Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Soft-Pedaling Christian Morality: A Review of a Curious Review

In 2011, Archdeacon John Chryssavgis wrote a review of Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church, by the openly homosexual Episcopalian priest Justin R. Cannon. This review was published in the  Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly (Vol. 55, no. 3), and is now featured prominently on Justin Cannon's pro-homosexual website "Inclusive Orthodoxy."

Archdeacon John Chryssavgis is not just any deacon. He is the most prominent spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and a professor of Theology at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, and so the semi-endorsement of a piece of pro-homosexual propaganda is profoundly disturbing.

You can read the portion of this book that repeats the usual bogus arguments of homosexual apologists which attempt to argue that the clear condemnations of homosexuality in Scripture don't really say what they actually do say, here:

You can find these arguments refuted in the book, "The Bible and Homosexual Practice," by Robert Gagnon (an actual Biblical Scholar, and a book endorsed by some of the most prominent Biblical scholars of the past half century) or by watching his lectures on the subject.

Fr. John Chryssavgis begins:
"There are some topics that Orthodox Christians are singularly uncomfortable about broaching—even if it is simply to affirm their outright rejection and unqualified condemnation—and homosexuality is certainly among them. Indeed, any questions in general related to sexuality or gender—including the nature of homosexuality, or the divorce of clergy, or even the ordination of women—are subjects that arouse much passionate emotion but little rational exploration within theological and especially ecclesiastical circles.
This has always astonished, if not perturbed me, because it is not as if these issues are either absent or even diminishing in our society and church. Indeed, one of my gravest concerns over the years is that the oppression of homosexuality and silence on sexual issues in a hierarchical institution, such as the Orthodox Church, not only results from unjustifiable and unacceptable ignorance and prejudice. It also results in the church's complicity in discrimination as well as the church's reticence concerning sexual abuse in our own communities. Saying we hate the sin but love the sinner can sometimes be rejection masquerading as acceptance. It is, after all, so much easier to label than to listen.
This is why I was pleased to see the publication of this edited collection of stories and reflections about homosexuality. The editor is proactive in encouraging dialogue and discussion about this complex, albeit controversial topic; he is also the author of a small study on biblical perspectives on the subject that appears in an edited version toward the end of this book and the manager of a website dedicated to "inclusive orthodoxy." As he correctly observes in the introduction: "We cannot explore the issue of homosexuality without hearing the life, stories, and witness of faithful, Orthodox Christians who happen to be gay." (12)"
I don't know of any clergy who do not have great compassion on those who are struggling against homosexuality, or any other sexual addiction... and I doubt Fr. John Chryssavgis does either. So I have to wonder what it is that he is really objecting to, and why, during the course of his review, he fails completely to recognize the propagandistic nature of the book he is supposedly reviewing, or to clearly state what the actual position of the Orthodox Church is on the question the book is all about.

And when it comes to other sins, such as adultery -- should we not label that as a sin, as Christ does Himself? Should we instead listen to the adulterers to try to understand their sin better first? No. We ought to have compassion on them, and seek their repentance and restoration, but there is nothing about the sin of adultery itself that we don't already know sufficiently to label it a sin. You may have a very mean wife, and a very nice mistress, but whatever extenuating circumstances you may raise, it is still inherently sinful, and we know this without any doubt or ambiguity. And that is true of any sin that is clearly condemned in Scripture and Tradition.
The book contains four such stories, with names changed to safeguard the anonymity of the individuals: by Helena, whose gay son was painfully rejected and spitefully ostracized; by Barry, for whom prejudice and exclusion on the part of a parish priest led to further traumatic confusion and harrowing anguish; by Matthew, whose raw honesty and heartfelt confession sparked a long soul-searching journey for healing and wholeness; and by Elizabeth, whose disclosure and divorce were ultimately only reconciled in theological reading and support groups in "some seemingly 'unorthodox' faith communities." (42)
There is no doubt that their stories cry out for hearing and healing. And there are surely numerous others. We will doubtless be judged by God for failing to notice and to respond compassionately, instead opting to find security in easy scriptural texts and theological castigations. Both of these comprise a simplistic approach and perhaps provide a convenient way out. However, the Incarnation of God's Word that "assumed flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14) implies and imposes a messy spiritual wrestle and not a black-and-white pastoral response. After all, who among us can cast the first rational comment?"
There are two separate issues that Fr. John Chryssavgis is making into a false dichotomy. There is the question of what the Orthodox Church teaches about homosexuality, and then there is the pastoral question of how to deal with people who struggle with it. On the first question, failing to be clear about it is not only unpastoral and unloving -- it is pastoral malpractice. St. Paul tells us clearly and unequivocally that practicing homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). If we take what he says seriously, soft-pedaling this truth is not defensible. It is moral and spiritual cowardice. We can and should both unequivocally condemn the sin, and have love and compassion for the sinner. If we don't do both, we enable the sinner to kid himself into believing that his sin is not a sin, and thus fail to help him to overcome it.

Of course we should deal with people who struggle with that sin pastorally, just like we do people who struggle with alcoholism, adultery, drug abuse, or any other passion that is especially difficult to overcome. But if we fail to communicate what sin is, it is impossible for those whom we have confused to overcome sins that they do not recognize to be such.

If Fr. John Chryssavgis was simply arguing that we should have a discussion about how best to deal with those who actually are struggling to overcome homosexual temptations, few would argue with him. But that is not what this book is about, nor is it what Fr. John's review of this book is about.
Part of the problem of ignoring homosexuality is that it will invariably be restricted to and debated in fringe groups, prompting spurn and dismissal of it and related issues by those in mainstream Orthodox churches and society. Hence, instead of including stories from clergy in recognized Orthodox churches, the editor resorts to leaders within communities unrecognized by most Orthodox churches who, as a result, may further ignore the issue.
The problem in the Orthodox Church in the United States today is not that we are ignoring homosexuality. It is that so many in our Church are failing to take a clear stand on what we actually teach on the subject, and instead, like Fr. John Chryssavgis, choose to focus on how compassionate we ought to be to homosexuals, to the exclusion of clarifying whether or not the Church considers homosexual sex to be incompatible with the Christian life.
The foundation and history of the support group for gays and lesbians, known as "Axios: Eastern and Orthodox Gay and Lesbian Christians"—originally in Los Angeles (1980), but then in other cities of the United States, as well as in Canada and Australia— is a sign of the "work, even suffering, [that must occur] through an honest orthopraxy on the issue." (80) However, even such an organization is forced to "carry the baton underground." (84)
So is Fr. John Chryssavgis endorsing "Axios"? And if so, is he speaking on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Axios notoriously does not believe that it is inherently sinful for a man to have sex with another man, or for a woman to have sex with another woman... and that is clearly and unambiguously contrary to the teachings of Scripture, and the Orthodox Tradition. I don't believe promoting such views is the kind of work that should occur in the Orthodox Church.

Finally, towards the end of his review, we have a few tepidly stated reservations expressed about the actual content of the book:
"Frankly, I remain unconvinced by the scriptural and terminological analysis provided in this book (87-113) that lends support to homosexuality, just as I am cynical of the simplistic parallels drawn between prejudice against homosexuals and the problems of anti-Semitism or slavery (62-65). Indeed, despite the truly fascinating and stimulating scholarship of John Boswell, whose work focused on religious understanding and social tolerance of homosexuality, I feel that it is a forced endeavor to re-imagine—if not re-invent—history for purposes of identifying the medieval rite of adelphopoiesis or "brotherhood ritual" (sometimes referred to as "adoption") with same sex marriage or union."
He "remains unconvinced" by a book that argues counter-factually that Scripture and Tradition do not unequivocally condemn homosexual sex? Anyone familiar with Fr. John Chryssavgis' very opinionated style knows that he is quite capable of expressing vehement disagreement. If someone suggests that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is something less than the eastern equivalent of the Pope, or that the recent council in Crete was not exactly pan-Orthodox, he is quite capable of expressing his opposing view with great strength, enthusiasm, and eloquence. Try telling him that you don't believe human activity is causing catastrophic climate change, and  you are liable to get a response reminiscent of the shower scene in the movie Psycho. But let someone write a book that presents a fraudulent case against the moral Tradition of the Church, and the best he can say in response is that he "remain[s] unconvinced"? Our people, who are bombarded with pro-homosexual propaganda every day need something a bit more clear and direct than that from their clergy.
"Still, the truth is that, as Orthodox Churches and as Orthodox Christians, we are going to have to discuss homosexuality with far greater candor and with far greater charity, admitting that the issue is far more prevalent among both laity and clergy on all levels and in all positions. After all, why would we be afraid of such an interchange ? Or what would we be afraid of in such an exchange? Seeking the way of God is not resorting to fear, but searching for compassion and honesty, especially among all the other dishonest places that we walk. We are called to strive for simple human decency—indeed, Christ-like decency—in a subject that is so often complicated by selfishness and pride, contempt and rejection, natural desire and degrading lust.
In that respect, I welcome the book as a first—and important, sometimes the most difficult—step in a long process of honest dialogue."
I wonder if Fr. John Chryssavgis thinks Christ objected to St. John the Baptist's denunciation of the immoral marriage Herod had with his brother Philip's wife? There is certainly no evidence of that in Scripture, and every reason to believe just the opposite. Does he think Christ or St. John the Baptist would welcome a book that defended Herod's right to marry his brother's wife? Does he think St. Paul was unpastoral when he directed the Church in Corinth to excommunicate a man who was in an immoral relationship with his step-mother? Would St. Paul have welcomed a book defending that kind of relationship? Why should we ever welcome a book that endorses sin, and especially one that does so with disingenuous argumentation?

It is disappointing that St. Vladimir Seminary would attach it's name to such a review, but far more disappointing to see such a prominent clergyman in the Ecumenical Patriarchate write such a review in the first place. We live in a time when the culture in general, and a very large number of our own flock in particular are confused about whether or not homosexual sex is compatible with the Christian life. True shepherds of that flock should speak clearly on the matter. Those who not only fail to speak clearly, but who actually add to that confusion ought not go unanswered.

For More Information:

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth, by Fr. John Whiteford

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Statement of the Brotherhood of the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas on the Comments of Fr. Robert Arida on Homosexuality

Homosexuality and Shrimp, by Fr. John Whiteford

Church History and Same-Sex Marriage, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

Statement of the Russian Orthodox Church on Homosexuality (see section XII. 9).