In August 2019, “Bridging Voices” conference took place in Oxford, UK, under the auspices of the British Council. According to the press release, “An international academic gathering of scholars, pastors, clinicians, and other experts took place in Oxford from 16th to 19th August, at which contemporary issues of sex, gender, and sexuality were discussed in relation to the Orthodox Church. The ground-breaking meeting brought together a wide variety of views on highly controversial social issues confronting the 260-million strong Orthodox Christian community.
The conference was supported by the British Council as part of the second iteration of its “Bridging Voices” project. It was organized by a consortium of scholars from the University of Exeter and the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.”
The Wheel spoke with Gregory Tucker, one of the organizers, about the conference.
1. Conference Planning
What was the genesis of the conference? Who was involved in the organizing? What was its purpose as initially conceived? Did that purpose evolve, or did you adhere to the original intent?
The conference in August was one aspect of a two-year research project, which really had two starting points: the first was an informal conversation between the organizers over several years about the need to address urgent pastoral questions related to issues of sex, gender, and sexuality. These questions—which no longer present as abstract thought experiments (if ever they did!) but personal realities Orthodox parishes—have come steadily to the fore over the last sixty or seventy years, but they have intensified greatly over the last decade, not least because broad changes in social attitudes have led to changes in legal provisions for gender and sexual minorities in the West, and this affects everyone, including Orthodox Christians. The second starting point for the project was a call for applications for the second iteration of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” project. This offered a specific framework for approaching these topics, which includes an emphasis on the intersection of religious belief and practice and secular policy.
One of the criteria for winning a Bridging Voices grant is that the project has to be led by a transatlantic team. Ours is headed by Brandon Gallaher (University of Exeter, UK) and Aristotle Papanikolaou (Fordham University, New York) and they are joined by three other scholars: Edward Skidelsky (Exeter), George Demacopoulos (Fordham), and me (University of Regensburg, Germany). Brandon and I took the lead on organizing the Oxford conference; Telly and George are directing a lot of the post-conference outreach efforts, which include a panel discussion at Fordham planned for November. Many of us have worked together in various contexts in the past and have been involved in other projects related to these topics.
The project as a whole can be thought of as a fork with two prongs. The first aims to clarify and analyze the current thinking and practice of Eastern Orthodox Christianity with regard to sexual diversity and pluralism in secular contexts. Although many people promote the idea that the Church’s teachings in this area are univocal and universal, under closer inspection this often turns out not to be the case; so a realistic appraisal of the tradition is essential. The second aims to position the fruits of this work within contemporary secular discourses, in order to enable the development of a dialogue between clerics, theologians, and secular organizations, which is mutually beneficial. Overall, we are looking to facilitate a sustained, complex, and respectful conversation that, on the one hand, can help the church to respond appropriately to pastoral challenges in the areas of sex, gender, and sexuality, and on the other hand, can enable governments and secular organizations to better understand related Orthodox teachings and disciplines.
The conference was the culmination of efforts towards the first of these aims. It was conceived initially as a semi-public event in New York with a keynote lecture etc. in the style of many academic conferences (such as Fordham’s triennial Patterson Conference) but we soon decided that this was not going to strike the right tone. First, we didn’t want a “star” to launch the conversation with a prescriptive address that determined the direction of travel. Second, we realized that the explosiveness of these topics is such that many people do not feel comfortable speaking their mind on record (whatever it may be!), and so a more protected environment was going to be more likely to yield an honest and forthright dialogue. Third, and very much related, we came to appreciate that the success of the conference would depend upon real trust between the participants, so a retreat-like atmosphere would be beneficial. All this led us to move the conference to one of the smallest colleges of the University of Oxford, which we could take over entirely for a weekend. The venue was also chosen as a “neutral space” (i.e. not one belonging to the Orthodox Church) and this reflects the fact that the project is not an official effort with hierarchical sanction.
A great deal of effort went into the invitations. From the outset, we hoped for a rich and diverse conversation. This necessitated inviting not only Orthodox clergy and theologians but also philosophers, ethicists, historians, sociologists, scientists, and clinicians, and some ecumenical observers. It was also absolutely essential, in our judgment, that arguments from all parts of the “liberal”–“conservative” spectrum should be heard. We spent a lot of time trying to maintain some kind of balance in this regard, often working on the basis of quite limited information about what someone in a given area might thinking about these topics. We usually—but not always!—made the right call. Somewhat surprisingly, it turned out to be quite difficult to get people to commit to making arguments for the received disciplines of the Church. We invited a number of well-known clergy and theologians who have published and spoken in defense of the Church’s current teachings and disciplines, but several did not want to engage with us. We regret that they didn’t participate, but in the end, we were satisfied with the range of views expressed.
The Oxford conference was preceded by a digital workshop in February, during which 10 participants presented stimulus papers, two on each of five topic areas. They were joined by another 10 participants as conversation partners. We used this workshop to identify which areas and arguments would receive attention in the summer, when we brought together some 55 scholars.
2. Conference Proceedings
Previous efforts to broach the topic of human sexuality in the context of the Orthodox Church have met with limited success. Were you able to overcome some of these obstacles? Were you able to allow multiple voices from different perspectives to be heard at the conference? Was the conference structured in a way to be more productive than other efforts dealing with the same topic(s)? How would you describe the atmosphere among participants as the conference progressed? Were there any informal discussions among participants? If so, did they have any useful impact?
It's certainly the case that these conversations are very difficult for the Orthodox and, in truth, there have been very few efforts yet that have been really dialogical. Most of what we’ve seen so far is groups of people who already agree with one another meeting to reaffirm and re-echo their convictions. That’s not a waste of time because people need to find their voice before they speak, but those kinds of meetings run the risk of becoming echo-chambers and they are not going to move us beyond the polarized impasse that we currently find ourselves in. (It must be noted that some people do not want to pass beyond this impasse because it is reassuring to remain in familiar siloes and view the world through an “us vs. them” lens, but many people recognize the need to somehow move forward.) There are exceptions to this, of course—the smaller Amsterdam meeting a few years ago was a mixed group and the famous issue of The Wheel was quite ground-breaking in the breadth of opinion it represented. But in many ways, this project and the Oxford conference was a step into the unknown—and hopefully a step into the future.
As the conference unfolded, I was overwhelmed by the generosity and attentiveness that the participants showed towards one another. The whole event was pervaded by a spirit of peace which, I have to say, I believe was not the result of anything we did but was a gift and sign of the presence of Christ among us. That does not mean that there was not disagreement! There were very significant, sustained disagreements, and there was certainly discomfort on all sides as speakers laid out arguments and evidence and people responded to them. From the beginning, the atmosphere in the conference room was incredibly dense and there were moments when I feared that the whole thing was just going to fall apart or erupt. But we persevered through that and everyone kept their focus and their cool. It was for me personally an extraordinary privilege to witness what can happen when people who share a deep commitment to their faith tradition but profoundly disagree meet with charity. As one of the ecumenical observers commented to me, there was a rare “quality of togetherness” at this meeting.
The conference program was very carefully structured to achieve a balance between the intensity necessary to generate momentum and the space necessary to make sure that the pot doesn’t boil over! So, we met all together (there were no breakout groups or parallel sessions) in two-hour workshop divided into one hour of stimulus material and one hour for discussion. Every session could have run longer, but the time constraints actually worked well in general, forcing people to express themselves concisely and clearly. The workshops progressed through a series of topics: we began with perspectives on why this conversation matters and what is at stake, together with reviews of previous efforts; then we discussed foundational hermeneutic questions, followed by issues in theological anthropology and ethics, pastoral realities and challenges, the possible contribution of science, psychology, and other therapies, and finally sociological and political issues. These topics could have been arranged differently—some people would undoubtedly say that theology should proceed from pastoral realities to reflection rather than from theory to practice, for example—but this actually worked as a progressive discourse.
Importantly, the schedule included a lot of breathing room and time to get to know one another. So after our inaugural session, we enjoyed a formal Oxford college dinner together and then adjourned to the bar. The second day included plenty of coffee and a long lunch. We broke in time for participants to attend vespers, and many of them did so together. It was quite moving to see people who had been really pushing each other intellectually all day then standing together in prayer. We resumed after Liturgy on Sunday with a very intense afternoon that gave way to a relaxed and jovial curry dinner, during which much conversation continue. Then our final day included time for wide-ranging discussion and a farewell lunch. All of this social time was absolutely essential. Though it sounds trite, it gave strangers the opportunity to become friends and see one another in their complex and rich humanity, not merely as icons of particular stances in a contentious argument! I think a lot of important bridge-building took place over the meals. As I said to the participants in my closing remarks, if we could all go away and say honestly to the members of our various communities, “Here, I met Christians of good will!” then we will already have taken an important step towards reconciliation and truth.
3. Conference Outcomes
Was this conference a one time deal, or did you and/or other organizers feel that there exists some hope for future dialogue? Can you characterize the personal reactions among the conference participants once the proceedings were concluded? Can anything called “progress” be described as an outcome? If so, in what sense? Were there dissenting voices among participants concerning the conference outcomes? How would you describe the impact of the conference for the future of discussions in the Church?
The conference was a one-off in the sense that it is part of a limited project with an end date, but there was definitely a shared, perhaps even universal, sense of the need for continued dialogue. Several participants have already put forward suggestions for ways to keep the conversation channels open. One participant kindly extended an invitation to an upcoming conference at St Tikhon’s Seminary, PA on this topic. So there is, I think, not only hope but an expectation that this dialogue will continue. This is absolutely necessary and we never imagined that this conference would be the end of the story. Although there are many people in the Orthodox Church who believe that the final word has already been spoken on these issues, there are very many others who are just as certain that it has not! We conducted interviews during the conference for a short video (which we hope will be out before too long!) and one of the questions asked was, “What questions in the areas of sex, gender, and sexuality remain to be answered for the Orthodox Church” More than one interviewee said, “All of them!”
I think, on the whole, the participants were glad they came and grateful for the opportunity to learn from one another. I didn’t personally hear anyone say that they wish they hadn’t come, although I am aware that some people were troubled or hurt by some things that were said. This was probably inevitable. Nobody spoke with the intention of being provocative or wounding anyone else, but the organizers did ask participants to really speak their minds and to resist side-stepping the most difficult parts of the conversation. I have been encouraged that none of the participants has “broken ranks,” as it were, and condemned the whole thing post factum—this is despite some external pressure from both “sides” of the argument to do so. The organizers didn’t try to restrict how people reported their experience (beyond the imposition of the Chatham House Rule, which means that speakers cannot be identified with the ideas they expressed), so I’m taking this as evidence that people are generally satisfied with what happened and think the exercise was worth undertaking.
It’s hard to talk about “progress” beyond what I’ve already said about the success of the process. We didn’t set out to reach consensus or issue an agreed statement. And since there was no attempt to construct an agreed statement (even the official press release was issued only in the name of the organizers and not the conference as a whole), it’s not really possible to talk about dissenting voices. I know there are people who feel that there was insufficient attention given to their “side” of the argument or their specific field of expertise—but, reassuringly, these people fall across the spectrum of opinion! I’m also not sure the organizers really wanted to change anyone’s mind! The situation in the Church is too polarized and fractured at the moment to push hard on anyone’s views in this kind of context. This was really about encouraging people to speak to one another. In that respect, I think it was successful. Time will tell, of course, but I think there was a humble kind of progress.
At this point, it’s also hard to talk about the impact of the conference or the project as a whole. On the one hand, the project leaders will be working over the next year to develop the conversation in a more policy-oriented direction with a view in particular to helping the British government better understand issues of sexual diversity in the Orthodox context. We hope to meet with members of Parliament and we will be working on policy documents. On the other hand, when it comes to direct impact of the Church, we simply offer this experience as a sign that what often seems impossible is perhaps possible. There are ways in which the polarization of this debate can be overcome; there are ways of talking about these issues that both acknowledge the tradition and treat sexual and gender minorities with dignity; there are ways of bringing people together for sustained, complex conversation, shielded from the reactionary and uncharitable judgments of the Orthodox internet. Beyond that, the list of participants has been published; our interim report will soon be available; summary papers are appearing on Public Orthodoxy; there may eventually be a conference volume. For those in the Church who are looking for them, these are valuable resources—most especially the participants themselves. “Progress” in this area—whatever that may mean in the end—is going to depend on the multiplication of personal efforts and the continued development of relationships; no decree from on high is going to resolve the crisis which is in danger of overwhelming us. But there is hope.
Gregory Tucker is a research assistant and doctoral candidate at Regensburg University, Germany. His current research is focused on the Middle Byzantine liturgy in its theological context. He holds the degrees of BA and MSt from the University of Oxford and MA from St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.