The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church and LGBTQI issues
Author: Natallia Vasilevich
Two documents of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church deal with LGBTQI issues: 1) explicitly in inner ecclesiastical context concerning exclusively same-sex unions (The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments, hereinafter referred to as “SMI”); 2) implicitly in the context of wider society concerning discrimination on the basis of SOGI and position of the Orthodox Church (The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World, hereinafter referred to as “MOCTW”).
If we regard both documents together, the following positions can be derived:
- Same-sex unions in the society at large are not condemned as such. In SMI (I.10), disapprove of same-sex unions is directed exclusively at the members of the Church (“does not allow for her members”). In MOCTW (F.14), position on marriage as a union between man and woman is addressed as a pastoral care issue in the framework of the “sacred mystery of the Christian marriage”, and not of civil marriage, which is considered to “lack sacramental character” (SMI I.9). While on the one hand, other forms of cohabitation are seen as contrary to the Christian tradition and teaching, on the other hand, both political attempts of their legalisation in some countries and theological attempts of their justification in some Christian communities are presented as merely an external context, in which young members of the Church live (MOCTW F.14). Moreover, in the Conciliar version of MOCTW (F.14) the notion of “recapitulation of everything in the Body of Christ” is introduced in connection with “other forms of cohabitation”, which can be interpreted through the prism of the two prototypes of MOCTW: a) (Chambesy, 1986) which makes the teaching of “recapitulation” a basis to affirm the dynamic character of unity of all humanity in Christ as well as its variety (C.2); b) (Chambesy, 2015) which regards the recapitulation as a reference point for “universality in the body of Christ of ideals of the peace, freedom and social justice” (С.1).
- Same-sex unions for the members of the Church are not categorically condemned as totally unacceptable. First of all, while insisting that difference of sexes represents positive pre-conditions of marriage (I.6), the authors of SMI recognise that in practice it can happen that Church members are in such unions (“her members who enter into such unions”, I.10). Secondly, though unwelcoming, the discourse regarding same-sex unions is relatively soft. While bigamy and fourth marriages are “categorically condemned” (II.2), and marriages between Orthodox and non-Christian are “categorically forbidden” (II.5.iii), the expression used when speaking about same-sex unions is “The Church does not allow”, which rather stands for lack of positive acceptance than conveys a negative attitude. Thirdly, in case of same-sex marriages as well as other forms of cohabitation apart from marriage, the Church is called to exert “all possible pastoral efforts to help her members who enter into such unions understand the true meaning of repentance and love as blessed by the Church” (I.10).
- Legislation and practice which allow same-sex unions are not condemned. While saying that same-sex unions and other forms of cohabitation outside of marriage are contrary to the Christian tradition and teaching and that there are countries where attempts are undertaken to legalise such forms of cohabitation (MOCTW F.14), such legislation and policies as such are not condemned. The application of principles of anti-discrimination is represented as valued by the Church “in the light of her teaching on the sacraments, the family, the role of both genders in the Church, and the overall principles of Church tradition” (E.3), however, it results only in the necessity of protection of the Church’s “right to proclaim and witness to her teaching in the public sphere” and not requires that the legislation necessary confirms to it.
- While discrimination is strictly rejected by the Orthodox Church, SOGI is not recognised as an unaccepted reason for discrimination. In the previous document of the pre-conciliar process titled “Contribution of the Orthodox Churches to the Promotion of Peace, Justice, Freedom, Fraternity and Love among Nations, and Elimination of Racial or Any Other Discrimination” (Chambesy, 1986), which condemns racial discrimination, the Church recognises that “claim about its [discrimination’s] compliance with the so-called Christian ideals” as unacceptable (F.4). By doing so, the Third Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conference highlights the idea that inhuman system of discrimination may be based on reference to so-called Christian ideals. Focusing first of all on racial discrimination, the document in its very name leaves list of basis for discrimination open (“of any other kind” – F.), and idea of anti-discrimination is extended “also to fighting against discrimination against different minorities” (F.2). By contrast, MOCTW closes the list of basis for discrimination, which Church rejects, mentioning exclusively the following: “skin color, religion, race, sex, ethnicity, and language” (E.2). At the same time, it recognises that violence and injustice shall be denounced, and inhuman treatment of one’s neighbour shall be condemned, and intolerance, hatred, enmity shall have no place in the Church (E.1). These words could serve as a reference point when intolerance, hatred, violence and injustice are applied based on SOGI.
- Through promotion of highly idealised concept of marriage as a norm, the role of oikonomia principle concerning marriages and family life grows. All forms of marriage and cohabitation are seen as deficient. The only valid form is a sacramentally blessed (I.9), indissoluble (I.2), free (I.1) union between man and woman (I.1, I.2, I.4, I.6, I.9), both of whom are Orthodox Christians (I.4, II.5.i, II.5.iii). That union must ensure the continuation of the human race (I.2). While stating that Church always treated “with necessary strictness the positive preconditions (difference of sexes, legal age, etc.) and the negative impediments (kinship by blood and affinity, spiritual kinship, an existing marriage, difference in religion, etc.)”, SMI balances it with the notion of the “proper pastoral sensibility” (I.6). Only in case of bigamy and the fourth marriage it considers them as absolute impediments (II.2). Other deviations from the idealised concept of marriage are harmonised with presupposing of possibility of applying oikonomia. In case of marriage after monastic tonsure it’s forbidden with reservation of “with the strict keeping (akribeia)” (II.3). In case of marriage of an ordained priest the imperative “forbidden” is used with reservation “according to the prevailing canonical tradition” (II.4) (it became more strict in comparison with the draft document, where a less strict expression “represents impediment” was used. In case of marriages with non-Orthodox, they are “forbidden” with reservation of “according to canonical akribeia” (it became less restrictive in comparison with the draft, where such marriages were also not allowed to be “blessed in the Church” unless the condition “that the children born of this marriage will be baptized and raised within the Orthodox Church” (II.5.1) is met. Oikonomia gives possibility of dispensation of love, limits of which are very flexible and not anymore limited with specific conditions, and which “must be considered by the Holy Synod of each autocephalous Orthodox Church according to the principles of the holy canons and in the spirit of pastoral discernment”.
Natallia Vasilevich is a Belarusian theologian, political science and lawyer. She has MA in political sciences of the Belarusian State University and MA in ecumenical studies from the University of Bonn, where she is currently writing her PhD about the history and significance of the document “The Mission of the Church in the Today’s World” to be adopted by the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church.