A few months ago, one of our readers forwarded us a link to a short Ancient Faith Radio podcast where Frederica Mathewes-Green, a writer and speaker within the Orthodox Christian tradition, offers her thoughts on pastors and same-sex attraction. It was recorded in 2012, and we haven’t gotten the links to the mp3 and podcast download to work properly. If you’re interested in listening to it before reading the rest of this post, it’s best to click the “play” button on the page itself after you’ve followed our link. Though this podcast isn’t new and isn’t nearly long enough for a full resource review, we wanted to share some of our thoughts on its content and welcome our readers to share their own thoughts in the comments.
We’ll say up front that if you hold a progressive sexual ethic, you will likely disagree with a significant part of this podcast’s content. If you hold some form of traditional sexual ethic, you will likely find yourself agreeing with at least some parts of what Mathewes-Green has to say, but may also find yourself challenged. Regardless, today’s post should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of everything Mathewes-Green has said publicly about LGBT issues.
In this talk, Mathewes-Green offers her opinion on the question, “What is the proper response if I find myself at an Orthodox parish where two people who seem to be a gay couple are accepted, and are even receiving communion?” Part if her response is that what fellow parishioners are or aren’t doing in their private lives “Is really none of your business.” She states that matters such as whether a person is engaging in sexual activity with a same-sex partner should be left between that individual and his or her confessor. She also says that it is appropriate for a parishioner to ask a priest where he stands on sexual ethics issues generally, and to use that information in the process of determining whether to remain at that parish or to continue seeing that priest for confession and other pastoral care needs.
No matter what kind of sexual ethic a person holds, there’s something to learn from this podcast. Prying into the lives of others is not Christian. Accusing another person of wrongdoing on vague suspicion is not how Christ calls us to treat our brothers and sisters. Making assumptions about what someone else is or is not working on in spiritual direction is destructive for both the person making the assumptions and the person on the receiving end. Everyone’s privacy should be respected. These statements apply across the board when it comes to questions of whether someone is committing sin.
One aspect of this podcast that we liked was Mathewes-Green’s reminder that no one can know fully what is happening in another person’s life unless that person shares it, and that person has no obligation to do so when met with rude demands by a fellow parishioner. A common stereotype of conservative churches is that devout members of these communities are obsessed with the sex lives of others. There’s a bit of truth in many stereotypes, and the two of us have experienced more than our share of mistreatment within both our former and current traditions because of assumptions other Christians have made about us. As we’ve written before, our celibacy does little to protect us from hurtful rumors and vindictive actions. But there’s no reason that straight people with traditional sexual ethics have to behave in this way toward LGBT (or suspected LGBT) members of their congregations. Fairly often, we hear it suggested that only in liberal congregations will members take a “none of my business” approach to other people’s private matters. Yet that appears to be Mathewes-Green’s approach, and if you’ve listened to even one minute of the podcast, it should be abundantly clear that she is no liberal.
The other bit we found helpful was Mathewes-Green’s emphasis on the pastor’s role in providing spiritual direction. When we leave questions like, “Who is permitted to commune?” and “Is so-and-so living in a way that’s informed by our Christian tradition?” as private discussions between a parishioner and the pastor, we trust that pastor and God to help all members of the parish sort out complicated issues in the best way possible. We develop even greater trust in our church leaders by making inquiries about where they stand on controversial matters and leaving it to them to apply Christian teaching in individual circumstances. The two of us have found much comfort in knowing that we can ask our own priests questions about where they stand on theological, liturgical, and practical matters. We’ve grown a lot in our own spiritual lives as a result. We’re also grateful that we and others have the freedom to decide who will serve as our spiritual fathers. It seems to us that trusting pastors to do their jobs and seeking guidance elsewhere if we have doubts is healthier than declaring ourselves parish inquisitors and obsessing over why someone isn’t fasting with the rest of us, why a family hasn’t been at church in two months even though we’ve seen them at a baseball game, or why a child doesn’t realize that stomping an anthill in the parish courtyard is poor care for God’s creation. Trusting those charged with providing spiritual guidance to all these folks is not the same as saying, “Anything goes. Let’s all be relativists!”
We wonder, how would conservative Christian traditions respond differently to LGBT members of their faith communities if more people took Mathewes-Green’s approach to the presence of same-sex couples? Would such a shift create space for churches to be more welcoming while not compromising their convictions? How might LGBT members of conservative churches react differently?
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