November 17, 2013
Bishops make mistakes. They are human, of course they make mistakes. Because they have so much influence, and even control over people’s spiritual lives, when they make mistakes, the results can be quite damaging. Permanent infallibility of the teachings of bishops is a concept which thankfully, has not invaded Orthodox theology. Infallibility, or the impossibility to be wrong on a theological issue, is a teaching that has been adopted by some Christian churches. The Orthodox Church believes that the Church and her teachings are infallible. The combination of teachings derived from Sacred Scripture, Holy Tradition, and select writings of the Holy Fathers are deemed to be infallible. But what exactly within this collection, when opened to interpretation, is deemed to be infallible and unshakeable is an open question. For example, while the words and celebration of the Divine Liturgy are an integral part of the Orthodox Church, and infallible in general, amending and translating the words or modifying the serving of the divine services does not retract their inherent infallibility. The Divine Liturgy is replete with words from Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers, but the Liturgy continues to live and be lived in spite of going through numerous changes throughout the millennia. One can find teachings in the writings of the Holy Fathers that contradict other teachings of other venerable Holy Fathers, and therefore all of the teachings found within the canon of patristic literature are not infallible.
In the Orthodox Church infallibility does not extend to the pastoral letters, sermons, speeches, and actions of living bishops. When a bishop or indeed an entire synod of bishops issue a document or letter or deliver a sermon or speech, the views expressed are not to be taken as infallible Church dogma. They are to be seen as informative and as guidelines, but not part of the canon of the infallible teachings of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of an Orthodox theologian “getting it wrong” is Origen, from the third century, whose teachings were only officially condemned three hundred years after his death. The bishops are called to teach and be an example to the faithful – and at times they get it wrong. A modern case in point is a sermon delivered in September 2013 by His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, while he was in Estonia visiting the Orthodox faithful under his care.
Patriarch Bartholomew’s homily, delivered at the Cathedral of St, Symeon in Tallinn, Estonia, centered on the topic of the relationship between the Church and the family. During his words he condemned gay marriage as a foreign “ecclesiastical mindset and way of life”. In his introduction, the Patriarch reminded the faithful that marriage is a mystery that is sanctified to bring heath, life, salvation and sanctification. It is a mystery, he states, of co-creation. And yet we know that the Orthodox Church blesses marriages where the possibility of “creating life” is biologically impossible. For example, in the case of couples where sterility is an issue or in couples that marry later in life. In a broader understanding of “creating life”, the Church even participates in the destruction of a sanctified marriage by no longer recognizing a first marriage and blessing the celebration of a second and even a third marriage.
His All-Holiness re-called the miracle of Christ performed at the marriage at Cana of Galilee, when Jesus changed water into wine. This blessing and divine action, as recorded in the Gospel of John is read at each and every Orthodox crowning ceremony. Patriarch Bartholomew then states that “the partnering of the same sex is unknown and condemned” by our Lord Jesus Christ, “which is the result of sin and not the law of joy…” And yet one searches the Gospel in vain for the words of our Lord condemning homosexuals, and homosexual partnering. And for those who encourage the acceptance of any false doctrine, including gay marriage, the Patriarch has particularly harsh words; he refers to our actions as “cancerous disorders”. It is perhaps then ironic that His All-Holiness included the following recognition in his sermon.
God blessed our every effort towards the fulfillment of His will, and every struggle in life, according to one’s faithfulness in each and every talent. It suffices to realize in time our given talents and gifts and therefore our obligation for our every personal role which God expects us to live out in the ecclesiastical and familial body as Orthodox Christians, activating its divine-human nature, within the framework of our God-give limits and conditions. (Emphasis mine) (www.johnsanidopoulos.com)
If I had the opportunity to speak with His-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew in person, I would invite him to our home, a home created by my husband and I. Hopefully as Christ did not refuse to enter the home of Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Luke 19:1-7) the Patriarch would also not refuse the invitation. He would see a loving relationship and a home that is not a “cancerous disorder”, but a home and a relationship that is very much reflects of the will of God. We live every day to the fullest, making every effort to utilize our God given talents and gifts. God has blessed our love, our relationship and our home, it is the Patriarch who refuses to do so. May his heart and mind be opened.
 For a complete translation of the Patriarch’s sermon, offered by John Sanidopoulos, see the website Mystagogy. http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2013/09/ecumenical-patriarch-bartholomew.html
 See the above website