad in the world. In the blogosphere and elsewhere there is indeed much talk of how we are people of faith and not of fear.