Dr. Peter Bouteneff: Speaking the truth in love

The faculty of St. Vladimir’s website will be posting occasional essays on topics of current events. In this essay, Dr. Peter Bouteneff, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, discusses ecumenical dialogue, particularly how different contexts and settings shape how discussion occurs. Dr. Bouteneff is a reader of the AOI blog and an occasional contributor.

Source: St. Vladimir Seminary

Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff

Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff

Recently, the Orthodox internet was abuzz with the words of Fr. Siarhei Hardun, an Orthodox priest from Belarus who had been invited as an “ecumenical delegate” to the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA. Fr. Siarhei’s words, which can be seen in their entirety here, were indeed memorable: he said that some of what he witnessed at this meeting seemed like an attempt to “invent a new religion — a sort of modern paganism.” He added that “When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible.”

As Fr. Hardun later explained to me, most of what shocked him had to do with the Assembly’s treatment of gay marriage and abortion. While the marriage of homosexual couples was not formally sanctioned by this meeting, nor was the ordination of practicing homosexuals, the discussion was apparently alienating enough to merit comment. However, a provision that was approved by a majority of 60% obliges congregations to compensate their staff who needed time off work to get an abortion.

I have had long experience in ecumenical settings, and have publicly advocated a responsible ecumenical involvement—meaning one that clearly identifies the disagreements as well as the convergences. I am also committed to genuine diplomacy, and specifically to the responsible examination of any issue with attention to factors that either exaggerate or mask theological differences, and which complicate simplistic moral stances. However, I must say that I rejoiced in Fr Siarhei’s simple, powerful witness to this particular meeting, and here is why.

Fr Siarhei was not participating in a multilateral dialogue on Christian ethics. Neither was he engaged in a lengthy study of theological or scientific issues. He was the sole Orthodox Christian witness at the general assembly of a particular Protestant body, and was invited to speak on behalf of his confession. Furthermore, he was given an absurd time-frame of “about three or four minutes” to express his views.

His options were strictly limited: one would have been to keep his remarks to thanks and platitudes, which would have been of no use to anyone. Another tack may have been to take three of his allotted minutes to outline an Orthodox theology of the divine image, indicating why we feel so strongly about abortion and about heterosexual monogamy. But to collapse a theological principle into such a short time is liable to be forgotten as soon as it is uttered. Fr. Siarhei took another option: to establish his identity as an Orthodox Christian, and indicate with absolute clarity that, in the face of all good feelings and intentions, and despite principles that we may hold in common, there is a sharp and unbridgeable disconnect between Orthodoxy and what he was hearing, when it comes to some of our core moral and theological teachings.

In short, this wasn’t a time for either platitudes or hand-wringing, or even for a worthy examination of complicating factors: it was a time to speak a clear, harsh truth, with love. The love was present both in the manner of his delivery, as well as in Fr Siarhei’s specific acknowledgement of the generosity of the PCUSA towards the Orthodox Church in Belarus. But the love was present also in the simple fact that Fr Siarei respected his audience enough to be completely honest with them.

It isn’t always easy to find the approach that will genuinely “hit home,” be heard, and awaken people to the fact of real and tragic divisions in faith. That approach has to be discerned anew every time, based on who you are and who it is you are talking to. Fr. Siarhei, simply by being true to who he is, hit the nail smack on the head: speaking English with a Slavic accent, coming from a context that doesn’t even include Presbyterians. My guess is that if his same words were addressed by an American-born Orthodox convert from Presbyterianism, they would have been dismissed as the railings of a frustrated turncoat. If they had come from an American born, Western-educated theologian, they would be criticized for ignoring crucial subtleties, such as what genuinely constitutes “Paganism,” perhaps.

One constituency would probably have welcomed these remarks no matter who they came from, and that is the important and sizeable group of socially and theologically conservative Protestants who increasingly experience a kind of internal exile in their own churches. Such a contingent warmly applauded Fr. Siarhei’s remarks at the Assembly. Still, each Orthodox participant in such events is called upon to find his or her own genuine voice, and speak it to the actual people present. That doesn’t mean that the theological content will be different: we aren’t supposed to be chameleons. What we are supposed to be is pastoral, which means knowing ourselves and knowing our audience, praying for God’s guidance all the while.


  1. Professor Bouteneff deserves praise for this well though out article. His perspective is refreshing. I would like to remind readers though that the very tough love Professor Bouteneff outlines in his article is needed in Orthodox parishes and institutions today. This type of tough love is needed when hucksters like Rowan Williams are honored by SVS. This type of tough love is needed when on his Facebook page Bishop Savas of the GOA in response to a question posed by Chris Banescu gives support to Liberation Theology. This type of tough love is needed in parishes where pastors and leaders quietly dismiss Christian morality and give credence to all types of moral shenanigans that are contrary to common sense. The problems outlined in this article are not just in the PCUSA they are a growing issue in Orthodox Communities across America.

  2. But the love was present also in the simple fact that Fr Siarei respected his audience enough to be completely honest with them.

    … if his same words were addressed by ” American born, Western-educated theologian, they would be criticized for ignoring crucial subtleties, such as what genuinely constitutes “Paganism,” perhaps”.

    Why is that?

  3. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Andrew. Agreed. The distinction that Dr. Bouteneff draws is a good one as is his affirmation that when the truth needs to be spoken, speak it.

    Eliot, the reason is that the cultural prejudices against people who hold to conservative (traditional) morality runs very deep. It is hard to penetrate the prejudices if the speaker comes from the same neighborhood (a prophet has no honor in his own country). That’s changing somewhat, but those who hold to those prejudices hold them tenaciously. On the other hand, having someone speak from a place where we don’t even know what the neighborhood look like opens a space for hearing what he has to say. Fr. Hardun discerned this, as did Dr. Bouteneff hence his distinction.

    • … I see. Thank you Father.

      The truth was spoken gently. His words may seem shocking, even offensive, but they can be viewed as a result of a logical thinking process.
      The same one Holy Spirit cannot be acting in different denominations and inspiring them to develop different theologies and different morals. Political leaders also mix a little of the Holy Spirit’s inspired teachings with suggestions of false spirits to meet their own needs. The spirit inspiring the mainstream media pro-gay/lesbian marriage propaganda can’t be the Holy Spirit.

  4. George Michalopulos :

    Dr Bouteneff: thank you for this measured and eloquent apologia for Fr Hardun’s recent address. I pray that your voice will be heard more frequently in Orthodox theological circles.

  5. Lets ask ourselves if Fr. Hardun had used such tough love on an Orthodox Assembly what would the response from leadership be? One must also consider the PCUSA assembly has no disciplinary authority over Fr. Hardun. They can’t move him to a backwater parish, put his family at risk, or place him in limbo as an unassigned priest. However, we can all think of examples where Orthodox Clergy have rightly spoken out in Orthodox Circles and have paid a price in their own ministry and family lives.

  6. Andrew, You raise an important point about the dangers many righteous Orthodox clergy can face if they dare to speak out against issues that somehow ruffle the feathers of the hierarchy or other more powerful clergy. I am sad to say that such things happen more often than the Church is willing to admit. Things have gotten somewhat better in the OCA after the scandal and spiritual/financial crisis in Alaska and Syosset (www.ocanews.org), but I’m afraid that structurally and theologically not enough has been done to prevent such incidents from happening again.

  7. Well, this came to mind. Not on the homosexual issue since a tiny percentage of the US really is homosexual but on sexual morality period. I was listening to a Catholic women speak on living together. She made an agrument that of course the upper-middle class gets away with it more since they used birth control until their 30’s and marry but alas the lower income classes don’t do this as effectively, and end up less married and having more children out of wedlock and out of a steady relationship between parents and more into poverty. The upper-middle class remind me of some of the Byzantine emperors that could have mistress’s and get away with it while the regular folk couldn’t. This means that the upper-middle class needs to practice morality to help the poor but most people don’t think that way. Also, saying that homosexual relations are ok leaves to making it also ok for non-maritial herosexual realations which defeats the purpose of living correctly.

  8. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    You are on to something Cynthia although I would turn the last point around. If morality had not broken down among heterosexual non-marrieds*, then normalizing homosexual relations would not be an issue. You could take this a bit farther too. If heterosexual marriage was more stable, the idea of homosexual “marriage” wouldn’t even be on the radar.

    *(Feminism had a large role in this by redefining the feminine as barren and promiscuous, alongside the Playboy philosophy on the male end of the equation. Steinem, Freidan, and crew were soul-mates with Heffner. Many people bought into the philosophy, particularly cultural gatekeepers.)

    See: Book Review: “The Politics of Deviance” by Anne Hendershott.

  9. George Michalopulos :

    Andrew, we don’t have to suppose what would happen if an Orthodox clergyman spoke out against the spirit of the age, particularly on the issue of homosexuality. Even bishops are not immune from venomous attacks by their own laity! Last year, Metropolitan +Isaiah of Denver spoke at a banquet and brought up the issue of homosexuality and marriage. Before he was able to sit back down comfortably in his chair, some nagging harpy (probably the wife of an Archon) got ahold of him and called him every name in the book except Jackie Robinson. The usual drill: bigot, sexist, homophobe. I believe the incident was referenced here on the blog. Poor +Isaiah even had to write an encyclical to his parishes clarifying his position on homosexuals and their relation within the Church.

    But yes, your point is well-taken. Yet another reason I don’t expect anything worthwhile coming out of the EA as presently constructed. The doctrinal differences and moral discipline between some of the jurisdictions are vast and will only grow bigger in time. I just don’t see a worldly GOA in Chicago or one such Arab parish in Detroit submitting to a convert bishop from the OCA or a traditionalist from ROCOR. Ain’t gonna happen, not in our lifetimes. (Of course, I would love to be proven wrong, but as we recently saw from Damascus, my thesis of the inability of an American Church to form under the present regime of foreign entanglements is proven –sadly–yet again.)

  10. Could you post a link to the text for Fr. Siarhei Hardun’s talk? Perhaps even in your introduction to this article. Thank you.

  11. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Gail, no text but video here.

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