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.
Speaking about human rights in Orthodoxy, we must clearly understand why we need this discourse and how it will influence theology and religious consciousness. In my opinion, it has two primary purposes: protection of the weak and inclusion. Today, the debate about human rights increasingly affects Orthodox political theology and anthropology but does not affect ecclesiology. Clerical power structures colonized the Orthodox ecclesiological consciousness and control the vision of the church norm, church structure, and the church’s boundaries. Incorporation into the church rests in the hands of a privileged group and depends on that group’s arbitrary power, which impedes the development of inclusion.
Clericocentricity is a distinctive feature of most ecclesiologies. Through them, the rest of the church views clerics as a chosen part of the church people, whose priesthood gives them advantages not only of a practical nature but also, in some interpretations, of an ontological nature (ordination changes the nature of a person). Ecclesiologies describe the church so that clerical structures inevitably become their focal points and replace the church’s image. When we talk about the church in everyday life, we immediately imagine a clergyman, worship, or church building. These ecclesiologies contain the message that if a person belongs to the right jurisdiction, participates rightly in the right style of worship and sacraments, follows the right practices, and correlates his faith with Orthodoxy—the content of which is also controlled by the clerics—then he will be saved. Such ecclesiological concepts as schism, heresy, Eucharistic communion, etc., become instruments of power control. Even the place of women in the church is discussed mainly in a clerical manner as the topic of female priesthood.
Two hundred years have passed since the beginning of Greek Revolution of 1821, the first successful revolution, after numerous failed attempts throughout five centuries, against the Ottoman conqueror and tyrant. It is an event of universal significance that not only signifies the resuscitation of Hellenism from the lethal bonds imposed by the Fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 but also affirms its ceaseless continuity from the depths of antiquity up to today. Though there exist several ways of celebrating such a milestone, only one is suitable par excellence: the tropos of participation, that is, of the communion with recent events two centuries old that abrogates spatiotemporal restrictions and renders to the celebrated not only what is proper to it but also its living perpetual imprint.
In the opening of the Platonic dialogue of The Timaeus, there is a passage where Plato narrates the achievements of the city of Athens against a great and powerful enemy from the west attempting to oppress all European cities. Plato describes how Athens “once upon a time suspended a power that moved by insult (hubris) towards the entire of Europe and Asia” (Timaeus, 24e). Albeit mythical, this Platonic narrative on the Atlantis, spelled out by Critias, contains elements pervading Greek identity and the diachronic universal service of Hellenism as defender of liberty and democracy. In this sense, already since Plato’s times we ascertain a self-consciousness of the Greek nation with respect to history, humanity, and its civilization.
By now, it would almost be commonplace to observe that the COVID pandemic has created (or perhaps, rather, it has apocalyptically exposed) a cultural rift within the contemporary Orthodox Christian community. As a pastor, I have experienced this division firsthand, and I know of other clergy who have lost parishioners as a result of it.
On the one side stand those who have wholeheartedly embraced government-sanctioned restrictions and measures to reduce the spread of COVID. They accept the closure of churches as a matter of course, and once gatherings are permitted, they welcome mitigation strategies such as multiple spoons for receiving communion. On the extreme end, these folks tend to get anxious when they observe any failure to comply with the letter of the health regulations.
On the other side of the rift are those who resist attempts to restrict or shut down access to in-person Church services. They view attendance at the services as an unavoidable risk, inherent to Christian faith. The most extreme of these folks accuse other Christians of moral capitulation or worse, while yearning for the days of the early Church when Christians supposedly took all manner of risks to gather for the Eucharistic liturgy.