Now that everyone has enrolled to take part in the postal plebiscite process, the toxic and hurtful debate over same-sex marriage can officially begin. Assuming, of course, that it had ever stopped. A couple of weeks ago, I made this comment in the Neos Kosmos Greek edition: “No priest in any church will be obliged to officiate weddings of same-sex couples, it is ridiculous to be afraid of such an event to occur. No, priests will remain free to preach against same-sex couples as usual, condemning them to eternal damnation (something that is rather anti-Christian, between you and me, but let’s not get into this debate now)”.

A few days later, all this was bitterly confirmed, when this kind of toxic attitude made its presence in the Greek Australian community. It all started with a Facebook post, made by a young parishioner of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Panagia Kamariani in Red Hill, who wrote on the Monastery FB page:

“I went to Red Hill Greek Orthodox Church today with an open heart to celebrate the Virgin Mary . . . instead I got a stupid priest by the name of Father Lefteri give a HATE speech about anti-gay marriage and how he himself would shoot dead anybody who was gay and wanted to be married with a gun that he keeps in the back. Then all the people in the church laughed. My church completely let me down today.
You may have your view on gay culture and gay marriage, but to talk about shooting people dead because of their sexual orientation is absolutely disgusting. Is this how the church preaches love?
Today I was there to celebrate a very holy day. Instead I walked away feeling sad, sad because the religion I love and was brought up on, made it very clear to me that I am not welcomed in the house of God.”

The post has since been taken down, but not before it was already shared by people asking for an explanation. This came immediately, out of the lips of Father Eleftherios Tatsis himself, who moved the debate from the social media realm to the ‘traditional’ media, granting an interview to the SBS Greek program.

Trying to clarify matters, Father Eleftherios managed to actually make things worse. Did he deny that he violated, in his sermon, not only the Australian laws, and particularly the much debated Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 which clearly defines what constitutes ‘hate speech’, but the word of God, when he spoke of taking a life? No. Instead, he came out in public saying that he did not remember saying anything like that. “If I have said anything, I retract it and apologise”, he said of the “redundant” statement, pointing out that he has never harmed a fly. “If I lost my temper and said something I shouldn’t have, I apologise, I’m only human”. This retraction is even more problematic than the statement itself, raising more questions, instead of answering. How can any priest claim not remembering what he said during sermon? How can a priest seriously admit that while preaching, he is himself quick-tempered and prone to bursts of anger? Doesn’t he know what he preaches? Isn’t a sermon one of the most significant types of public speech, with a gravity much surpassing that of coffeehouse banter? Isn’t a priest by default obliged to weigh in every single word, before he starts preaching to the congregation? And since when is talk about shooting someone dead considered as a harmless thing, that someone says in passing, not meaning it?

Though less serious, the rest of the interview was equally problematic. Father Eleftherios tried to defend his right to “say what he feels”; for instance, saying that “these people” i.e. gay people are “pitiful” and that he would never agree to officiate a gay wedding. “My own granddaughter tells me ‘they are people, too’ and yes they are, and I love them but say you have a hamper full of oranges and one of those is rotten, all the oranges are going to rot”. These are comments that he repeated again and again, rephrasing them: “Gay people have this habit. Say if I have a habit, am I allowed to give it to other people?”

If there was any doubt that the minister is not very clear-headed, by this stage it’s dispersed. Father Eleftherios has no idea what he is talking about, when he comments on the same-sex marriage issue. Not only because he ignores basic biology, psychology, and sociology, but because he doesn’t even know what same-sex marriage is. He does not know that it is only an issue of legal recognition of same-sex couples and that no religion is ever going to be under any obligation to perform a wedding it doesn’t condone. So, Papa Lefteris should relax – he’s never going to be called to join two men in holy matrimony, so he might as well leave his gun in the back – or better yet, as far away from church, and his sermons, as possible.

But the problem is not this particular priest. The problem lies in the church’s haste to meddle in matters that are none of its business. Of course nobody would expect the Greek Orthodox Church to support same-sex marriage, but to go from this point to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia setting up webpages such as “Speak up for marriage”, taking part in a political debate, is a bit too much. The church itself should know when to ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’, and be cautious when picking its battles (and even more cautious when engaging in battle).

Make no mistake, though. The gravest problem lies in the stance of the congregation. If there were people inside the church, who, listening to their priest talk about shooting people, responded with laughter, instead of uproar, instead of asking him for a retraction on the spot, this in itself shows that all the preaching about unconditional love they listen to in the ‘house of God’, has had no impact on them whatsoever. Something is very wrong. The hamper is full of rotten oranges.