Ambiguity Serves No One

A Review of the Foreword by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)
to the latest issue of The Wheel

by Edith M. Humphrey

The edi­tors of Ortho­dox Life offer to our read­ers an edi­fy­ing reflec­tion on the Church’s response to pas­toral and the­o­log­i­cal ques­tions regard­ing sex­u­al moral­i­ty and Ortho­dox anthro­pol­o­gy. We believe that this will not be a final word, but rather one of many state­ments of encour­age­ment  and direc­tion to the faithful.


This week, two pub­li­ca­tions caused con­ster­na­tion among Ortho­dox Chris­tians who fre­quent social media. The first was the elec­tron­ic pub­li­ca­tion of a fore­word by Met­ro­pol­i­tan Kallis­tos (Ware) to the lat­est issue of The Wheel. This issue, enti­tled “Being Human,” includes arti­cles by Ortho­dox cler­gy and aca­d­e­mics on the debate con­cern­ing anthro­pol­o­gy, sex­u­al­i­ty and relat­ed con­cerns. A few arti­cles have already been pub­lished online, but the com­plete issue has yet to be released. The sec­ond post appeared online in response to His Emi­nence’s fore­word. It was enti­tled, “Kallis­tos Ware Comes Out for Homo­sex­u­al ‘Mar­riage.’” Accom­pa­ny­ing the arti­cle was an alarm­ing pho­to of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan sport­ing a pho­to­shopped “gay pride” but­ton — a cre­ative touch that has since been removed.

The sec­ond arti­cle spread like wild­fire through var­i­ous dis­cus­sion groups on Face­book, elic­it­ing hot respons­es on var­i­ous sides of the sex­u­al­i­ty issue and caus­ing at least some to read either or both posts for them­selves. It seems that a response to both arti­cles is warranted.

Portrait of Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia.
Met­ro­pol­i­tan Kallis­tos (Ware) of Diokleia.

With regards to the arti­cle that tar­get­ed the Met­ro­pol­i­tan, I have this to say: if those faith­ful to the Church’s teach­ings would rep­re­sent the truth care­ful­ly, with­out exag­ger­a­tion, then they would not be dis­cred­it­ed. This arti­cle’s head­line is inflam­ma­to­ry and the pho­to­shopped pic­ture sim­ply decep­tive. The met­ro­pol­i­tan did not approve gay mar­riage in his fore­word, nor does he wear sym­bol­ic para­pher­na­lia. The arti­cle does quote accu­rate­ly from his piece and it is this mate­r­i­al that should be con­sid­ered. To go beyond what the Met­ro­pol­i­tan writes, how­ev­er, allows for a sim­ple dis­missal of Ortho­dox con­cerns based on the head­line’s inac­cu­ra­cy alone. St Paul’s sec­ond epis­tle to the Corinthi­ans, with its mod­el to avoid cheap and dis­hon­est meth­ods of argu­men­ta­tion, is essen­tial if con­ser­v­a­tive Ortho­dox Chris­tians are to avoid being dis­missed as fear-mon­gers, “fun­da­men­tal­ists,” and knee-jerk reac­tionar­ies.1 Those post­ing at may think that they are ral­ly­ing the faith­ful but their meth­ods are counterproductive.

This being said, we must exam­ine the offend­ing arti­cle with care and cour­tesy. We are con­sid­er­ing the words of a bish­op who has influ­enced many to embrace Ortho­doxy and who has taught us many things. The Ortho­dox Church was key in my ear­li­est cat­e­ch­esis, and since that time the few per­son­al encoun­ters I have had with Met­ro­pol­i­tan Kallis­tos have shown him to be a com­pas­sion­ate pas­tor and exhil­a­rat­ing thinker. There­fore any crit­i­cism that fol­lows I offer with great reluc­tance and sadness. 

The Faithful Need Clarity

My first con­cern is that this fore­word is ambigu­ous at a time which cries out for clar­i­ty. Lead­ing ques­tions are help­ful in the con­text of the class­room when we are deal­ing with unex­plored ter­ri­to­ry. And there cer­tain­ly are mat­ters con­cern­ing anthro­pol­o­gy and mar­riage that have not been thor­ough­ly explored in the Church — e.g., How it is that male and female, sep­a­rate­ly and togeth­er, are made in the image of God; whether mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine are big­ger real­i­ties than the phys­i­cal male and female; what kind of con­ti­nu­ity and dis­con­ti­nu­ity might there be between what we are now in our gen­dered con­di­tions and what we shall be in the Age to come; why does our Tra­di­tion only allow the ordi­na­tion of cer­tain men to the priest­hood, while females are more typ­i­cal­ly con­sid­ered prophets and moth­ers; why it is that a god­ly mar­riage points to the mys­tery of Christ and the Church. My prayer has been that the chal­lenges we now face over sex­u­al­i­ty will help us to go deep­er into these mys­ter­ies, just as the Ari­an and oth­er Chris­to­log­i­cal here­sies led to sound and care­ful expli­ca­tion of dog­ma. So ques­tions are worth ask­ing: I agree with Fr John Behr and Met­ro­pol­i­tan Kallis­tos that anthro­pol­o­gy is one of the major areas of con­tem­pla­tion before us today, and that “silence is not an answer.” But the type of ques­tions mat­ter, espe­cial­ly at a time when the faith­ful are look­ing for pas­tors and teach­ers to encour­age them rather than dis­qui­et them con­cern­ing what they have been taught are set­tled mat­ters — set­tled since the time of the Bible and the Church fathers.

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan sets up two hypo­thet­i­cal sit­u­a­tions in the con­fes­sion­al: one man is tempt­ed to fre­quent gay bars and enter into one-night stands, repents in the con­fes­sion­al, and is restored (and this repeat­ed­ly); anoth­er lives in a “com­mit­ted” same-sex rela­tion­ship but is not pre­pared to sep­a­rate or even to give up homo­sex­u­al activ­i­ty. The author asks if it is right that the sec­ond should be exclud­ed from the chal­ice but not the first, since the sec­ond is at least not liv­ing out a cycli­cal life of promis­cu­ity. To this ques­tion the Met­ro­pol­i­tan responds, “Some­thing has gone wrong here.” Actu­al­ly, it seems that it is his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the two sce­nar­ios that has gone wrong. The first per­son is described as promis­cu­ous, rather than as repen­tant (though weak); the sec­ond is described as “com­mit­ted to a sta­ble and lov­ing rela­tion­ship,” rather than as resis­tant to the Church’s teach­ing. Note that he will not even try to abstain from for­ni­ca­tion. There is also an alarm­ing foot­note that sug­gests that in the Church of Fin­land this sec­ond man would not be asked to refrain from com­mu­nion, as though this is some­thing to be emu­lat­ed. The Met­ro­pol­i­tan, then, is ask­ing a lead­ing ques­tion, “Is what goes on in the con­fes­sion­al fair or good?” and he answers it for the read­er in the negative.

A proper view of celibacy

Anoth­er ques­tion that is asked is whether it is right to “put the heavy bur­den” of celiba­cy on those with homo­sex­u­al incli­na­tions. This ques­tion only makes sense, it seems to me, from the pre­sup­po­si­tion that a life with­out sex­u­al activ­i­ty is a bur­den that can only be car­ried by a few. But the Chris­t­ian faith requires it of many — of the unmar­ried, of those mar­ried in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions where there is no affec­tion or when the spouse can­not ful­fill sex­u­al needs, of those who are sep­a­rat­ed from spous­es in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions, of those whose spouse has died and for whom there is no pos­si­bil­i­ty of remar­riage, for what­ev­er rea­son. It is the world that tells us such a life is not worth liv­ing. But if we are, as the Met­ro­pol­i­tan says, becom­ing human and fol­low­ing the pat­tern of Christ, then such a sit­u­a­tion offers a spe­cial oppor­tu­ni­ty for bear­ing the God-Man’s image. It is a bless­ing, how­ev­er dif­fi­cult it might be. More­over, it offers strength to the Church as a whole.

This is a place, of course, where those of us who are unabashed­ly con­ser­v­a­tive might rethink our nor­mal under­stand­ing and allow it to be chas­tened by Holy Tra­di­tion. We tend to char­ac­ter­ize the human norm as a mar­ried state, but instead we should thank and encour­age our celi­bate broth­ers and sis­ters for we need their wit­ness no mat­ter what cir­cum­stance leads them to this place. As Jesus explained, there are many caus­es of being a “eunuch” but this can be done for the glo­ry of God!2

Are the Church’s teachings invasive?

Next, the arti­cle asks us to con­sid­er why we put so much empha­sis on “gen­i­tal sex,” and whether it is seem­ly for the Church to “peep through the key­hole” to see what oth­ers are doing. This is pref­aced by the remark that there are many good things to see in a com­mit­ted same-sex rela­tion­ship besides the sex­u­al inti­ma­cy. But the prob­lem here is at least twofold. First, there is a struc­tur­al sin in the com­ing togeth­er of two same-gen­dered per­sons, for it rejects the pri­mal state­ment, con­firmed by Christ, that in the begin­ning He made them male and female.…3 There is no doubt that two such per­sons can show com­pas­sion and sac­ri­fice towards each oth­er. But already the char­ac­ter of their rela­tion­ship is skewed, for what they are enact­ing is a par­o­dy of God’s pur­pose. Such a rela­tion­ship can­not be sim­ply a mat­ter of friend­ship plus sex, where we could approve of the first but ques­tion the sec­ond, as though they were sep­a­rate mat­ters. What is done in the body affects the spir­it and the soul.4

Sec­ond­ly, the Church does not peep through key-holes at a pri­vate event enti­tled “gen­i­tal sex” — as if that is all there were to phys­i­cal inti­ma­cy! The tenor of the Scrip­tures, the dis­ci­pline of the Church, the care of the con­fes­sor all teach us that inti­ma­cy goes beyond this one kind of con­tact. Fur­ther­more, our roman­tic lives are not sim­ply our own busi­ness, but rather effect one’s own body (the tem­ple of the Holy Spir­it), the oth­er part­ner, and every­one else in the Body of Christ.

Besides this, we must not be naïve about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion.  We are no longer being asked to over­look what is hap­pen­ing “in pri­vate” but to cel­e­brate and hon­or a rela­tion­ship based specif­i­cal­ly on its same-sex foun­da­tion. Indeed, some are claim­ing that such rela­tion­ships are in them­selves a viable route to theo­sis, and there­fore should be blessed by the Church.  The days of “don’t ask, don’t tell” are long gone in most quar­ters; and were they ever help­ful so far as true spir­i­tu­al guid­ance was concerned?

Asking the right questions?

Final­ly, there is the con­clu­sion of the piece. The Met­ro­pol­i­tan makes the dis­claimer that he is not sug­gest­ing we aban­don Ortho­dox teach­ing on this mat­ter whole­sale, but rather that we “enquire more rig­or­ous­ly into the rea­sons that lie behind it.” I would have wel­comed a fore­word that actu­al­ly did this, rais­ing ques­tions regard­ing anthro­pol­o­gy, dis­ci­pline, and sex­u­al expres­sion. Instead, His Emi­nence’s ques­tions have led the read­er to ques­tion the abil­i­ty of Ortho­dox Chris­tians to dis­ci­pline their bod­ies, the wis­dom of the con­fes­sor who is seek­ing the sal­va­tion of those who have same-sex desire and whom he loves, and the dig­ni­ty of a Church that cares about sex­u­al expres­sion among its mem­bers. Indeed, he does not only com­mend an inquiry into the rea­sons for the Church’s teach­ings, but also “exper­i­men­ta­tion,” “cre­ative courage,” and “lov­ing com­pas­sion” that “acknowledge…the vari­ety of paths that God calls us human beings to follow.”

I have seen this kind of rhetoric before and it leads in only one direc­tion. What begins as a call to pas­toral clemen­cy fre­quent­ly ends in an unex­am­ined shift in eth­i­cal and social prac­tice. In con­trast, I would agree with my dear friend Bradley Nas­sif, who quotes Chesterton’s sage com­ment that one should nev­er tear down a fence unless one knows why it was put there in the first place. His own arti­cle in this same issue of The Wheel, now avail­able to all online, goes far in ask­ing and answer­ing the right kinds of ques­tions, includ­ing why the Church, fol­low­ing the Scrip­tures, has set these bound­aries.5 May the ques­tions we ask come from a place of knowl­edge and faith­ful­ness, and may those who lead us cou­ple pas­toral com­pas­sion with truth­ful dis­ci­pline. For true co-suf­fer­ing love requires both!

About the Author

Photo of Edith M. HumphreyDr Edith M. Humphrey is the William F. Orr Pro­fes­sor of New Tes­ta­ment at Pitts­burgh The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and Sec­re­tary of the Ortho­dox The­o­log­i­cal Soci­ety in Amer­i­ca. Her lat­est book is Fur­ther Up and Fur­ther In: Ortho­dox Con­ver­sa­tions with C.S. Lewis on Scrip­ture & The­ol­o­gy.