Coronavirus has descended on our world as an apocalypse, a whirlwind destroying the shelter of our fixed verities, ripping the roofs off our traditions and throwing into the blaze of the sun the hidden sins and fragilities of our institutions.
This whirlwind has caught the Orthodox world in the midst of an identity crisis, an epochal moment of transformation from a premodern Eastern Church to a late modern Church in the West. At the core of this crisis is the question of how Orthodoxy is to engage a modern world shaped by nationalism and globalism, separation of faith and state, empowerment of the individual, and human rights. Relatively untouched until recently by modernity, and operating with a liturgical (and thus theological) consciousness shaped by the sensibility of medieval Byzantium, the Orthodox community has found itself ill-equipped and internally divided in responding to modern challenges. The result is a clash of visions along liberal/conservative lines, which certainly cuts across jurisdictions, but can be seen particularly strongly in certain leading churches…
In 2016, the 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 →