On 23 June, during the proceedings of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church gathered on Crete, the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups published an open letter signed by me, Misha Cherniak, on behalf of the Orthodox Working Group of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups, and Elaine Sommers and Wielie Elhorst on behalf of the Forum’s Board. The letter contained three main points formulated as requests to the leaders of the Orthodox Church:
- request to acknowledge that LGBT are not only outside the Orthodox Church, but also within;
- request to do everything possible to stop the violence and hatred that is allegedly based on the Orthodox Tradition;
- request to establish spaces of dialogue to hear us out, talk as equals, and pray together.
The idea to publish such a letter was born out of the understanding that this Council (the first of its kind since the first millennium) presents a unique opportunity for some form of advocacy. The draft documents of the Council had two fragments related to LGBT issues: in the document on marriage and the document on the mission of the Church in the world (final versions can be found on the site of the Council). However, since the final texts were to be published only closer to the end of the Council, the group discussing the response of the Forum to the Council decided not to respond to the documents as such. Especially, since we could not expect the Council to consider our matter directly during the proceedings, as there was no chance for the introduction of new items to the agenda that had been pre-agreed several decades ago. After the consultations with some allies from the Orthodox hierarchy, we settled upon an open letter and being present physically on Crete for networking and participation in the follow-up discussions personally (if such were to happen).
The letter was written by me, then it was commented and edited by a team of people from the board of the Forum, the Orthodox Working Group, and our allies in the hierarchy. As a result of this collaborative effort, the final text wisely took a softer shape than initially drafted. Many more people helped in making French, Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, and German translations available.
The letter was published on the Forum’s website, sent to the Press Secretariat of the Council and the press secretary himself. It was very quickly reposted by the best progressive Orthodox magazine The Wheel.
On Crete, our close ally and member of the Orthodox Working Group NV was present as a journalist and observer from the Conference of European Churches. NV distributed it to other journalists and ecumenical observers. This way, publications appeared in Greek newspapers and portals, one Ukrainian TV crew became interested in the subject, etc. By now, the letter has been mentioned in various publications in Greek, English, Russian, Ukrainian, German, probably Italian, etc.
Quite a serious storm happened in the Russian-speaking world after the news about the letter was published on the key Russian independent Orthodox portal Pravoslavie i Mir (Orthodoxy and the World), or shortly Pravmir. The article started a wildfire on Russian Facebook: lots of amazingly ignorant and aggressive reactions (no surprise), but also a strong support from people, who either agreed with the letter or knew me personally and decided to stand by my side, even if they did not agree with the letter as such. Later on, the portal published six comments from various Orthodox publicists, all critical to various degrees. Only two of those six responses could be considered worthy of further discussion with their authors. Knowing both of those authors personally, I engaged in the conversation with them—and that discussion was very open and noble and ended in establishing some common ground. This common ground could be best described by notions of personal relations with God, daring, trusting the Lord’s guidance, and, in a very Orthodox manner, agreeing to not having definite answers. Other four were full of regular homophobic rhetoric: “only those who admit they're sick can be cured”, “you are not Christians, because you can't be Christian and affirming your own homosexuality or being openly LGBT”, etc.
Reactions of Russian internet users were very diverse, but a number of people said that they had gotten their faith in the Church and Orthodoxy restored due to the letter. Many people admitted that they had started seeing LGBT issues in the Church as more than just an “alien issue”.
All this active reaction to the letter came as a surprise to me because Russian public was not the primary addressee and target of the letter—especially, since the Russian Church was not present at the Council for political reasons. Yet, after a week, this storm subsided and the capricious Russian public switched its attention to other issues.
Noteworthy is the fact that the organising committee of the Forum of LGBT Christians of Eastern Europe and Central Asia made a step to consolidate the efforts of LGBT Christians in the region even in the time between the Forum’s conferences: they made a support letter in Russian and collected many signatures under it.
Out of the several messages that have arrived so far to the special mailbox given in the letter, only one was negative. The rest were supportive with some offering their publications, some thanking for the consolation that this letter had given them, some asking for advice on how to reconcile the Orthodox faith and being LGBT. Even for those few reactions, it was a good decision to publish that letter.
There was not much chance to address the Council delegates directly—the proceedings were closed, the delegates were kept quite separate from the outer world, even the press had very limited opportunities. Through NV’s efforts, we managed to have one meeting already after the end of the Council. We talked for an hour with a high-profile Greek priest from the US. He was very much impressed with the letter and called it a wake-up call for the bishops (a slightly too optimistic outlook). He praised the letter for the respectful and humble tone and mentioned it was very clear and understandable. One of the letter’s advantages was that it spoke of LGBT phobias and lack of equality without ever using the words “homophobia”, “equality”, or “rights”—not to trigger their negative reaction to the so-called Western agenda. That priest mentioned that he had discussed the letter not only with members of the delegations, but also with the ecumenical observers at the Council.
We are one hundred percent sure that the whole delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was informed of the letter. We have no guarantees that the same happened in other delegations during or after the Council, but we suspect it must have reached every local Church by now. No official reactions followed though, neither in June, nor in the following months. Even if the immediate effects are quite modest, the largest result is the fact that the letter is out there and in some cases the seed must have fallen on good soil. Despite all the storm, we can already see the gradual legitimisation of the affirmative discourse, rise in the level of knowledge and awareness, and emerging of new allies. Though by now we have had only one direct contact with the Church officials, we know that with God’s help the letter will continue to work. We have to wait and be ready to engage into dialogue whenever and wherever they decide to respond.