Skip to comments.Women's Ordination, an Eastern Orthodox View
Posted on 01/12/2007 5:58:09 PM PST by sionnsar
Frederica Mathewes-Green, a former Episcopalian, now Orthodox priest's wife, and an unusually gifted and thoughtful writer, posted the following. Check it out.
[Beliefnet, Jan 10, 2007]
Controversy over the ordination of woman has plagued many denominations, but it hasnt raised similar furor in the Orthodox Church. This is thanks to our way of approaching such issues: if the early church kept unbroken consensus on a matter, we will continue it. Consensus is not obvious in every issue, but it is here. For 20 centuries stretching backward, there have been no women priests.
There were plenty of women preachers, however. Ive preached at worship services in Orthodox churches, myself.
We have some semantic confusion here, because many things Protestants consider restricted to clergy are done by Orthodox laity. We have women saints who were missionary evangelists, church-planters, teachers, healers, preachers, apologists, spiritual mothers, counselors, miracle-workers, martyrs, iconographers, hymnographers, and theologians. Holy women do virtually everything men do, except stand at the altar. That leaves them rest of the world, which is where most of Gods work gets done.
St. Theodora the Empress exercised authority over both men and women, and brought a triumphant end to the destruction of icons. St. Nina, a 14-year-old slave, evangelized the entire nation of Georgia. St. Mary Magdalene, St. Helen, and others are called Equal to the Apostles. St. Catherine and St. Perpetua were brilliant debaters. So I dont mind if Protestant denominations want to ordain women. Many times, this just means allowing them to do things Orthodox women have always done.
But even if we know our Churchs destination on this question, we still dont know how they got there. Strangely enough, in the writings of the early church the question never comes up. It seems it just was never controversial. Throughout the ages, Orthodox women and men found the all-male priesthood a satisfactory, maybe even a positive, thing. How can we see what they saw?
I dont think well get much help from the usual arguments. Opponents of womens ordination often start by citing St. Pauls requirement that women be submissive and silent in church (I Tim 2:11-15 and I Cor 14:34-35). Yet this cant mean utter silence, because Paul honors many women in active ministry, like the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1), and he hails Euodia, Synteche (I Cor 4:2-3) and Prisca (Rom 16:3) as synergoi (fellow-workers) in the gospel. Vocal prophetesses span the bible, from Moses sister Miriam (Ex 15:20) to the four daughters of St. Philip (Acts 21:9). The prophetess Anna spoke out in the temple, telling everyone about the child Christ (Lk 2:36-38).
When read in context, it sounds like St. Paul is concerned about disorder in worship. In I Timothy, he admonishes men to pray without anger or quarrelling and tells women to be in hesychia, a state of prayerful stillness. In I Corinthians, Paul says it is disgraceful when women talk in church, and equally disgraceful when they pray without wearing a veil. Yet few who stand on the former text insist that women wear veils in church.
Heres another argument: a priest must be male because he represents Christ. When I was attending a mainline seminary and aiming toward ordination myself, I would say, sure, Christ was male, and he was also Jewish, and a certain height and hair color. Why is only his maleness indispensable? Surely the fact that he was Jewish is even more significant, but we dont exclude from ordination people who dont have Jewish genes.
We dont find this argument used in the early church; in fact, early Christians reflected very little on why Christ was male. Instead, they emphasized the fact that he was human. As Bp. Kallistos Ware points out, Christs maleness isnt even mentioned in the hymns appointed for the Feast of the Circumcision, which would seem the likeliest spot. There might be good practical and theological reasons why Jesus was born male, but the early church did not explore them.
Another familiar line goes, But were not putting women down. Women and men are equal. They just have different roles. Okay, but this still doesnt answer the question. Sure, every person has a unique calling, and every role is different from every other. What is it about the priesthood that requires maleness?
In 1988 an Orthodox consultation met in Rhodes and considered some aspects of womens ministries. They recommended resuming the lapsed practice of ordaining women deacons, and they suggested that in the all-male priesthood there was a correspondence between the priest and Christ, and between the Virgin Mary Theotokos and the Church.
But they were reluctant to explain too much: We are in a sphere of profound, almost indescribable experience of the inner ethos of the world-saving and cosmic dimensions of Christian truth.
Not everyone is satisfied with ineffability. When you wonder why theres this pattern of all-male ordination, some people have a ready answer: its because the early Christians were dumb. We know better now. Somehow the concept of evolution leaks over from biology to theology, and its presumed that our generation is what the Holy Spirit was aiming at when he came out with flawed prototypes like St. Macrina and St. John Chrysostom.
I suspect the reverse is true, and that were blind to some spiritual realities that were obvious to earlier Christians. Take the value of male and female virginity, for example. I once spent a year reading intensively about saints, and at the end I was convinced that earlier generations knew something we dont. They knew that virginity is a source of great spiritual power.
(Christianity isnt alone in valuing virginity; other great world religions also consecrate male and female monastics. I like the line in the film Keeping the Faith where, after a series of nosy questions about celibacy, a Catholic priest mutters, They sure dont ask the Dalai Lama those questions.)
When it comes to understanding the power of virginity or gender differences or anything else related to sex, theres a good chance we just wont get it. We live under the bombardment of continual targeted, intoxicating messages about sex, which present it in a radically anti-wholistic way, as if its something that happens to an empty body. Consumer-culture sex is an isolated mechanical act with no relation to a persons past, future, emotions, relationships, or health. But in reality, sex always occurs in a complete embodied life, one humming with ceaseless spiritual and emotional activity. In this windstorm of messages, two significant truths are being suppressed: that the underlying urge is still to reproduce; and that sex requires a lot of vulnerability, so the most desired quality in a partner is trust.
Since we cant understand sex in the instinctive, body-deep ways our ancestors did, its natural that we wont understand sex differences. We dont see any more how savory and good these differences are. While you could sort humans in many waysby height or shoe size or agethe all-time favorite is by sex. We just get a kick out of gender differences, even though most of the human body plan is shared by men and women alike. Its the distinctives that we highlight: womens clothes suggest an hourglass figure no matter what shape the lady inside, while mens jackets are enhanced by brawny padded shoulders. After a birth the first thing we want to know is Boy or girl?, and lumpy, indistinguishable newborns are stuffed into baseball costumes or palest pink. We pass along gender-based jokes, because clumsy stereotypes point toward something that fascinates and delights us. The difference between the sexes is the most cheerful and exhilarating thing we know: its where babies come from. The difference between the sexes is how we partner with God in the creation of life.
If we cant understand the difference between male and female, we sure cant understand what previous generations knew about the value of an all-male priesthood. I can only hope that some future generation will regain the peace and clarity weve lost, and be able once again recognize and enunciate this mystery.
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I love this article! thank you - I think she left out one thing though, and it has less an implication of what sex Christ was than the role of his followers - the Apostolic Succession. While I myself have explained things to people that none of the Apostles were female and the priesthood follows a direct succession of these Apostles, my point was less about the fact that there were no females than the priesthood was following a precedent set by Christ Himself.
WOO WOO! I was in seminary with her, and she's da bomb! She's been impressing me for years.
FM-G isn't one of my favorite Orthodox writers. She is remarkably opinionated about matters Orthodox for someone who understands sooooo little about it. Ocassionally she writes something good, but in general she does not have, at least insofar as I can see in her writings, a well developed Orthodox phronema. Interestingly, my wife is in a study group of Orthodox women who right now are reading one of F M-G's books. The "cradle" Orthodox women and the wives of ethnic Orthodox guys don't like her one bit. The American convert women think she's great. This leads me to believe that she is writing for the American convert rather than Orthodox who live their daily lives in a sort of Orthodox milieu, which most serious cradle Orthodox families do. Personally, I think both she and her husband, an Antiochian priest now and a former ECUSA priest, represent a grave danger to orthodoxy in this country, a danger which is not only not recognized by the Antiochians, but positively fostered by that Archdiocese.
Thanks, K. What is the perspective of the other, um, Archdioceses (churches? what do you call them) of the Antiochans?
"What is the perspective of the other, um, Archdioceses (churches? what do you call them) of the Antiochans?"
I understand that the Antiochian Archdiocese now has coverts for a majority of its priests. Mnay years ago, a group of evangelicals got together and made themselves a "church" called the "Evangelical Orthodox Church" and proceeded to pretend to be Orthodox. Eventually, and to their credit, they came to realize that pretending wasn't good enough and sought reception into the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. They presented quite a list of demands, like recognition of their "orders", etc. The then Archbishop Iakovos showed them the door. The next thing we knew, +Phillip of the Antiochians had taken them in, baptising and ordaining many of them on the same day (he wouldn't go so far as recognize their "bishops"). Anyway, out they went into the country to "plant" Antiochian Orthodox parishes. Ummm, it has had some "interesting" results as one might expect with the blind leading the blind. In some cases it has been just fine, but in others it has lead to some real "Americanizing" of Orthodoxy, intense legalism, piousity and a superior anti-ethnic Orthodox attitude, unless its American ethnicity. The self perceived spiritual superiority of these people makes me want to vomit. Humility is absolutely unknown among many of them. And, in my opinion, many of them preach a very Protestant, heretical atonement theory which is absolutely alien to Orthodoxy. But +Phillip is happy because he thinks he'll finally beat the Greeks, whom he thoroughly dislikes though his people don't, and preside over some sort of autocephallous "American Orthodox" Church.
In the meantime, they of course feel that Orthodoxy is really a liturgical form of Calvinism and so they can peddle it to other protestants here in the States. Some of the sermons I've heard from these folks are scary.
He said, "Those who are born Orthodox usually only use about 10% of the 100% they know about Orthodoxy in their lives. But those who are converts to Orthodoxy usually use 100% of the 10% they know in their lives."
Frankly I admire their zeal, if not always their knowledge level. Far too many of us who were born Orthodox can get lazy & "lukewarm" and converts keep us on our toes.
"Those who are born Orthodox usually only use about 10% of the 100% they know about Orthodoxy in their lives. But those who are converts to Orthodoxy usually use 100% of the 10% they know in their lives."
An OCA priest might very well say something like that. It hasn't been my experience as a general proposition. A particularly perceptive judge once opined to an expert witness on the other side of a case of mine that "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
Frankly I admire their zeal, if not always their knowledge level. Far too many of us who were born Orthodox can get lazy & "lukewarm" and converts keep us on our toes."
I think you are right up to a point. When the first "real" converts come into a parish, many of the cradle types are so impressed by their knowledge of the "rules" and the "facts" that they become quite overwhelmed by them. After a while it becomes apparent that they likely do know the rules and the facts better, but they don't "walk Orthodox" as my wife says, and people aren't quite so impressed anymore. In our parish the ladies have set up a little study group. They read what pass for "spiritual writings" of some modern authors. Very few "cradle" ladies attend. When asked why, one lady smiled and replied that they didn't need to read about spiritual matters, they lived them.
I wish the liberal media would start picking on the Orthodox for a change on this issue. I'm sick to death of their constantly raising this issue against Catholics, as if we are the only ones with this theological viewpoint.
...as if the Orthodox haven't been "picked on" enough throughout history.
I understand your point re Orthopraxia, and I will admit that to us born into it, many converts often seem hopelessly "Protestantized" in their behavior. But it does makes me wonder what Paul's Greek converts must have looked like to Peter's Jerusalem Christians. Yet if they weren't embraced & accepted, you & I wouldn't be here!
So you think it is perfectly wonderful for the liberals to beat up on Catholics on an issue of principle that you yourselves believe in? Great Christian fellowship there...
In fact, the Liberals just ignore us Orthodox as so hopelessly old fashioned that they don't expect much "progress" from us. Nor do they pay much attention to us anyway and we don't demand it, whereas Roman Catholics & the Pope do get a lot of press in the world. And when you get a lot of press, some of the attention is bound not to be favorable.
It's sort of like being a "movie star" -- when you are perpetually in the spotlight, someone is bound to find flaws in you somewhere. When you low-profile it & aren't in the spotlight at all, no one cares what you look like.
Yeah, great Christian fellowship there. (sarc.) Apparently, you don't think it's "fair" unless the liberal media picks on the Orthodox as much as they pick on the Catholics.
"But it does makes me wonder what Paul's Greek converts must have looked like to Peter's Jerusalem Christians. Yet if they weren't embraced & accepted, you & I wouldn't be here!"
You suppose they regreted letting the likes of our people in? :)
"When you low-profile it & aren't in the spotlight at all, no one cares what you look like."
Which, for any number of us, is a decidedly good thing!
Too late for them now -- but I am sure that we were "a challenge". And still are! :)
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