Last year was an eventful one for queer people in the Orthodox Church. After Russia invaded Ukraine last February, we were summarily drafted into Putin’s narrative of the invasion by Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In a shocking sermon (ironically delivered on the Sunday of Forgiveness Vespers marking the start of Orthodox Great Lent), Kirill cited the prevalence of gay pride parades outside Russia as the defining symbol of the West’s slide into unrepentant sin. Western decadence and tolerance for homosexuality thus justified Putin’s violent incursion into Ukraine.
Kirill’s reactionary remarks were followed a few months later by a more encouraging gesture from Orthodox officials. On a visit to Greece in July, Archbishop Elpidophoros, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOARCH), visited the Athenian suburb of Glyfada and baptized the two children of Peter Dundas and Evangelo Bousis (a luxury fashion designer and actor, respectively). Photos of the gay couple with Elpidophoros circulated widely online; some heralded them as a sign of progress in the Greek Orthodox Church. (Similarly, Elpidophoros had also appeared in photos alongside Black Lives Matter protesters in New York after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.) Others worried that the baptism was merely a photo-op, not part of any concrete plan for pro-LGBT institutional change.
Weeks later, hierarchs of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), a self-governing North American jurisdiction distinct from both the Russian Orthodox Church and GOARCH, released a “Statement on same-sex relationships and sexual identity” at their biennial conference in Baltimore. The document recapitulates the historical stance of the OCA on marriage and sexuality: marriage is limited to one man and one woman. For those “who suffer from the passion of same-sex attraction,” the statement enjoins “a life of steadfast chastity and repentance”—a tired claim that lazily fails to articulate a positive vision for how LGBT people should lead their lives. The statement’s conclusion prohibits any OCA member from contradicting the synod’s teachings on sexuality in any form, to any degree, under threat of immediate discipline.
These episodes reveal a disturbing pattern in Orthodox-LGBT relations around the world. Even in the Church’s tentatively progressive moments, LGBT people are largely not permitted to speak for ourselves. We can neither verify nor contest the accuracy of the claims made about us, and we have no say in what our lives in the Church should look like. At best we are relegated to the status of passive onlookers; at worst we are scapegoats for everything hierarchs find wrong with the world today.
Perhaps that is beginning to change. Orthodox Tradition and Human Sexuality, a new volume edited by Thomas Arentzen, Ashley M. Purpura, and Aristotle Papanikolaou, fills a void in Orthodox theological literature on queer sexualities. Since 2005, the standard book on the topic in English was Fr. Thomas Hopko’s Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections. That book encouragingly affirmed the dignity of LGBT people, but failed to reckon with the unique challenges we face. (To its credit, it did not recommend conversion therapy.) Another 2017 volume, “For I Am Wonderfully Made”: Texts on Eastern Orthodoxy and LGBT Inclusion covered more diverse territory but was written primarily by straight and cisgender contributors.