Parishioner Denied Communion Due to His Sexual Orientation
The Editors of gotruthreform.org website are compelled to write about an unfortunate matter that has been reported to us. For the sake of brevity, we will not include a long discussion of the Canon Laws regarding the facts. The followers of the Ephraimite fundamentalist movement indiscriminately choose which of the Orthodox Canons are identified as crucial and which require adherence.
The Orthodox fundamentalist movement is judgmental in nature, and legalistic in its adherence to the Church Canons. Often missing in their pastoral messages are references to a forgiving and loving God and the teachings of our Savior, Jesus Christ who has paved the road for our salvation.
Recent events at a Metropolis of Chicago Orthodox Parish in question, concern a devoted Greek Orthodox Christian who is a doctor and the spiritual son of a faith abiding priest. He has been an active parishioner for several decades. He is also gay. The doctor would attend church almost every Sunday and would frequently receive communion. Unfortunately, for the doctor, his spiritual father recently “retired” due to a disability. The doctor sought spiritual guidance from another Greek Orthodox Priest in the Metropolis of Chicago. This new Spiritual Father, like the prior one, did not bar him from taking communion; indeed, with proper preparation, the Priest encouraged it.
The Doctor’s Parish was assigned a new priest by the Bishop. Prior to the assignment, the Parish Council members were assured that the newly assigned priest was not of an Ephraimite fundamentalist persuasion. Right away, some parishioners began sensing a drastic change in the theology and atmosphere of the Parish and began to leave the Parish. At this time, the Editors at gotruthreform.org began receiving reports of the beginning signs of discontent within the Parish community. Parishioners began to receive calls from the new Priest under the guise of “getting to know them”. The new Priest called the doctor and engaged in a conversation with a male person who answered the phone. The new Priest then spoke to the doctor and posed numerous questions including asking who was the male person answering the phone and whether the doctor was living with this man. Of course, being an honest and forthcoming person, the doctor did not lie to this new Priest. The new Priest told him he could no longer receive communion at his Parish. One of the persons reporting the incident to us commented that “his honesty of course was rewarded by condemnation”.
The doctor was prepared for this type of condemnation having discussed the issue with his new spiritual father. The doctor told the newly assigned Priest that his Spiritual Father did not have a problem with him receiving communion. The new Priest responded “then go to your spiritual father for communion”. The doctor responded that he will fast and having gone to confession, he will stand before the newly assigned Priest and be prepared to receive communion at his home Parish. On September 11, 2011, while the nation focused its attention on the 10 year anniversary of 9-11, another tragedy was unfolding at this Parish. The new Priest called his parishioners to approach with the fear of God, Faith and Love to receive Holy Communion. The doctor approached with proper reverence and preparation. While the congregation watched, the new Priest told the doctor to step aside. According to one of our contributors, the doctor stepped aside with tears streaming down his face while other parishioners left the communion line expressing dismay and disappointment.
According to our reporters, one of our Hierarchs was approached with this issue. His response was that this was a matter between the Priest and his Parish. According to our sources, the Hierarch who is regarded by some as a protector of the faith and the shepherd of his flock chose not to get involved. More parishioners are leaving this Parish. We fear that they, as others have, will leave the faith altogether.
We have received numerous reports that the extreme fundamentalist approach to our beloved Orthodox faith continues to cause faith abiding parishioners to leave the Church for reasons of intolerance and a legalistic approach to our faith. Of course this exodus is not viewed negatively by all. The Ephraimites see this merely as God cleansing the church of “nominal Christians” and maintaining a membership of Parishioners spiritually obedient to certain Priests and Monks. The problem here is not necessarily theological. We find fault with the judgmental, spiritually arrogant and reactionary approach of some of the Ephraimite Clergy. The Ephraimites’ response to this incident is that this particular Priest is being persecuted for “carrying out God’s Laws”.
Our many collective hearts are saddened for this good doctor and we pray that he finds a new spiritual home with a faith abiding non-Ephraimite Priest. We also are saddened for this “retired” Priest who worked for nearly three decades to bring growth, love and life to this particular Parish. Now he and others must watch the Parish self-destruct, as others have, as a result of the divisive and judgmental actions of an Ephraimite Priest who has been foisted on yet another unsuspecting Parish.
This Parish and the episode which resulted due to the fundamentalist expression of faith by the newly assigned Priest pose a very difficult problem that appears across the country in many of our Parishes and within all denominations. Our Orthodox Faith sets guidelines as to how we are to live our lives. The teaching of sexual purity and abstinence before marriage can be traced back in our tradition to our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles. No matter what sexual preference an individual has the understanding is that in order to be a devout and faithful follower of our Lord we are to live the pure life, not being distracted and overcome by the sins of the flesh. This has always been a timeless struggle for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. This creates a pastoral scenario that is extremely delicate when attempting to save an individual who happens to be living contrary to the teachings of the Faith.
This Parish is an interesting and unique community within the Chicago Metropolitan area. Its former Priest who “retired” was committed to serving the Parish for nearly thirty years. He incorporated a philosophy of inclusion for each and every Parishioner. Individuals who may have been shunned by other Parishes and Clergy were welcomed with open arms. No matter how they lived their lives, there they found acceptance like nowhere else in the Orthodox Community of this Metropolis. This attitude created a vehicle for those, some of who were on the verge of suicide and others who were experiencing great depression due to their lifestyles, to come together in prayer within the faith. These children of God were devout to their faith from their youth. If they were lost because they were not accepted in other Parishes, they found a home in this particular Parish. Some have suggested to our Editors that the assignment of this new Priest was deliberate as it would facilitate the closing of this Parish and its eventual sale. If there is a scintilla of truth voiced in these concerns, and if that was the real motive, then we fear that this will result in a major loss for this Metropolis and a failure of the administration over those who are devout in their faith.
We know that any sexual immorality threatens the salvation of those who engage in such acts. Nevertheless, at the same time it is our responsibility to bring within the realm of the Church those who sin so that they are amenable to instruction and are provided the opportunity for salvation provided by our Savior. Jesus Himself stated, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mark 2:17). We are to work and struggle with those who are fallen as we in our sinfulness fail each and every day. How do we reach those who are so far removed from the community of faith if they are shunned due to their lifestyle? How can we help those who have no outlet for expressing their pain and sorrow especially if they know what they do is wrong in the eyes of the Church? What comfort can we as Christians provide to these wayward souls who are pushed away from the faith they have professed all their lives and who have been relegated to a course of living in the desert without the love and embrace of the Church they have known and loved? Doing this is the same as if Christ were telling the harlot to leave and never come back. This is as if the Lord refused to speak to those sinners and refused to go into the dens of iniquity since those left there are without hope. This is not how our Lord meant us to be as a religious community. Jesus Himself was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11) and later told the chief priests and elders that “…tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31). We are to bring the sinners in and work through the difficult aspects of sin in the life of all. There are no “lost children” in the eyes of God.
The issue of Communion and whether it is given to someone who is a homosexual is also complicated. In mainstream Orthodox theology, homosexuality is considered a disorder of the natural and good passions and desires of love and human sexuality that God bestowed upon humankind from the very beginning. The fact is that many of our Orthodox parishes, here and throughout the world, have homosexual members who are also in full Sacramental union with the Church. Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, writes that “[m]any Christians with same-sex attractions…are determined not to act on their sexual feelings and passions in ways that they understand to be opposed to divine love. In this regard, they are, once again, no different from their heterosexual brothers and sisters in Christ.” (1) Fr. Hopko also states that while same-sex attraction is a “providential cross to be borne”(2) he also reaffirms “…the conviction that same-sex love, when properly experienced and purely expressed, is always God’s sacred gift. (…) When same-sex love is pure and godly, it grows, blossoms, and, is ultimately fulfilled in God’s coming kingdom….”(3) The issue is complex, yet it is some ways no more pastorally difficult than dealing with a sexually active teen or an adulterous spouse.
Unlike the rest of us, the Ephraimites live in a universe where the laws are black and white; so in this case, the doctor was refused communion. If this newly assigned Priest was before us for an interview, our Editorial Board would have asked the following questions:
1. Did you take the time to have or ask for a confidential meeting with this Parishioner to determine the following:
A. Was he struggling with his sexual orientation?
B. Was he of a mindset that his sexual orientation was indelibly embedded in his own mind?
C. Was he seeking compassion and assistance and was he looking for help to confront this issue?
D. Was his condition and choice willful and voluntary?
E. Was his choice conscious in its application?
F. Was his condition temporary?
2. Did you act based upon a clear knowledge of our Faith, or did you merely follow the edict of your Ephraimite Spiritual father?
3. Why did some of your Ephraimite Brethren tell those close to them that you are being persecuted for following the Canons of the Faith?
4. Now that you have been bestowed the title of “Confessor” by your Metropolitan did you think it entitled you to hand out such harsh penance on the phone, without the necessary and indispensable personal counseling or dialogue with this Parishioner?
5. Finally, did you spend the time necessary to determine that this man would avoid carnal relations?
We cannot completely blame this Priest for how he handled this situation. Part of the blame should also be placed upon the Metropolis of Chicago since this young inexperienced Priest was placed into a Parish community without enough knowledge or respect for the history and composition of this Parish. He was the wrong man for the time and he should not have been placed in this Parish. A seasoned Clergyman would have taken a much different Pastoral approach. With more experience, he would have taken greater depth of care and discernment and would certainly have handled this matter differently. Ultimately, our first concern must be the well being of the laity and the care of the souls placed in the care of our Clergy. This cannot be accomplished when we turn our back to the sinners of the world and we only select and choose those to whom we are to minister. Our ministry must be open to all who walk in the church and it should never be selective and judgmental based on the type of sin. Sinners are a challenge to a Church, but given the desire to overcome their sin, how can we, as Orthodox Christians, turn away persons of faith who are ready to battle their sins whatever their sexual orientation.
At this time, we formally request that His Grace Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos to assist in resolving this issue. As a member of the Illinois State Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the AIDS Pastoral Care Network and as a recipient of the Alexian Brother’s AIDS Ministry Presidential Award, he is probably the most qualified Hierarch to counsel the new Priest and the Parish on how this case and any future similar cases should be addressed.
Presently, the Greek Orthodox Community in the Metropolis of Chicago is in a state of despair. Many Parishioners are leaving the Church and nobody is sure what the outcome will be. More thought needs to be given in the assignment of Clergy to our Parishes and our Priests must be trained in crisis intervention and must be provided with a better understanding of interpersonal relationship skills with those who suffer and those who have been abused. The Church should not be the abuser. Christ opened his arms to all people of every race, creed and color. Our Lord’s approach to the suffering soul was acceptance and the embrace of love. Do we have the same love as our Lord? This is the question we must face because if we don’t examine ourselves then we are afraid the dwindling of our Parish communities will only continue until we reach the point of no return.
Our Editors want to know if similar conditions are posed to others who have broken the Canons of our Church. Are unfaithful heterosexual spouses subject to the same kind of treatment? What about those who file less than truthful IRS tax returns? Is there a hierarchy of sins with some being so gross that nothing can be done to absolve the sinner? We are disturbed by what we have seen and heard and by the actions that were reported to us. We fear that the Ephraimites will continue to use the message of a vengeful God of the Ephraimites in order to wage tactical war through those Clergymen who are absorbed in their fundamentalist Orthodox theology.
As a side note check out the recently published book entitled The Crazy Side of Orthodoxy: How Traditionalist Ideology and “Changeless” Canons Hurt the Orthodox Church 2011, Regina Orthodox Press. The author, Charles Shingledecker, addresses some of the more outlandish Canons which are codified in the Rudder. We will publish a future article reviewing this book.
(1) Thomas Hopko, “Christian Faith and Same-sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections (Ben Lomand, CA: Conciliar Press, 2006), pg. 105.
(2) Hopko, pg. 45.
(3) Hopko, pg. 45