Meeting Michelle: Pastoral and Theological Reflections on a Transgender Inmate

by Fr. Richard René

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.

In 2016, the maximum-security prison where I was working as a chaplain received a transgender inmate named Michelle, who is serving a life sentence for rape and murder in his late teens, when he identified as “Michael.”

Not surprisingly, Michelle’s arrival had a significant impact on the institutional staff. Many felt helpless and uncertain as to how to engage with her on any level. Others simply viewed her as a “piece of garbage,” the personification of evil and degeneracy. As an Orthodox priest serving in this secular context, I was not immune to the challenge that her presence posed. For instance, policy prohibited me from refusing to use her chosen name and gender pronouns. Beyond wanting to keep my job, I complied for two reasons. First, I could not engage with her pastorally if I could not speak to her, and she would not speak with me unless I addressed her by the name she had chosen.

More than that, though, I have called this person Michelle and used feminine pronouns (even in this context) because I believe there is something essentially mysterious about her identity, which may well be tied to transgenderism. Continue reading

Axia Women: A New Orthodox Network in the U.S.

by Patricia Fann Bouteneff

Axia Women is a diverse new network by, for, and about Orthodox Women, in the service of Christ. Although we are launching it officially only now, the seeds of Axia were planted a few years ago.

One seed was a petition asking the fourteen Eastern Orthodox primates to make sure that women—who make up at least half the church—were appropriately represented at the Holy and Great Council in Crete. While we didn’t reach that goal (only six of the four hundred delegates were female), the petition itself was signed by some 2000 people in some 60 countries. It showed a diverse groundswell of women and men interested in a variety of representation and service. Not only did bishops and other clergy sign it, the Ecumenical Patriarch studied it carefully, then wrote me a personal letter in reply. His message explained the limitations of what could be addressed at that late stage in the Council’s planning, but also warmly encouraged ongoing efforts in this direction. The petition and its aftermath were important indicators that there is both potential for growth and receptivity for women’s work at all levels of church life. Continue reading

Why We Need Nature

by David Bradshaw

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.

Here is a little thought experiment. Suppose a pill is invented that enables you to eat whatever you want without getting fat. It is cheap, does not require a prescription, and has no bad side-effects. For good measure, let us suppose that it maintains muscle tone as well, so it lets you stay in shape without needing to exercise.

Would you take the pill?

If you answered yes, and you are Orthodox, then I would urge you to think again. Surely nothing is more antithetical to Orthodox ascetic and spiritual teaching than to think that we can off-load the problem of maintaining self-discipline onto a pill. If anything, Orthodoxy adds hard challenges that are not physically necessary. We “afflict ourselves” with fasts, vigils, and long prayers in ways that are decidedly contrary to the ethos of the world around us. We do so because we recognize that a spirit of self-denial is essential to the spiritual life. If we cannot forego a little food for the sake of Christ, we are not likely to be able to overcome the subtler temptations that come at us every day. Continue reading

Domestic Violence and Accountable Actions in the Orthodox Church

by Mariz Tadros

My last essay spoke about breaking the silence around the invisible women in the Orthodox Church experiencing spousal violence and how we need accountable theology to stop the promotion of the notion that domestic violence is a cross to bear—but that both are essential but insufficient measures of redress. Here I probe further: How do we change the institutional norms that allow clergy to use their spiritual powers to propagate ideas condoning domestic violence? How do we make our churches accountable for upholding dignity and compassion for all? How do we create internal mechanisms with authoritative impact so that, with time, there is zero tolerance among believers for any justification of domestic violence? Continue reading