This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.
Perhaps my point is best illustrated through a story: During the fall 1999 semester, I taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, a course on Ethics. We were discussing St. Maximus the Confessor on virtues and how the development of virtues enables relations, and in so doing, makes space for the presence of God. I then asked the students that if two people (I did not mention gender) were living together in friendship for fifty years and manifesting the virtues, would this be an example of communion and participation in God. They all said yes. I then asked whether the fact that they had sex would negate the good resulting from their virtuous friendship: half said it would, while the other half got the point that I will try to articulate in this short, two-part essay.
As this story illustrates, ecclesial ethics on sexuality have been primarily about sex and the criteria for establishing a morally right sex act.
From the start, someone might argue that there is nothing to talk about, as the Church’s teaching on sex has been clear and succinct from the beginning. It must be admitted that the overwhelming body of shared authoritative sources of the Orthodox Tradition—Scripture, Councils, Writings/Sayings of Saints, Canons, Liturgy—does limit sexual activity to marriage, with some even restricting the performance of the sexual act for procreation. This raises the question of what can or cannot be talked about in the Church; it is a question of how we should interpret these shared authoritative sources. Continue reading