Women Priests and Gay Marriage in the Orthodox Church

Reflection – Women Priests and Gay Marriage in the Orthodox Church

March 3, 2013

If bishops had fan clubs, I would be a charter member of the Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia fan club and I would certainly not be alone. Through his writings, lectures, interviews and travel His Grace Bishop Kallistos has enlightened and transformed our understanding of the Orthodox faith, especially in the English speaking world. For almost 40 years he was the Spalding lecturer of Eastern Orthodox studies at the preeminent Oxford University in England. Yet it is through his books that most Orthodox have encountered Timothy Ware, later Bishop Kallistos and now Metropolitan Kallistos.  As a young seminarian, I was overjoyed to read his work The Orthodox Church which was first published in 1963 by Pelican Press. Here for the first time I was able to read and eventually fully devour a book in English explaining the basics in theology and history of the Orthodox Church. Previously most of the books available about the Church, written in English, that I had encountered were either written on a Sunday School level or dealt only with a minor aspect of theology or history. Over the years I have devoured the numerous writings* and translations produced by Bishop Kallistos. Having met him several times and even having had the privilege of serving on a committee with him, perhaps the most striking thing about him is his humility when approaching issues in the Church.  I was stunned when I heard him say in a lecture that he was grateful for the Anglican priests and teachers who led him, although unknowingly, to the Orthodox Church.  (Timothy Ware – Bishop Kallistos – converted to the Orthodox Church at the age of 24.) What a refreshing way to look at the issue of conversion.  Usually when someone converts to Orthodoxy, or for that matter to any other religion, one usually hears a litany of the things that were wrong with their former religion or church.  These two aspects – his humility and his unique perspective, when approaching major and even minor issues in the Orthodox Church have made me a fan.

Recently I had the opportunity to re-read Bishop Kallistos’ work concerning the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood in the Orthodox Church. The article “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ” is a lengthy treatise** that approaches the topic from biblical, dogmatic, liturgical, historical and pastoral perspectives. One might be surprised to read these lines by Bishop Kallistos on the topic of ordaining women as priests: “we Orthodox should regard the matter as essentially an open question. Let us not imagine that in this area everything is clarified and finally settled.” (page 7) Wow! How many people have assumed that the issue of ordaining women as Orthodox priests was settled and that the answer to the question was an emphatic, “no!”

I would like to adopt the same approach that Bishops Kallistos has taken with regards to the ordination of women to the priesthood and apply it to gay marriage in the Orthodox Church.  To be clear and certain, I have no idea if Bishop Kallistos has ever even thought about gay marriage in the Orthodox Church let alone spoken or written on the subject. However, can the subject of gay marriage in the Orthodox Church also be considered as essentially an open question? Can the possibility of crowning two Orthodox Christians of the same sex be a topic that is not fully clarified and not finally settled and therefore open to discussion? Yes, it can.

Most Orthodox writers have rejected the idea of gay marriage in the Orthodox Church. Their arguments can be boiled down to two main ones, Scripture and Tradition.  

-Scripture calls homosexuality an abomination; the Patristic Fathers of the Church had the same views;

-The Orthodox Church has never allowed gay marriage; and so it goes against Holy Tradition;

To those who point out the condemnation of homosexuality in Sacred Scripture, I would make the following observation. Jesus Christ was silent on the topic of homosexuality. Certainly He was aware of the verses from Leviticus concerning “man lying with man”. Are we to assume that the incarnate Word, Wisdom of God and Only Begotten Son was mistaken and simply forgot to mention the topic?

To those who quote and point out that the Holy Fathers of the Church also condemn homosexuality, one might ask if all of the views and writings of the sainted fathers are to be viewed as infallible. From the perspective of Bishop Kallistos, the answer to that question is no, they should not be seen that way. In his words: we cannot treat “every Patristic statement as embodying eternal truth, while ignoring the structures of the society in which the Fathers were living.” (page 36 – emphasis mine)

Bishop Kallistos points out that Tradition, is not something static or inert or something to be seen as dead fundamentalism. “It is received and lived by each new generation in its own way, tests, and enriched by the fresh experience that the Church is continually gaining.” (page 25) Can one not argue that accepting the discoveries of modern science in the areas of biology, genetics, psychology, physiology and numerous other areas is also to be received by the Church as a fresh experience and enriching the Church?

LGBT Orthodox Christians have found no acceptance and little mercy from the leaders of the Orthodox Church today. Yet a prominent Orthodox theologian, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel in commenting on accepting a greater role for women in the Church makes the following plea: “To those who ask us for the bread of understanding, we cannot be satisfied with offering only the stones of certitude hardened by negation” (The Ministry of Women in the Church, page 139). Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning Orthodox Christians make the exact same plea to the hierarchs, priests and faithful of the Church.  We ask for the bread of understanding when it comes to our sexual orientation and who God made us to be. We ask for the bread of compassion as we approach the Christ in His Church in order to receive the Holy Mysteries, including marriage. Please do not offer us a hard stone or a snake (Matthew 7:9), but accept us as your children with an open mind and an open heart as we are figuring out the way together.


* The Orthodox Way and his work Eustratios Argenti: A Study of the Greek Church under Turkish Rule are particular favorites of mine.

**The article by His Grace has appeared in more than one publication and has been revised at least once because his views on the subject have changed over time. His Grace writes that he originally wrote on this particular subject in 1978. “Since then my views on the issue have altered.  In 1978 I considered the ordination of women priests to be an impossibility. Now I am much more hesitant.” I have consulted what I believe is the last major revision which can be found in Women and the Priesthood edited by Thomas Hopko and published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 1999.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Noel Warren

    Hi Fr Andre, I greatly respect your obvious calling from God to be an Orthodox Priest. Your heartfelt pleas for love and acceptance of gay people are always written in terms of “opening up to dialogue” in a generous and compasionate way. It is good to hear that the bishops and theologians are not as completely unified in their opposition as it first appears. Bishop Kallistos and Elizabeth Behr-Sigel open up narrow cracks in the armour. Actually your arguement is unstoppable. The Bishops can only deny the scientific facts for so long. The younger priests and deacons especilly in the West have grown up in a cultural milieu much more tolerant of gays than the current crop of Bishops. I cannot see ,except for a few individuals, that their opposition will be as vehement as the current aging bishops. One of the dictums taught by our activists is to never let a homophobic statement by authorities, the press, celebrities or sports stars pass. Challenge every one. Good on you for doing this . Cheers, Noel.

    1. andre

      Again thank you for your kind comments and support. They mean so much to me. I have just received some very angry hate email from Serbia and so the kind words from you are indeed the oil of the Samaritan. I would love to still be functioning as a priest but I could not be open about who I was and I wanted a relationship and so my only choice was either to leave active ministry or stay in the closet and continue to lie and lead a double life. I only pray that the Lord blessed my decision as I spent years discerning it. Concerning dialogue, I continue to hope. I think eventually it will come from a few compassionate priests like Father Arida whom I wrote about (Dialogue anyone?) and the friends and family of LGBT Orthodox. Unfortunately Bishop Kallistos is getting on in years and has never written about gay people and Madame Behr Sigel has died. Fundamentalism in the Orthodox Church could be the new enemy as the Church is getting more and more “angry” converts from Churches that are not conservative enough for them.
      Again thank you for your support.

  2. Rachel

    This was a great read; lots of food for thought. I also really want to get my hands on a copy of that book (The Orthodox Church) now, too. I’m always a little wary of buying those sorts because I don’t want to read anything spiritually damaging, but if it has your seal of approval I know it’ll be good 🙂

    I also totally agree with what Noel is saying – the Bishops can only deny the scientific facts for so long.

    1. andre

      Very good to hear from you. Thank you for your support of this website. I am glad that you enjoyed the commentary – it is all in the interest of getting a dialogue started and for people to listen to one another. I think that you will enjoy the book “The Orthodox Church” and you may want to try “The Orthodox Way” by Bishop Kallistos as well.
      I wish you well and all of God’s graces especially during the upcoming lenten season.

  3. Georges

    When I read for the first time «The Orthodox Church» of T. K. Ware, I found his views highly romantic about the Orthodox Churches, while on the field I saw only bad things… When I re-read this his book for the latter time, two years ago, I liked his comments on the Anglican Communion.

    About Church Fathers. When I was a seminarian, and asked to receive the Holy Communion at each Mass, the chaplain asked me «a proof of the Holy Fathers allowing frequent communion». Before I had my “proof”, a nun came with a “counter-proof” from St Symeon of Thessaloniki, encouraging the faithful to partake «every 40 days». I had to translate St Ambrose and look for St John Chysostom’s homily on the Maundy Thursday. Those people were so obsessed about the Fathers. If some RC still believe in the papal infallibility, some Eastern Orthodox believe in the Fathers’ infallibility. I call that «patrolatry».

    As for women and priesthood, there’s a long way! First, they should allow the heterosexual-married priests to become bishops without repudiating their wives and without becoming apparent monks. Second, they should admit and train the women to deaconate in parishes (Greeks officially admit it since 2004, but not so much in practice). The third step would be to recognize the holiness of some married couples, and venerate them as such.

  4. Nikos

    I was delighted to read this because we are in danger of having many infallible “popes” as we make the fathers infallible when taking them out of context .

    Also several different issues are put together as one , that is being gay , gay rights and gay unions/marriage . One can be in favour of one and not the other .

    It is now understood that being gay is a condition just as being heterosexual , that one is born into . Some will immediately argue but really any understanding of where science stands , let alone any individual’s And what does by choice mean anyway? Patently absurd. And if by nurture are the parents going to ask forgiveness!!!
    Being gay or otherwise is not a matter of a particular sexual act which society and situation can bring about but about in certain conditions but is an individual sense of being with or without sex .

    The church’s refusal to look at or acknowledge this fact and what it means for this situation will cost it dear and is starting to . The question will be asked if a church so closed to facts on this might well be closed to facts elsewhere too !!!
    The late Christodoulos of. Athens described being gay as a disability ! Well even at that level perhaps the church should consider extending to gays the rights others disabled have by law and morality ?!

    Is it that the church cannot even look at this because to do so would immediately bring all this attitude to doubt ? Once there is a change of attitude and understanding , then rights and obligations regarding unions will fall into place . Then perhaps the church will be able to have a dialogue about HOW we must live , hetero and gay This is the pressing need .

    1. andre

      Thank you very much for your comment and support of this website. You raise numerous valid questions and logical arguments. Of course, numerous people, especially those in positions of power and authority in the Church,say that being gay is a choice and gay people should be denied certain privileges within the Church. What they believe or know about these subjects is something else. I am constantly amazed when I receive emails from priests and laypeople who state that they can’t risk rocking the boat or change centuries of tradition by themselves. It is a very bizarre but also harmful situation.
      Please stay in touch,
      I bid you peace,

  5. Noel

    Thanks for this wonderful website. I am not Orthodox, I am an Episcopalian and I am gay. Recently, I have had some interest in the Orthodox Church and spirituality. Good to see this site

    1. andre

      Thank you for your kind comments, Noel. We welcome all who wish to dialogue.
      I bid you peace,

  6. Thomas

    Dear Father Andre,
    I too would be a member of His Grace’s fan club. His books did much to guide me to the Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church. His deep and broad view of the Church and Tradition is very inspiring and has kept me assisted me greatly in remaining an Orthodox Christian despite being homosexual. I did see a YouTube video of his recently where he spoke on ordination of women and ” gay marriage “. His view on female ordination was quite interesting and open minded. He has obviously given this issue a great deal of serious thought and research. Sadly, the view of marriage for homosexuals, though progressive and accepting of the reality of same -sex attraction and true, mutual love and intimacy he clearly states that such unions are “not blessed ” by God. He has counseled gay couples and he has said he asks them to become celibate and to refrain from any physical or genital expression of that love.
    That is where it becomes difficult for me to continue to listen to. I think it should be up to the married couple on what kind of physical expression of their love to engage in. It seems the love between two souls is recognized, even honored. Once physical expression, if your homosexual, is engaged in we are road to ruin. This is too simplistic for me, and seems much too focused on the genital expression of love between two souls of the same gender. Heterosexual genital expression of mutual love, certainly engaged in by some for non-procreation may be frowned upon but is acceptable? It has always deemed to me that we are judged to be engaging in nothing but lust. This is what I find to be unacceptable. This kind of view of love…in a box. Love is too vast to be contained in a box. I do remain optimistic that our Lord and Master will change hearts, as only He can. Thank you for listening. Thank you for this website. Please bless Father.

    1. andre

      Thank you for your email and support of this website. While I agree that His Grace, Bishop Kallistos did not go as far as we would have liked, at least he is talking about these issues, with some sort of pastoral approach. Most other Orthodox bishops either ignore the topic entirely, as if there are no gay bishops, priests or faithful, OR speak about us in such disparaging ways, that can only be characterized as uncharitable or in some instances reprehensible.
      The Lord indeed needs to be entreated to soften the hearts of those who lead His Church.
      I bid you peace,

  7. Michael

    Just had to briefly comment. I read Ware’s book TOC many years ago, and formally was received as an Orthodox in 2001. I loved the beauty of liturgy, and the richness of its spirituality. I fell in love with so many of her saints. The Church’s homophobia, however, led me to despair as years passed. My spiritual father, my pastor, and virtually every Orthodox I encountered laid it all bare to me: I could choose a life of loneliness and self-loathing, or I could choose hell. Which was which? I dropped out of the Church, out of Christianity, into other belief systems, now considering myself nonreligious altogether. I think the way the chirch treats its gay members is cruel and vicious; I’m not hopeful its leaders will change their views, ever. Which is ironic, because compassion is central to Christ’s message. But if you’re gay? No economia–either fit in or else. I just shake my head. I miss the liturgy to this day, and I have icons in storage, couldn’t bear to keep them out. The cross symbolizes freedom to so many, to me it’s slavery and hatred. Sorry for the rant. Hope I didn’t offend. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong down the road and the Church will become Christlike.

    1. andre

      Dear Michael,
      Thank you for your email and support of this website. Your message touched me and I am sure that many will be struck by your directness as well as the pain you experienced.  What you found and your journey is no different from what numerous other LGBT Orthodox Christians and their family and friends have experienced.

      We love the Orthodox Church, its beauty and richness, and also what is at the core of its message, the love and truth of Christ. Unfortunately the earthly Church has some searching to do and changes that need to be made. They are still arguing and divided (!) on when to celebrate the Lord’s Nativity. Perhaps the fact that the majority of the Orthodox lived under official atheistic rule and are still, to some extent, guided, if not directed, by a certain type of state rule, means that the Church did not and has not yet understood how to pastor all of God’s creation. I certainly agree with you that in many instances the Church needs to act more like Christ.

      Hopefully in your life you have learned never to say never. In this case about returning to Christianity and hopefully the Orthodox Church. I understand that it might take quite some time, finding a different parish, and trying to “fly” under the radar about your sexual orientation and even relationship. These are some of the sacrifices that many of us have decided to accept in order to be part of the beauty and richness you first fell in love with.

      I hope that you stay in touch.
      I bid you peace,

  8. Afif Demetrius

    God be with you Father,
    I just saw your article and wanted to comment very fast.
    We all know that Jesus didn’t say exactly “I’m God” but he said “Me and My Father are one”, also he did almighty things that only God can do, for that we “UNDERSTAND” that he is God. In the same sense Jesus didn’t tell anything about same sex marriage but still he said: ” at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female” and in the creation story in Genesis, we know that God created a “Woman” for the “Man” and we also know why God created them (matter you, to share love and share the creation by giving birth to new humans) .. Let’s imagine that Adam or Eve, one of them was gay?
    The moral of the story is that we should not be waiting for God to give us “orders” rather we should be knowing his will .. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel asks to accept those people with an open mind.. which is very good, but there is a difference between accepting our “sick Children” and accepting “sickness” itself..

  9. Bob

    I am so sorry about the emails from the Serbs. Do forgive us – we are a bit backward.

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