Friday, January 10, 2020

The Antiochians Don't Disappoint (The Fr. Aaron Warwick Affair)

Metropolitan Joseph (Al-Zehlaoui)

Whatever one might say about the Antiochians, they can't say that they are squishy when it comes to those promoting the LGBTQP+ agenda. That's why it was somewhat of a surprise to see that an Antiochian Priest, Fr. Aaron Warwick, had written a pro-homosexual article and published it via a notoriously pro-homosexual website "Orthodoxy in Dialogue." When I first saw it, I sent a message to an Antiochian priest who is a close friend to ask if Fr. Aaron really was an Antiochian priest, and was told that indeed he was.

I expected to see the other shoe drop before too many days passed, and I was not disappointed. Fr. Aaron posted an apology and retraction (of sorts), and then it was announced that his upcoming elevation to the rank of archpriest has been postponed indefinitely.

The Original Article

Fr. Aaron's article contains a number of errors that need to be addressed:
"I will discuss below how the Church deals with these shortcomings for heterosexual couples. It will be apparent that our approach to dealing with heterosexual sins in the Church is quite different from our approach to homosexual sins. With respect to the class of heterosexual sins, we are forgiving, understanding, and pastoral. Following that discussion, I will outline how we generally treat homosexual sins in the Church, which is primarily not pastoral."
I am not sure what sort of pastoral applications Fr. Aaron has seen on the ground that leads him to this conclusion, but I don't know of any priests who do not treat those struggling with homosexuality with pastoral understanding. I have had parishioners who have fallen into heterosexual fornication, and also those who have fallen into homosexual fornication, and I treat the sins themselves in the same way, though how it would apply in a given case depends on more factors than just the nature of the sin. And I have a great deal of compassion for anyone who is sincerely struggling to overcome a sin that is difficult to triumph over, and most sexual sins fall into that category.
"I am unaware of any Orthodox priest who has ever informed a heterosexual that he/she has one option: lifelong celibacy. However, that is exactly what many homosexuals have heard. I will begin with this double standard. Can we as pastors imagine the looks we would get—the complaints of difficulty, of loneliness, etc.—from heterosexuals if we informed them this was their only path to salvation?"
But of course lifelong celibacy is not the only option for those struggling against homosexuality -- they may marry someone of the opposite sex. If they do not wish to do so, that doesn't make lifelong celibacy their only option -- it makes it the only remaining option if they choose not take the other option. And there are heterosexuals who have no other Christian option than celibacy for very long periods of time, for any number of reasons. My wife's Godmother was from the Soviet Union, and she and her three children ended up in a displaced persons camp in Germany at the end of World War II. Her husband had been drafted by the Soviets, and she never heard from him again. She remained celibate for the rest of her life as a result. She could have asked for the Church to declare her husband dead after seven years, but that still would have required at least seven years of celibacy. Even in peace time there are situations in which spouses are separated for very long periods of time, and yet the Church doesn't suggest that maybe it would be OK for them to fool around because celibacy is too much to ask. And of course there are many single Orthodox Christians who are not married, and may have to wait many years before they are able to be married, and yet the Church doesn't suggest that having sex outside of marriage would be OK, because celibacy is difficult.
"In fact, in my experience, the person who has no sexual contact with anyone throughout their life besides their spouse (and only after marriage) is by far in the minority. And by this I do not mean the split is like 51-49, or even 75-25 or 90-10, but more like 99-1—as in, for every one person who lives up to this ideal, 99 fall short."
While this may generally be true in our time, that does not make falling short of the teachings of the Church no big deal. Perhaps the numbers would be less lopsided if we made more of an effort to teach our children to not conform to the world. The solution to this problem is obviously not to say that conforming to the world is acceptable.
"We do not find it necessary to issue statements repeating the fact that we as a Church are opposed to masturbation, fornication, adultery, and divorce. Yet, we do find it necessary to continually repeat that we think homosexuality is a sin and we are opposed to gay marriage. And then we wonder why we have so few homosexuals in our pews or why our young children (who notice the hypocrisy) end up leaving our churches and/or complain about our lack of acceptance of homosexuals."
The reason why this is so, is because no one in the Church is trying to argue that masturbation, fornication, adultery and divorce are not really sins. We do find people arguing that homosexuality is not a sin, and so we have to send our forces to where the war is actually being fought, not to where it isn't. Although, speaking for myself, I have preached many times on these issues too, and certainly deal with them in the context of confession regularly.

And if you want to see churches with more than their fair share of empty pews, take a look at those Protestant churches that have raised the white flag on this issue. Those churches have been emptying out at staggering rates. It turns out that Churches that don't believe anything have a hard time convincing people that they ought to get up on Sunday morning and come to Church.

"In this self-justification, we completely ignore the fact that there is no movement to promote masturbation, or fornication, or adultery, or divorce because these sins are completely normalized not only in our culture, but in our churches. If we held heterosexuals to the same standard to which we hold homosexuals, then my communion line would be very short on Sundays."
If someone commits fornication, adultery, or is the guilty party in a divorce, they are normally going to be denied communion for some period of time. And generally speaking, I think most priests would handle someone falling into those sins pretty much the same way that they would someone falling into homosexual fornication.
"... homosexual acts are one of the least penalized sexual sins in the canons of our Church. The sins of fornication and adultery are treated much more harshly, and the reasons for this are obvious" [emphasis added].
I happened to speak recently to an expert on canon law, and mentioned this ridiculous assertion, and he laughed out loud in response. There is in fact no basis for this claim.

Here is likely the canon that inspired Fr. Aaron's misunderstanding:
"As for sexual intercourse of men with one another, such as practicing double masturbation, it received the stated penance of up to eighty days" (the 9th canon of St. John the Faster).
This canon references the preceding canon, which states:
"Anyone having committed masturbation is penanced forty days, during which he must keep himself alive by xerophagy and must do one hundred metanias (prostrations) every day."
It should be noted that the canon for double masturbation is precisely twice the penance prescribed for solo masturbation because, as St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain notes: "each of these offenders is not only hurting himself, but is also hurting his brother, and this makes the sin a double sin" (The Rudder, p. 938).

But St. John the Faster has more to say about homosexual sex. If you keep reading through his canons until you get to Canon 18, he states:
"It has seemed advisable to exclude any man who has been so mad as to copulate with another man from Communion for three years, weeping and fasting, and towards evening confined to xerophagy, and doing two hundred metanias. But as for one who prefers to take it easy, let him fulfill the fifteen years."
So he is saying that by economia, a man who actually copulates with another man might be allowed to be ex communicated for a mere 3 years, with weeping, fasting, eating dry vegetarian food (with no wine or oil), and doing 200 hundred prostrations a day, but if they do not do so, then they should fulfill the strict 15 years of ex communication. The penance for adultery in the 20th Canon of the Council of Ancyra is 7 years, though St. Basil appointed 15 years. It is a principle of applying the canons that you do not want the medicine (the penance) to kill the patient, and so in our times, we would not impose a penance that was even close to the lighter penances, but the point here is that the canons do not treat homosexual sex with less severity than they do fornication or adultery. It is considered to be equal to adultery, in terms of the penance, and generally fornication is given a penance of half the time given to adulterers or homosexuals, and so it actually is treated less severely, though no at all lightly.
"If a homosexual parishioner struggles with remaining sexually chaste, we should treat them no differently from how we treat the heterosexual fornicator. There is no need to shame and guilt them; we should instead work to better align them with the Church’s ideal. We should give them many opportunities to repent and to make sincere efforts to remain sexually chaste. Ultimately, if a homosexual parishioner finds it too lonely and too burdensome not to have a significant other, there really is no reason we cannot treat them the way we treat unmarried heterosexuals. Specifically, we should encourage them to refrain from sexual acts with that significant other, while realizing they may very well fall short of that goal, as do 99% of our most devout and pious heterosexual parishioners."
Are there priests in the Orthodox Church that encourage unmarried heterosexual laymen, who find celibacy too hard, to find and then live together with a "significant other"? If so, I haven't met them.
"In reality, I believe we should also accept that, like most heterosexuals, most homosexuals will find lifelong abstinence to be impracticable. In such cases, it is my strong conviction that we should encourage homosexuals to find a lifelong partner. While I understand this offends the sensibility of many Orthodox Christians, I again point to how our Church has dealt with the sin of divorce and remarriage. Namely, we do not enforce the strict legal and scriptural injunctions of our Church; rather, we act in a pastoral manner, allowing people an opportunity to continue working out their salvation within the Church. We never ask a remarried individual to eventually, some day leave their new spouse so their sin will not persist. We simply recognize this person needs compassion and a chance to do as well as they possibly can. Furthermore, we realize that the best way to encourage this is for an individual to belong to some form of community that requires mutual submission and the restriction of one’s sexual life to focus on no more than one person" [emphasis added].
The equation of homosexual sex with those who are divorced and remarried is a false one. The Church recognizes two biblical reasons for divorce, and then makes some extrapolations from them -- Christ stated that one could divorce for the cause of fornication (i.e. a spouse who is unfaithful), and St. Paul also adds that if one has an unbelieving spouse who abandons them, then this is also a justification for divorce. The Church makes some extrapolations based on these two reasons, and so, for example, if one has a spouse that beats the snot out of them and refuses to stop doing so, the abusive spouse has abandoned them, and they may legitimately divorce them. Divorce is always a sin on the part of at least one spouse, and often on the part of both. A second marriage for any reason is less than the Christian ideal. However, the Church does not consider someone who has been divorced (in a divorce recognized by the Church) and who has been remarried by the Church, to be living in perpetual sin. There have certainly been sins committed that got them into their current situation, but after some penance, there is restoration to communion (see The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, Section X.3).

Homosexual sex, however, is inherently sinful, and there is no situation in which it ceases to be sinful. St. Paul says that those who engage in homosexual sex will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). He also says this is true of those who continue to engage in adultery, fornication, idolatry, thievery, drunkenness, covetousness, reviling, and extortion -- but not inheriting the Kingdom of God is a pretty big deal, and it is a grave sin for any priest to give his parishioners the impression that maybe it is not such a big deal after all. That is in fact pastoral malpractice.

The Non-Apology Apology

As I had hoped, Fr. Aaron was clearly told to issue a retraction, and to ask that his article be taken down (which "Orthodoxy in Dialogue" chose not to comply with). The unfortunate aspect of his letter of retraction is that he actually did not retract anything he said. He merely expressed sorrow that some people were confused and misunderstood what he actually had said. The problem was not that people didn't understand what he had said -- the problem is that what he said was wrong. But I am glad that his bishops didn't simply ignore it, but instead took swift action.

Furthermore, Fr. Aaron had been scheduled to be elevated to the rank of archpriest on January 19th. The service for the making of an archpriest asks that God may "adorn him [the priest who is being elevated] with virtue to stand at the head of the Presbyters of Thy people, and make him worthy to be a good example to them that are with him..." (The Order of the Office for the Making of a Protopresbyter (Archpriest), vol 1, Book of Needs, (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1998, p. 258). This is an honor given to priests after many years of service, and it does suggest that they have been a good example, and should be leaders among their brother priests. Had the Antiochian Archdiocese gone ahead and made him an archpriest after this scandalous article, it would have added insult to injury. Fortunately, they have decided to postpone his elevation indefinitely.

I take no delight in the personal anguish this has no doubt caused Fr. Aaron and his family, but Bishop Basil and Metropolitan Joseph had no good choices here, and they have done the only thing they could have done without the flock being harmed more than they already have been.

It is certainly a good and necessary thing for clergy to consider how best to pastorally deal with those struggling with homosexuality, or any other sexual sin. Suggesting that continuing in that sin might not be so bad after all, however, is not the answer.

Bishop Basil (Essey) of Wichita

Several years ago, an OCA priest published a somewhat similar letter, and the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston and Southeast Texas wrote a response to that letter. I well remember Bishop Basil, when he visited Houston after this had happened, publicly thanking our clergy association for having done so. I am glad to see that he remains strong in the Faith, and is willing to make difficult decisions to defend that Faith. Many Years to Bishop Basil, and Many Years to Metropolitan Joseph! I only hope that other bishops will take note, and follow their example. The only way to prevent an ever increasing number of such scandalous statements being issued in the future, is to deal swiftly and surely with those that make them.