Conjugal Friendship: An Appeal for a Conversation

Written by guest blogger Giacomo Sanfilippo

SS. Theodore of Tyre and Theodore Stratelates.
14th-century Byzantine icon.
From Christopher Walter, The Warrior Saints
in Byzantine Art and Tradition (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003): plate 41, between pp. 144-45.

UTP Journals Blog published my “Introducing ‘Conjugal Friendship’” in March. Six weeks later my “Conjugal Friendship” appeared on the Public Orthodoxy blog of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

Both pieces emphasize that the conjugality of a certain kind of friendship between two men—understood as a lifelong spiritual union blessed in church and presupposing a shared home, joint ownership of possessions, mutual obedience, and some form of bodily intimacy—received its initial articulation in a 1914 essay by the married Russian Orthodox priest and father of his first child, Father Pavel Florensky.

The fact that Florensky has lately gained widespread recognition not only as one of the most prominent Orthodox theologians of the 20th century, but also as a Soviet-era martyr awaiting the Church’s formal elevation to sainthood, has blinded many of his devotees to what his essay and his life before marriage reveal in plain sight. His contemporaries saw his theology of friendship as far from uncontroversial. In their eyes it clearly did not pertain to “friendship” in any usual sense of the word.

The reaction to “Conjugal Friendship” in social media and the Orthodox blogosphere has been swift, and shockingly vicious. In response to an article that summarizes Florensky and says nothing about sex, my critics want to talk about nothing but sex—sometimes stooping to crudely pornographic mental images. They show an unwillingness to engage with what I actually wrote, or more importantly, with what Florensky actually wrote. They attack my “hidden agenda” and accuse me of misrepresenting Florensky. People who do not know me have stitched together from whole cloth a libelous narrative of my life. This has sunken to an astonishing depth of malice in an Orthodox Facebook group that has almost 15,000 members around the planet.

(In refreshing contrast, Huffington Post contributor David Dunn is owed a debt of thanks for offering the most measured and thoughtful response to date, here and here: he seeks dialogue where most of the others wish to shut it down. The Spiritual Friendship blog has posted a moving reflection by Gregg Webb.)

The firestorm ignited by my article is symptomatic of a deep malaise towards any manifestation of same-sex love at all in traditionalist churches. Forget about sex: one commentator, reacting to the 14th-century Byzantine icon of two male saints holding hands, exclaimed that he did not want to see men holding hands in church. (The nearly life-sized icon is painted on the wall of a monastery church in Macedonia.) Defying all comprehension, an Orthodox priest labeled Christ and John’s embrace in traditional Orthodox iconography of the Mystical Supper (the Last Supper) as “simply disturbing visual trash.”

This panic over same-sex oriented persons commingling with us at the Chalice and at the coffee hour causes us to lose sight of the pastoral question at the heart of the matter, which spells life or death for Orthodox children, youths, and adults who feel drawn—spiritually, emotionally, intimately—to their own gender: How might they envision a meaningfully integrated life within the communion of love that is the Church, consistent with the chastity of Christian life for all?

The ascesis of chastity entails not a mandatory life sentence to an unendurable deprivation of human companionship, but the gradual restoration of each person to psychosomatic wholeness in the radiant likeness of God.

The ascesis of chastity entails not a mandatory life sentence to an unendurable deprivation of human companionship, but the gradual restoration of each person to psychosomatic wholeness in the radiant likeness of God. For most Christians this requires, according to Florensky, a lifelong co-ascetical effort within an exclusive dyadic bond—with a life-companion of either the same or opposite gender—sanctified in the Church’s sacramental economy.

If no form of physical intimacy between two persons of the same gender can ever be conceived as an embodiment of love, how do we account for the presence of male-male erotic metaphor in St. Maximus the Confessor’s First Century on Theology, St. Symeon the New Theologian’s Tenth Ethical Discourse, or St. Symeon Metaphrastes’ martyrdom of SS. Sergius and Bacchus? These monks and Church Fathers can imagine two men sharing a marriage bed as a worthy allegory of the mystical union of Christ with the individual male believer, or of the spiritual union of two male saints with each other. In an earlier era, St. John Chrysostom remarks that such imagery only works if the bodily aspect of love can be envisioned as sinless.

No one disputes the particularly vehement aversion towards unbridled same-sex lust in Holy Tradition. Yet the saints offer us, as a counterpoint for a nuanced conversation in our time, glimpses into the innate beauty, holiness, and purity of what we now call same-sex love.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College. His proposed dissertation is tentatively entitled, “The Sacrament of Love: The Mystery of Conjugal Friendship in the Light of Orthodox Tradition.” He can be reached at

His review of Wendy VanderWal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church appears in the Spring 2017 issue (Volume 33, Issue 1) of the Toronto Journal of Theology, available to read here!


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