Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Soft-Pedaling Christian Morality: A Review of a Curious Review

In 2011, Archdeacon John Chryssavgis wrote a review of Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church, by the openly homosexual Episcopalian priest Justin R. Cannon. This review was published in the  Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly (Vol. 55, no. 3), and is now featured prominently on Justin Cannon's pro-homosexual website "Inclusive Orthodoxy."

Archdeacon John Chryssavgis is not just any deacon. He is the most prominent spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and a professor of Theology at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, and so the semi-endorsement of a piece of pro-homosexual propaganda is profoundly disturbing.

You can read the portion of this book that repeats the usual bogus arguments of homosexual apologists which attempt to argue that the clear condemnations of homosexuality in Scripture don't really say what they actually do say, here:

You can find these arguments refuted in the book, "The Bible and Homosexual Practice," by Robert Gagnon (an actual Biblical Scholar, and a book endorsed by some of the most prominent Biblical scholars of the past half century) or by watching his lectures on the subject.

Fr. John Chryssavgis begins:
"There are some topics that Orthodox Christians are singularly uncomfortable about broaching—even if it is simply to affirm their outright rejection and unqualified condemnation—and homosexuality is certainly among them. Indeed, any questions in general related to sexuality or gender—including the nature of homosexuality, or the divorce of clergy, or even the ordination of women—are subjects that arouse much passionate emotion but little rational exploration within theological and especially ecclesiastical circles.
This has always astonished, if not perturbed me, because it is not as if these issues are either absent or even diminishing in our society and church. Indeed, one of my gravest concerns over the years is that the oppression of homosexuality and silence on sexual issues in a hierarchical institution, such as the Orthodox Church, not only results from unjustifiable and unacceptable ignorance and prejudice. It also results in the church's complicity in discrimination as well as the church's reticence concerning sexual abuse in our own communities. Saying we hate the sin but love the sinner can sometimes be rejection masquerading as acceptance. It is, after all, so much easier to label than to listen.
This is why I was pleased to see the publication of this edited collection of stories and reflections about homosexuality. The editor is proactive in encouraging dialogue and discussion about this complex, albeit controversial topic; he is also the author of a small study on biblical perspectives on the subject that appears in an edited version toward the end of this book and the manager of a website dedicated to "inclusive orthodoxy." As he correctly observes in the introduction: "We cannot explore the issue of homosexuality without hearing the life, stories, and witness of faithful, Orthodox Christians who happen to be gay." (12)"
I don't know of any clergy who do not have great compassion on those who are struggling against homosexuality, or any other sexual addiction... and I doubt Fr. John Chryssavgis does either. So I have to wonder what it is that he is really objecting to, and why, during the course of his review, he fails completely to recognize the propagandistic nature of the book he is supposedly reviewing, or to clearly state what the actual position of the Orthodox Church is on the question the book is all about.

And when it comes to other sins, such as adultery -- should we not label that as a sin, as Christ does Himself? Should we instead listen to the adulterers to try to understand their sin better first? No. We ought to have compassion on them, and seek their repentance and restoration, but there is nothing about the sin of adultery itself that we don't already know sufficiently to label it a sin. You may have a very mean wife, and a very nice mistress, but whatever extenuating circumstances you may raise, it is still inherently sinful, and we know this without any doubt or ambiguity. And that is true of any sin that is clearly condemned in Scripture and Tradition.
The book contains four such stories, with names changed to safeguard the anonymity of the individuals: by Helena, whose gay son was painfully rejected and spitefully ostracized; by Barry, for whom prejudice and exclusion on the part of a parish priest led to further traumatic confusion and harrowing anguish; by Matthew, whose raw honesty and heartfelt confession sparked a long soul-searching journey for healing and wholeness; and by Elizabeth, whose disclosure and divorce were ultimately only reconciled in theological reading and support groups in "some seemingly 'unorthodox' faith communities." (42)
There is no doubt that their stories cry out for hearing and healing. And there are surely numerous others. We will doubtless be judged by God for failing to notice and to respond compassionately, instead opting to find security in easy scriptural texts and theological castigations. Both of these comprise a simplistic approach and perhaps provide a convenient way out. However, the Incarnation of God's Word that "assumed flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14) implies and imposes a messy spiritual wrestle and not a black-and-white pastoral response. After all, who among us can cast the first rational comment?"
There are two separate issues that Fr. John Chryssavgis is making into a false dichotomy. There is the question of what the Orthodox Church teaches about homosexuality, and then there is the pastoral question of how to deal with people who struggle with it. On the first question, failing to be clear about it is not only unpastoral and unloving -- it is pastoral malpractice. St. Paul tells us clearly and unequivocally that practicing homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). If we take what he says seriously, soft-pedaling this truth is not defensible. It is moral and spiritual cowardice. We can and should both unequivocally condemn the sin, and have love and compassion for the sinner. If we don't do both, we enable the sinner to kid himself into believing that his sin is not a sin, and thus fail to help him to overcome it.

Of course we should deal with people who struggle with that sin pastorally, just like we do people who struggle with alcoholism, adultery, drug abuse, or any other passion that is especially difficult to overcome. But if we fail to communicate what sin is, it is impossible for those whom we have confused to overcome sins that they do not recognize to be such.

If Fr. John Chryssavgis was simply arguing that we should have a discussion about how best to deal with those who actually are struggling to overcome homosexual temptations, few would argue with him. But that is not what this book is about, nor is it what Fr. John's review of this book is about.
Part of the problem of ignoring homosexuality is that it will invariably be restricted to and debated in fringe groups, prompting spurn and dismissal of it and related issues by those in mainstream Orthodox churches and society. Hence, instead of including stories from clergy in recognized Orthodox churches, the editor resorts to leaders within communities unrecognized by most Orthodox churches who, as a result, may further ignore the issue.
The problem in the Orthodox Church in the United States today is not that we are ignoring homosexuality. It is that so many in our Church are failing to take a clear stand on what we actually teach on the subject, and instead, like Fr. John Chryssavgis, choose to focus on how compassionate we ought to be to homosexuals, to the exclusion of clarifying whether or not the Church considers homosexual sex to be incompatible with the Christian life.
The foundation and history of the support group for gays and lesbians, known as "Axios: Eastern and Orthodox Gay and Lesbian Christians"—originally in Los Angeles (1980), but then in other cities of the United States, as well as in Canada and Australia— is a sign of the "work, even suffering, [that must occur] through an honest orthopraxy on the issue." (80) However, even such an organization is forced to "carry the baton underground." (84)
So is Fr. John Chryssavgis endorsing "Axios"? And if so, is he speaking on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Axios notoriously does not believe that it is inherently sinful for a man to have sex with another man, or for a woman to have sex with another woman... and that is clearly and unambiguously contrary to the teachings of Scripture, and the Orthodox Tradition. I don't believe promoting such views is the kind of work that should occur in the Orthodox Church.

Finally, towards the end of his review, we have a few tepidly stated reservations expressed about the actual content of the book:
"Frankly, I remain unconvinced by the scriptural and terminological analysis provided in this book (87-113) that lends support to homosexuality, just as I am cynical of the simplistic parallels drawn between prejudice against homosexuals and the problems of anti-Semitism or slavery (62-65). Indeed, despite the truly fascinating and stimulating scholarship of John Boswell, whose work focused on religious understanding and social tolerance of homosexuality, I feel that it is a forced endeavor to re-imagine—if not re-invent—history for purposes of identifying the medieval rite of adelphopoiesis or "brotherhood ritual" (sometimes referred to as "adoption") with same sex marriage or union."
He "remains unconvinced" by a book that argues counter-factually that Scripture and Tradition do not unequivocally condemn homosexual sex? Anyone familiar with Fr. John Chryssavgis' very opinionated style knows that he is quite capable of expressing vehement disagreement. If someone suggests that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is something less than the eastern equivalent of the Pope, or that the recent council in Crete was not exactly pan-Orthodox, he is quite capable of expressing his opposing view with great strength, enthusiasm, and eloquence. Try telling him that you don't believe human activity is causing catastrophic climate change, and  you are liable to get a response reminiscent of the shower scene in the movie Psycho. But let someone write a book that presents a fraudulent case against the moral Tradition of the Church, and the best he can say in response is that he "remain[s] unconvinced"? Our people, who are bombarded with pro-homosexual propaganda every day need something a bit more clear and direct than that from their clergy.
"Still, the truth is that, as Orthodox Churches and as Orthodox Christians, we are going to have to discuss homosexuality with far greater candor and with far greater charity, admitting that the issue is far more prevalent among both laity and clergy on all levels and in all positions. After all, why would we be afraid of such an interchange ? Or what would we be afraid of in such an exchange? Seeking the way of God is not resorting to fear, but searching for compassion and honesty, especially among all the other dishonest places that we walk. We are called to strive for simple human decency—indeed, Christ-like decency—in a subject that is so often complicated by selfishness and pride, contempt and rejection, natural desire and degrading lust.
In that respect, I welcome the book as a first—and important, sometimes the most difficult—step in a long process of honest dialogue."
I wonder if Fr. John Chryssavgis thinks Christ objected to St. John the Baptist's denunciation of the immoral marriage Herod had with his brother Philip's wife? There is certainly no evidence of that in Scripture, and every reason to believe just the opposite. Does he think Christ or St. John the Baptist would welcome a book that defended Herod's right to marry his brother's wife? Does he think St. Paul was unpastoral when he directed the Church in Corinth to excommunicate a man who was in an immoral relationship with his step-mother? Would St. Paul have welcomed a book defending that kind of relationship? Why should we ever welcome a book that endorses sin, and especially one that does so with disingenuous argumentation?

It is disappointing that St. Vladimir Seminary would attach it's name to such a review, but far more disappointing to see such a prominent clergyman in the Ecumenical Patriarchate write such a review in the first place. We live in a time when the culture in general, and a very large number of our own flock in particular are confused about whether or not homosexual sex is compatible with the Christian life. True shepherds of that flock should speak clearly on the matter. Those who not only fail to speak clearly, but who actually add to that confusion ought not go unanswered.

For More Information:

The Bible the Church and Homosexuality: Obscurantegesis vs the Truth, by Fr. John Whiteford

Robert Gagnon: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (7 Video Lectures)

Statement of the Brotherhood of the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas on the Comments of Fr. Robert Arida on Homosexuality

Homosexuality and Shrimp, by Fr. John Whiteford

Church History and Same-Sex Marriage, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

Statement of the Russian Orthodox Church on Homosexuality (see section XII. 9).

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Stump the Priest: Sporting Events and Church Services

Question: "What should parents do when their children are involved in sports that have games or practices that conflict with Saturday evening or Sunday morning services?"

The answer to this question really is applicable to any activities that interfere with Church attendance that are not matters of great necessity.

The Fourth Commandment says:
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it" (Exodus 20:8-11).
You can listen to a sermon I gave on this subject for more details on why this is so, but suffice it to say here that the Tradition of the Church teaches us that in the New Testament this commandment applies especially to Sundays, Great Feasts, and other especially solemn days (such as Holy Friday). And as it was in the Old Testament, these holy days begin on the evenings prior -- so this includes the times of the vigils, as well as the liturgies on those days.

There is an illustrative story from the life of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco on this issue. In 1964, the Russian Church Abroad officially gloried St. John of Kronstadt on November 1st n.s. (October 19th on the Old Calendar). This happened to also be a Sunday, and so there was a Saturday Vigil that was especially important because of this holy occasion -- which marked the first glorification of a saint by the Russian Church since the Bolshevik Revolution. But that Vigil also happened to be on Halloween, and so many Russians in the parish attended a ball, rather than the vigil. Our own Archbishop Peter tells the story of what happened:
"I remember vividly being twice with Vladika at a San Francisco ball [which was a Halloween Ball]. The first time was after a vigil on the occasion of the glorification of St. John of Kronstadt. There were people in the cathedral but not as many as would he expected on such a day. After vigil Vladika usually went to some hospital. But this time, in answer to the chauffer's question, "Where?' Vladika answered, "To the ball at the Russian Center." On arriving, we made our way upstairs to the main hall. Vladika walked around the hall in silence. 'We looked on as elderly men and women and leaders of society literally hid under tables, one woman, on seeing Vladika, joyfully exclaimed, 'Vladika's here! Vladika's here! We must give him some tea? Vladika looked sternly at everyone, but at the same time I noticed that he had no anger towards anyone personally. And without having said a single word, we left as we had come. The second time Vladika went to the hall he asked for a microphone and addressed those present. I knew how upset Vladika was over all this, but his speech was calm. The next morning the clergy were informed that anyone who attended the ball was not to participate in the service, whether they were serving in the altar as acolytes or singing in the choir" (Remembering Vladika John. You can also listen to him tell this story in a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, at about the 33 minute mark).
There certainly are exceptions to the rule. For example, if you are a police officer, a doctor, or a nurse, you may have to work on some Sundays and Feasts, and that is completely understandable. As Christ said in the Gospels, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. There are other exceptional circumstances that may come up that would also prevent you from being at Church on these occasions. However, this should not be the norm -- unless physical infirmity or distance prevent you from being present in Church. And in such cases, if one is able, they should observe these days at home, to the best of their ability to do so.

I also understand that in our times, most team sports have events that conflict with Sunday or Feast day Services. But we should consider why this is so... because it has not always been the case that these conflicts were routine. These conflicts have become routine because too many Christian parents have allowed themselves to go along with this. This accelerated in the wake of Vatican II, when Catholics were told that they could fulfill their "Sunday obligation" by going to Mass on either Saturday evening or Sunday morning. However, if more parents put their foot down and simply said "No", fewer teams would try to do violate Holy days. It is of course difficult to be one of the few that take a stand on this, but your stand might inspire others, and in fact, you might want to reach out to other Christian parents, so that you are not the only ones taking this stand.

Attending the services is much like a tithe of our time, and when we refuse to place sports above the services of the Church, we show what our priorities are... to the world, to God, to our children, and to ourselves.

A good example to follow here is that of Eric Liddell, whose life was partially portrayed in the movie "Chariots of Fire" (which won best picture at the Academy Awards, in 1982). Eric Liddell was a sports legend in the UK, especially in his native Scotland, where his fame was comparable to that of a rock star, both in terms of running and rugby. But he was also a deeply committed Christian who took the Fourth Commandment very seriously. In 1924, he had his chance to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal, but the event he was planning on competing in was the 100 meters, and one of the heats for that competition was scheduled on a Sunday. He famously refused to run on a Sunday, and so had to compete instead in the 400 meters, which was not an event he was favored to win. Before that race, he was handed a piece of paper, on which someone wrote a note, which said: "In the old book it says: "He that honours me I will honour" [1 Samuel 2:30]. He not only won that race, but set a world record in it.

What is less well known is that in 1925 he walked away from all of his fame and glory, and went to China to serve as a missionary. During World War II, he was placed in a Japanese internment camp, along with all other westerners that were captured by the Japanese in the area. While there, he taught the children, and also coached them. He was asked to coach them on Sunday, and initially he refused to do so. However, in his absence, the children often got into fights, and so he changed his mind and coached them on Sunday as well -- showing that he was not a legalist. He understood that there were exceptions, but did not make them lightly, simply to suit himself, even when it cost him.

I think we would teach our children very important lessons if we would follow this example. And if you wanted help explaining this to your children, you might start by having them watch the movie Chariots of Fire.

For More Information:

Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy, by Fr. Victor Potapov

Sermon Audio: The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy, by Fr. John Whiteford, 9/16/2012.

The Catechism of the Russian Orthodox Church, by St. Philaret of Moscow (see the section on the Fourth Commandment)

The Story of Eric Liddell (a documentary)

Friday, May 05, 2017

Stump the Priest: The Feast of the Entry

Question: "Is the story of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple historical?"

There are many questions that we cannot answer as fully as we may wish, simply because we are limited in terms of the information that is available to us, and I think this is one of those questions. We have all the information that we really need... just not all that we may wish we had.

One point that I think is often misunderstood about this is that this tradition is not based on the Protoevangelium of James -- that text reflects to a large extent the oral tradition of the Church which preceded it. Were this text our primary source, it would have been included in the New Testament. We should instead look to our services, and to the writings of the Fathers as our best sources of information on this question.

Looking at this question from what we know of history, it is certainly unlikely that the Virgin Mary literally entered into the Holy of Holies of the Temple -- which was the most sacred inner sanctuary of the Temple, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter. If this did literally happen, it would have been something that would have, by divine intervention, remained hidden from most people,

The fact that it was unlikely, does not mean that it did not literally happen. Miracles are by definition unlikely occurrences. However, I think it is possible that the services use the phrase "Holy of Holies" as a more general reference to the Temple as a whole, and I think they do this in part because the Holy of Holies was a foreshadowing of the Lord's incarnation in the Virgin Mary's womb. In a very real sense, she became the Holy of Holies in a way that was more of a reality than the literal earthly Holy of Holies ever was. God was given flesh in her womb, and dwelled there bodily.

What is not unlikely about this story is the idea of a female going to live in the Temple precincts. We have an example in Luke 2:36-37 of a woman who lived in exactly that way:
"And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day."
Furthermore, we know that the Prophetess Anna was not a unique example of such a woman from the Old Testament. In Exodus we have a very interesting, but brief mention of such women who served at the Tabernacle, which was  the Tent version of what became the fixed Temple in Jerusalem:
"He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (Exodus 38:8 NRSV).
Interestingly, in the Septuagint Greek, the word "served" is translated  "fasted," which was probably a paraphrase intended to describe their primary activity, which was to pray and fast (as seen in the case of the Prophetess Anna in Luke), though they no doubt had other duties related to the Temple.

And these women are mentioned again in 1st Samuel, in the context of a description of the abuses the sons of the Priest Eli engaged in:
"Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (1 Samuel 2:22).
One thing that this passage indicates is that these women were likely not all widows in their 80's, for Eli's sons to be seducing them. And it was especially egregious that they slept with these women, because they were women who were dedicated to serving the Lord.

The Hebrew word translated as "served" is very interesting. It is tsâbâ' (צבא) which has the same root as the word "Sabaoth," as in "Lord of Sabaoth" -- which means "Lord of Hosts" or more literally "Lord of the Armies". This word means "to serve," like a soldier, in troops... and is often translated as "to fight", and it is similarly used in reference to the male Levites who also served in the Tabernacle and the Temple. And so this refers to a band of women who were dedicated to the service of the Lord, and who served at the entrance of the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple.

Unfortunately, I am limited by the reference material I have available to me, and it is striking that the Protestant sources I have generally show a surprising lack of curiosity about who these women were, or what they did. However, Brevard Childs's commentary on Exodus says:
"This verse, which has no earlier correspondent, has evoked much discussion as to its meaning. Who were the 'ministering women'? Why is  their work described by the verb sb' which denotes an organized service like the professional Levites? Some commentators have suggested a cleaning and repairing service, others singing and dancing. The only parallel is I Sam. 2.22 which is of little real help. Driver suggests that the verse implies that the service of the tabernacle had already been under way. There is insufficient evidence to decide whether older historical material is involved or later midrashic exegesis. The literary form would favor the first alternative" (The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), p. 636).
The Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos is undoubtedly part of our Tradition, and we know that we are celebrating both an historical and theological truth in this feast. However, when it comes to hymnody in particular, how literally we should take what is said will vary -- that is the nature of any kind of poetry, including much of the poetic material we find in Scripture. For example, the Prophet Isaiah, in foretelling the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian captivity says:
"For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12).
This prophecy foretold the joy of the return of the Israelites to their land, but we do not need to believe that they were literally greeted with singing mountains and clapping trees for this to be true.

Likewise, in the Akathist to the Theotokos, when it speaks of the Archangel Gabriel speaking to the Theotokos, I don't think anyone would argue that this is intended to be a stenographic account of was actually said at the Annunciation. But in the form of the poetry of the Akathist, we are given a truthful reflection of the meaning of that historical event.

For More Information, see:

Homily on the Entry of the Theotokos, by St. Gregory Palamas

Mary in the Protevangelium of James: A Jewish Woman in the Temple? (Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 53 (2013) 551–578), by Megan Nutzman

Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?, by Dr Taylor Marshall