Discussions about LGBT people in Christianity are shifting rapidly. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by different approaches to open the conversation more generously such that it includes people with seemingly disparate approaches to the questions. At other times, we shake our heads in disbelief that a potentially valuable conversation gets shut down before it has even started.
Several days ago, we caught wind of a potentially interesting conversation when Sarah found an article written by Fr. Johannes Jacobse entitled, “Fr. Robert Arida: Why Don’t You Become Episcopalian?” Intrigued, Sarah clicked the link to find a critique of an essay authored by Fr. Robert Arida that was posted on the Orthodox Church of America’s Wonder blog. In his critique, Fr. Jacobse contrasted Orthodox culture with Episcopalian culture, concluding that Fr. Arida’s approach aligns so closely with Episcopalian culture that he should leave the Orthodox Church an become Episcopalian. Fr. Jacobse organized his critique around this claim:
Not long ago the Episcopalian Church faced the dilemma that Arida wants to introduce into the Orthodox Church: Should moral legitimacy be granted to homosexual pairings that was previously reserved only for heterosexual, monogamous marriage?
Since we found Fr. Jacobse’s critique first, we assumed that Fr. Arida must have written another article about homosexuality on par with his well-known and controversial 2011 essay. Our suspicions only increased after we came across Rod Dreher’s article at The American Conservative that refers to Fr. Arida’s most recent essay as an Orthodox Trojan horse. As a celibate LGBT Christian couple, we cannot help but feel trepidation when these issues are discussed so forcefully in any Christian tradition, so we braced ourselves for reading Fr. Arida’s original essay (eventually removed from Wonder blog, but now found here) and the original comments on the article (which have also been removed by Wonder blog editors). Sarah read the article aloud as Lindsey drove us home from work the day it was published. As the article drew to a close, both of us were baffled. We wondered, “That’s it? Where’s the controversy?” Reviewing the critiques further, we noticed that those reacting with greatest hostility to Fr. Arida’s essay zoomed in on the penultimate paragraph (our emphasis added):
If the never changing Gospel who is Jesus Christ is to have a credible presence and role in our culture then the Church can no longer ignore or condemn questions and issues that are presumed to contradict or challenge its living Tradition. Among the most controversial of these issues are those related to human sexuality, the configuration of the family, the beginning and ending of human life, the economy and the care and utilization of the environment including the care, dignity and quality of all human life. If the unchanging Gospel is to be offered to the culture then the Church, in and through the Holy Spirit will have to expand the understanding of itself and the world it is called to save. That there are Orthodox Christians who misuse the never changing Christ to promote a particular political agenda and ideology or as license to verbally and physically assault those they perceive as immoral along with those who would question the status quo of the Church impose on the Church a “new and alien spirit.”
Upon realizing that this paragraph was the source of controversy, we couldn’t help but speculate that many readers focused their critiques on the author and his past theological work rather than the content of the article. When issues such as human sexuality are broached within churches, most people (at least in our experience) generally assume that the ensuing discussion will fit snuggly within that particular Christian tradition’s theology. But in this case, the commenters seemed to assume that Fr. Arida’s essay was nothing more than a deliberate backdoor attempt to argue for change in the Orthodox Church’s teachings on marriage. At this point we want to make clear that our post today is not a defense of Fr. Arida, his recent essay, or his past work. We did not agree with everything in the essay posted to Wonder blog. Nonetheless, we were disheartened to see that this entire situation, which could have sparked an interesting and edifying discussion, became a missed opportunity. We were especially sad that many of the most unkind, uncharitable, and vitriolic comments left on the original article were from those charged with providing pastoral care to the faithful.
Fr. Arida, his personal opinions, and his level of theological orthodoxy are not the topic of our post today. This controversy from last week is but one example of how any conversation about LGBT Christian issues can quickly become a battle where all civility disappears. When we try to discuss why we find these conversations difficult, people in our Christian tradition are quick to encourage us to empathize with other members who see themselves as “refugees” from Christian traditions that have become more progressive over time. However, we notice that the same people are not nearly as quick to challenge those who assert that it’s impossible for LGBT people to be faithful Christians. We can appreciate that some folks had not always been so hostile to LGBT Christians and had perhaps made honest attempts at compassion in the past. We are willing to listen when they tell us that they had felt duped after being told, “No one is trying to force this denomination to change its teachings” and later finding out that this was not the case. Regardless of one’s theological views on same sex marriage, it seems understandable to us that a person would find it distressing to be told “x isn’t happening” and learn years later that x was indeed happening all along. For the record, neither of us has ever belonged to a denomination where this has occurred. We have no personal experience of this nature and don’t feel qualified to make judgments about what did or didn’t happen in Christian traditions other than our own. We try to be compassionate to everyone, even if that person’s past experience has introduced considerable paranoia every time someone in the Church raises topics of sexuality, marriage, and family.
When people have their ears perked for any and all code words that might be used to legitimize closed-door lobbying, they see a Trojan horse on every corner. But the problem is that while some Trojan horses are real, others are imagined. They are conjured up in the minds of people who are terrified that discussing LGBT issues in the Church will lead to a meltdown of all morality, initiating an unstoppable tailspin into relativism and heresy. No doubt, some people reading this post will consider our blog a Trojan horse. While that saddens us, it doesn’t surprise us. We’ve heard it all already. We’ve been contacted by people who are certain that we are lying in wait to slip gay marriage in through the backdoor of our Christian tradition. We’ve been told by people within our tradition that there is no way we could possibly be faithful Christians…and that if we were, we would shut up, keep our sexual orientations on the down-low, and play the “don’t ask, don’t tell” game to appease the neuroses of every tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist who thinks gay people are out to overtake the world. We’ve been accused of flirting and lying about our celibacy because caregiving is an important part of our relationship and sometimes it’s necessary for us to communicate in sign language on Sarah’s low hearing days.
We offer these examples not to play the victim card, but to bear witness to a very real problem that occurs when every discussion of LGBT issues is dismissed as a Trojan horse: Christian charity gets lost in a sea of “Safeguard the tradition!” demands. Words like “welcoming,” “pastoral,” and “merciful” are seen as code for “hidden agenda.” In working so diligently to protect the historic faith, both clergy and laity can lose sight of the real people who are caught in the crossfire and wounded by arrows from both sides. Pastoral care for faithful LGBT Christians risks being reduced to, “Don’t identify as gay, and don’t have gay sex. You’re welcome here, but only because everyone is a sinner.” Requests for listening and dialogue are often met with, “There’s no need. Struggle along with the rest of us to live according to God’s expectations. We treat all people the same.” While we genuinely wish that this were true, it isn’t. As long as every LGBT person in the Church is viewed as a symbol of the “gay agenda,” it will never be true that all who seek Christ are treated the same.
If the Church is going to minister effectively to people who do not fit into the heterosexual, cisgender majority, conversations about how to accomplish that need to take place. No amount of hierarchical statements reiterating existing teaching will be sufficient to fill the gaps in pastoral care that currently exist. There is a desperate need for practical guidance on what it means to love, support, and welcome LGBT Christians, and that guidance cannot end with pat answers. No doubt, the conversations that are necessary for accomplishing this will be difficult, emotional, and painful for all involved. But they are indeed necessary and will never happen if every attempt at discussing sexual orientation is written off as the scheme of a heretic who ought to leave the Church. Even conversations initiated by heretics have the potential to result in edification. An excellent historic example of this is the Church’s conversations with iconoclasts. Discussion of what constitutes a sacred image and why these are important to the Christian faith led to detailed explanations of Christ’s incarnation and instruction as to how we should commemorate people who have imaged Christ to us.
As LGBT Christians, we don’t think we’re proposing a new teaching when we say that we are created in the image and likeness of God. After all, every person is…and doesn’t the Church strive to assist everyone as he or she shows Christ to the world? We long to see the image of God in everyone, but that’s very difficult when people look at us and see nothing but a Trojan horse.
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