GARY STERN THE JOURNAL NEWS (Original publication: June 23, 2004) http://www.thejournalnews.com/newsroom/062304/b04w23marriage.html
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: June 23, 2004)
The age-old notion of Christian marriage between man and woman is under siege by loosening sexual mores, commonplace divorce and the reality that homosexual relationships will soon be commonly recognized, several Orthodox Christian scholars agreed yesterday.
Speaking at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, these scholars wrestled with how to reconcile traditional church teachings with a culture that they say is often well-meaning, but losing touch with basic Christian beliefs.
controversial question of same-sex relationships, for instance, the speakers agreed that Orthodox tradition requires gays and lesbians to live chaste, sexless lives. But they hardly seemed satisfied with such a conclusion, in light of the growing consensus that homosexual orientation is not a choice for at least a large minority of gays and lesbians.
Peter Bouteneff, an assistant professor in dogmatic theology at St. Vladimir’s, considered the options facing a gay Christian, such as denial, lying, leaving the church or chastity. "I’m not sure I could bear that cross," he said.
About 60 Orthodox priests and lay leaders from across the country participated in yesterday’s talks as part of a weeklong institute on "Does Christian Marriage Have a Future?" Speakers are looking at the meaning and importance of Christian marriage, as well as the myriad challenges to it: divorce, cohabitation, interfaith marriage and the hot-button cultural question of the day, same-sex unions.
Bouteneff concluded that gay sex is "misdirected" sexual expression and sinful. But he said the church has to address sensitive questions, such as whether there is anything redeemable in a committed, same-sex relationship.
"If we answer in the negative, we better come up with a good reason, a credible reason," he said. "I don’t think we have yet."
Albert Rossi, a clinical psychologist and lecturer in pastoral theology at the seminary, said he was firmly convinced that most homosexuals cannot change their orientation. He practically pleaded with pastors not to try to "cure" gay and lesbian parishioners, saying such a process would only cause pain.
He also insisted that just because homosexuality is often in-born does not make it normal.
"You don’t define normal statistically," he said. "Just because many people divorce, doesn’t make it normal. I don’t see homosexuality as normal."
Rossi and others stressed that Orthodox priests must pastor gays and lesbians with as much love and understanding as possible, while never condoning any sex outside of Christian marriage.
"Can the Orthodox Church, then, ever bless gay marriage or same-sex unions?" asked the Rev. John Breck, a prominent Orthodox theologian, in his keynote address on Monday. "The answer must surely be no. Once again, this is not, or should not be, a puritanical or homophobic reaction against what many people consider to be aberrant and repulsive behavior. Rather, it is because there is a better way in terms of both spiritual and physical well-being."
The Orthodox view on such issues often gets lost in the Christian mix because there are only about 2 million Orthodox Christians in North America. The Roman Catholic Church and evangelical churches normally speak for the traditional view, while some mainline Protestants lead the call for recognition of gay rights.
Orthodox Christianity dates back to the earliest Christian communities. Its followers did not break with the Rome-based church until 1054.
Seminary Dean John Erickson said that Orthodoxy can lend a balanced voice to cultural debates, one steeped in Christian tradition but open to difficult questions and discussion. Orthodox leaders are often slow to speak out, he said, because of Orthodoxy’s small numbers and a lack of coordination among the independent Orthodox churches that make up the community.
"The Orthodox have often felt excluded from the public square or have felt afraid to enter the public square," Erickson said. "To retreat and pretend we live in a hyphenated American ghetto — Greek-Americans and Russian-Americans and so on — runs contrary to Orthodox tradition, in which the church has been very involved in the lives of people."
St. Vladimir’s has been training Orthodox priests since 1938. The seminary’s faculty and students have come from many of the 19 Orthodox churches, most of which are based in Eastern Europe.
The Rev. Alexander Rentel, an instructor in church history and canon law at St. Vladimir’s, spoke yesterday about overlooked threats to Christian marriage, such as the divorce rate, unmarried couples living together, and marriages between Orthodox Christians and non-Christians.
Rentel said that church laws or canons clearly prohibit cohabitation and interfaith marriage and strongly discourage divorce. But all have become commonplace, putting pastors in very awkward positions. "What, then, is the church if its beliefs can simply be changed to accommodate the world?" Rentel asked.
Several priests described the difficult situations they regularly face, counseling parishioners, including their own relatives, who cohabitate or marry outside the faith.
Part of the answer, Rentel said, is to do a better job of educating parishioners about Christian marriage, which aims to bring a man and woman into a relationship with Christ. "We must bring people to the Gospel first," he said.