Years ago, the Orthodox Christian Church held that it was a mortal sin—“usury”—to pay or charge interest on a loan. Divorce was out of the question. Even the “mixing of families” when separated spouses met new mates was forbidden. But as society changed, so did the church. Today, who doesn’t use a credit card? Divorce is regrettably common. A church that likes to brag that it “hasn’t changed in 2,000 years” has, in fact, changed dramatically.
Yet, last week, the parish’s priest at my childhood church in Pittsburgh told me I couldn’t take communion, our faith’s highest sacrament—and that, if I approached the altar to receive it, he’d refuse. Because I am a gay man.
The Greek Orthodox Church was an amazing place to grow up. I never hid who I was; everywhere I went, I was welcomed and supported. I have served the National Church as an appointee on the Archdiocesan Council, and my financial donations have always been accepted. My priest has known about my sexual orientation for more than two decades. It was no secret. And it didn’t stop him from allowing me to become a godfather to a child in 2010. But suddenly, after years of taking communion, my local priest wasn’t so sure this was a good idea and he passed it off as a directive from his local bishop.
I had a lengthy conversation about the matter with the bishop in Pittsburgh, who supervises my local priest. He informed me that no formal directive was issued but that the matter had been discussed in a conversation initiated by my priest, specifically about me. The bishop told me that the priest was technically “within his canonical right” to refuse me communion but that the issue was much more than a black and white approach to church law.
I know how this debate goes: The Bible says homosexuality is a sin. St. Paul said this, St. Peter said that, and Corinthians says this. But consider for a moment that people choose to commit adultery. They choose to rape. They choose to masturbate. They choose to take God’s name in vain. Every day, people make conscious decisions to commit sins that go against the teachings of the Church. People do not choose to be blond, or to be 5 foot 11 inches tall, or to have green eyes. They are created this way. And yes, people are created gay. And if we are created in God’s image, then millions of others like me were, too.
Like many religions, there is a fundamentalist movement inside the Greek Orthodox Church that is stripping people away from its communities, breaking up families and shaking people’s faith. It’s a sort of Taliban-like effort to create pure and hyper-Christian theocracies free of people who don’t follow cookie-cutter descriptions of what they believe “good Orthodox Christians” to be. The number of priests who take this approach only seems to be growing in spite of—perhaps because of—the increasing tolerance of the world around them.
It’s sad because there is no such thing as the perfect Christian, and the scorched-earth policy of morality ignores a history of pragmatism and compromise that allowed priests to follow the spirit of canonical law, instead of the letter. So many before have broken technical dictates (and occasionally even civil law) to do the right thing, such as when the Archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos, issued thousands of fraudulent baptismal certificates to save his city’s Jews during the Holocaust.
More prosaically, strict church law is correctly ignored so that a raft of sinners may remain churchgoers in good standing: those who have masturbated; people who have experienced “nocturnal emissions”; women who are menstruating; people who enter a synagogue; even, as ridiculous as it may sound, those who have been in a swimming pool or at a beach with Jews, or those under the medical supervision of a Jewish doctor.
Thankfully for my Church, perpetrators of these “heinous sins” aren’t targeted. Logic, love and compassion have prevailed over the letter of the law.
I’m no activist. I don’t want to have a “big, fat, Greek gay wedding” in my church. I’m not going to march outside the Archdiocese headquarters. I love it the way it has always been—a place of love and compassion, a community of good, hard working people and an institution that realizes that we’re all broken in one way or another, and the church’s sacraments should be celebrated to heal us and make us whole. Because, while I may not be a biblical scholar, I believe I’m a good person; my Church taught me how to treat my fellow human, how to be compassionate and, more importantly, the difference between right and wrong.
The good news for me and my Church is that since this incident, which I wrote about here, I’ve heard from more than two dozen Greek Orthodox priests and even two bishops, inviting me to their parishes to receive Holy Communion. However, I’ve also received hundreds of messages from people who have received similar treatment from like-minded moral authoritarians in the Church.
So yes, there is hope. But the rise of fundamentalism threatens this hope—and not just in my faith. If gay people are sinners, they’re no worse than anybody else. Churches should be hospitals for all sinners and not mausoleums of saints.