Katie Kelaidis, finally among Orthodox, broached the subject that it seems so many Orthodox commentators are delicately avoiding except in the most vague of terms: the justification of Russia’s war on the Ukraine as a defense against forced “gay parades.” In the rhetoric of Patriarch Kirill, gay parades represent all that is unholy and depraved about the West’s abandonment of “traditional values.” The recent publication of Sarah Riccardi-Swartz’s excellent scholarship could not have been better timed to describe the long-developing relationship between North American converts to Orthodoxy, and their embrace of an autocratic theocracy best represented by Russia. In addition to a love of all things Russian (or a romanticized version of its Tsarist history), they embrace a “reactive Orthodoxy” that includes a hyper-masculinized version of family values and structure that rejects homosexuality and feminism, all things attributed to the decadent West. I can’t recommend her research enough.
I appreciate Dr. Kelaidis’s confession that as a (hesitant) progressive on matters of sexuality, “we took up our position incorrectly and in doing so allowed the situation to devolve to its current state.” She goes on:
We were the nice ones, not the theologically sound ones. This self-perception led us to make our case only in the most conciliatory manner in whispered voices and in secret meetings. We indulged their cruelty, because we thought that they were ultimately the ones arguing from the most solid position within our tradition. We essentially agreed with them that reason, Holy Tradition, and The Truth (™) were on their side.
Her words should be repeated, loudly and clearly, over and over again. I am grateful that she overcame her reluctance to speak on behalf of those who are dehumanized by Orthodox tradition and Orthodox practices, “women, gender and sexual minorities, and frankly anyone who dare challenge any reactionary view with regard to cultural issues.” Too often, she is exactly right: advocates for women and LGBTQIA persons are so conciliatory they are more concerned to ensure that their theological opponents feel welcome than that they make good theological arguments. In a discussion of their book Women and Ordination in the Orthodox Church co-editors and conference organizers Gabrielle Thomas and Elena Narinskaya repeated over and over again their concern that they create a safe space for discussion, that stridency and anger be avoided, that “the question” of women’s ordination remain open.
Readers: the question of women’s ordination has been open for years, decades. Keeping the question “open” is a way of ensuring that it is never answered in the positive. And here is where Dr. Kelaides goes astray in her argument: not all of us ceded the ground of a solid theological position. Not all of us agreed that Truth was on “their” side. And not all of us were silent or met in secret (though many of us did, and continue to do so). The history of this conversation is longer, deeper, and far more theologically rich than Kelaides indicates (at least in this article).
There is more history to this conversation than I can repeat here, but at the very least, Orthodox who want to have this conversation need to stop ceding ground to the very rhetorical ploys that intend to silence the conversation.
First, conversations around sex and sexuality are not the product of “rhetoric from the West.” This assertion is used by “traditionalists” to preserve the provincialism of Orthodoxy which at its core believes there is nothing of value to learn from outsiders, and so everything from the outside can and should be rejected. Yet many (not all) of the advocates for female ordination are not converts. Yes, they are influenced by the West, but then, Orthodoxy has always been influenced by, and often assimilated, the cultural values of its peoples (all religions do this!). Elisabeth Behr-Siegel, a convert and the doyenne of “Western” Orthodoxy engaged the debate around female ordination due to encounters with western Christianities in the WCC. But Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson traces her distinctly Orthodox development of her position, formed largely in dialogue with the Russian Paul Evdokimov. Evdokimov himself wrestled with feminism, thought its critiques reasonable, and sought to develop a distinctly positive and Orthodox response (both Behr-Siegel and I think he failed). But Valerie Karras, Dee Jaquet, Constantine Yokarines, and I were not converts to Orthodoxy, and we have all argued for female ordination.
Second, traditionalist may be right about the practices handed down, but that is not the same thing as a corner on The Truth. There are substantive Orthodox arguments for the ordination of women, for the welcome of gender fluidity and a variety of sexual expressions. Get to know them!
Finally, and this is what I have wanted to say since Kirill spewed his vile lies: stop being afraid of conflict! The reality is, Orthodoxy has as long a history of conflict and schism as it has of unity and continuity. What is happening now between the various patriarchates is not new. Orthodox pretense to unity is just that, a pretense. So, rather than use the church to fight over land, territory, political power, and economic colonialism, why not engage the church in a fight for those who need liberation in its very midst? Valerie Karras, Nonna Harrison, myself, others who have spoken loudly for the ordination of women, and the more recent set of voices advocating for LGBTQIA persons, are often feared as divisive simply because we are firm in our arguments, certain in our convictions, and are not afraid to call out insubstantial and shallow arguments for what they are: rhetoric that denies our full humanity. It is as if we should not passionately and with strength (to quote a bit from the Orthodox liturgy) resist dehumanizing practices; as if women and queer persons should not be angry in the face of a church that dehumanizes them.
I know, I am no longer Orthodox. But that isn’t because I chose to leave. It is because I was excommunicated as a queer woman. As a scholar who advocated for full the sacramental ordination of women, I was regularly silenced by reluctant progressives who didn’t want me to say things like, ”we all know that the reason we resist the reinstatement of female deacons is that it is a slippery slope to priesthood,” or that “full inclusion of women will also lead to conversations around sexuality that we must have.” These were not comments meant to grab attention, but to be honest about the reality of the conversation, a desire to own it with integrity and have it fully, without pretense.
The cost of silence is that those who refuse to be silent are exiled and those who silently remain must force themselves into a life that is less than that which God has gifted them.
The truth is, I am not all that angry and Kirill, or the traditionalists. They are doing what they think is right, and there is an integrity to their actions and beliefs. They are doing exactly what I expect them to do: fiercely and cruelly defending a theology that is itself cruel. It is the reluctant, silent, cautious progressives that grieve my heart, because you all know better and yet you are willing to sacrifice others to fear of conflict and schism.