By Frederica Matthewes-Green
In recent decades, some Protestant denominations have undergone heavy fighting over the question of whether women should be ordained. A woman holding a worship service or preaching was once so rare that the 18th century English author, Samuel Johnson, could say: “a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
This controversy hasn’t gained a high profile in the Orthodox Church, probably due to our way of approaching such issues: if the early church was in agreement on a matter, if that consensus continued unbroken over the centuries, then that seems to be the Holy Spirit’s leading. Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). It’s not always easy to discern a clear consensus, but there’s no problem here. For 20 centuries, the Orthodox Church has not ordained women priests.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t women preachers, though. I’ve preached at worship services in Orthodox churches, myself.
If that sounds like an inconsistency, it’s because we understand the purpose of ordination differently than many Protestants do. For us, it has to do primarily with setting someone aside to be a minister of the sacraments. Non-sacramental ministry, such as preaching, is open to non-ordained people, as long as they are continuing in the faith and worship of the Orthodox Church, and in obedience to a spiritual father or confessor.
And when answering questions about the Church’s practice, instead of searching the records for resolutions that were passed at conventions, we look at what the Church has actually done. So if the question is, Can a woman be a missionary evangelist, and preach the gospel in foreign lands? We can say yes, because we see the example of St. Nina of Georgia. She was just a young girl, 14 years old, when she was abducted and carried as a slave into the nation of Georgia. But there she had an opportunity to speak to the Queen about saving faith, and then the king, and eventually the whole nation was baptized. So, yes, a woman can preach, and prepare people for baptism (St. Nina brought in a priest to accompany her to actually perform the baptisms), and pave the way for churches to be founded.
Many questions about women’s ministries can be answered that way, by looking at what Orthodox women have actually done. Can a woman be a theologian and liturgist? Yes, there’s St. Cassiane. Can she be an apologist and debater, presenting the Christian faith against opponents? Yes, St. Catherine, St. Perpetua, and others were brilliant debaters.
Here’s a toughie: can a woman exercise authority over both men and women, and rule an entire nation? Can a woman call a council that establishes church doctrine? Yes, we honor the valiant accomplishments of Empress St. Theodora. And there are many women who are called “Equal to the Apostles,” including St. Mary Magdalene, St. Helen, and St. Junia.
In the Orthodox church, women have exercised a vast range of ministries. A glance through history shows that an Orthodox woman can be a healer, a missionary, a preacher, a teacher, an evangelist, a spiritual mother, a church-planter, a miracle-worker, an iconographer, a hymnographer, a pastoral counselor, a debater, a writer of prayers and theology, a martyr, or a fool-for-Christ—and she doesn’t need to get a clerical collar first.
I don’t mind, then, if Protestant denominations want to ordain women. Many times, this just means allowing Protestant women to do things that Orthodox women have always done. In our church, holy women do virtually everything men do, except stand at the altar. That leaves them rest of the world, which is where most of God’s work gets done.
People often ask me whether I find the Orthodox Church to be repressive, compared to the freedom of my previous mainline denomination. Talk about patriarchal—Orthodoxy has actually got patriarchs. But that hasn’t result in any “repression”; in fact, I have been welcomed to speak in pulpits and parish halls, and invited to write for Orthodox magazines and book publishers, much more than I ever was in that mainline denomination. If it’s a matter of, as the jargon goes, “affirming women’s gifts,” this woman’s gifts found greatest acceptance in the Orthodox Church.
I can’t explain why my church has never ordained women priests—the Church has never spelled out a reason—but that doesn’t seem to have held women back. Most of Christ’s work in the world is done by people who aren’t ordained, after all. As I said, I don’t care if other churches ordain women, but it seems to me that focusing on it obsessively seems like a kind of clericalism, one that exalts ordained ministry and dismisses the value of the work lay people do. The opportunities for lay service are so vast, and the work done only by clergy is so small, that there is more than enough work for lay men and women to do, even without a clergy collar.
But as women have begun to be ordained in other churches, the question of why Orthodoxy has never done that is being raised, and it is legitimate to consider the question. It’s a strange thing, but it seems that this question is being raised for the first time in our history. It appears that, in the whole history of the Orthodox Church, this has just never been controversial. If God had intended all along that women be ordained, you would think that the topic would have surfaced again and again, and that a kind of restlessness and tension would have been haunted the Church. If half the pool of possible priests was being excluded solely on the basis of gender, you would think that the Church would have been visibly damaged by that loss. You would think that the Holy Spirit would have repeatedly sent prophets to challenge it. In fact, you could trace it back to Jesus and note that he prayed all night before choosing the 12 Apostles. He must have been able to foresee that his choice of an all-male band would be understood as a guideline, for century after century of Christian faith.
It appears that the all-male priesthood was never a point of argument. For some reason, previous generations have been content with things the way they are. It’s possible they understood something about the nature of men and women that we no longer perceive. How can we learn to see what they saw? We’ll work around to that point.
Even if we decide that the all-male priesthood is correct, there is no harm in trying to figure out why it is. Someone said that this is like a fill-in-the-blank question: “Because of _____, _____, and _____, the Orthodox Church does not ordain women priests.” We know the conclusion of the sentence, but not what goes into the blanks in the first part.
There are some arguments used by conservative Protestants and Catholics, but I actually don’t think they’re very good. When I was going to Episcopal seminary some years ago, and hoping to be ordained myself, I was confronted by these arguments and looked at them seriously, and concluded that they’re just not convincing.
(I should say as an aside that I never was ordained. I finished seminary just when women’s ordination was legalized, and my husband and I were unable to find a bishop who would take both of us—in the Episcopal Church, you have to have a job before you can be ordained. So my husband and I decided that he would go ahead and be ordained—we were about to have our first child and things needed to be settled—and I would wait and try again later. As it turned out, after I’d had a few years exposure to what a pastor’s life is like from the inside, I said “I don’t want that job. That is a hard job.”)
For example, opponents of women’s ordination often start by citing St. Paul’s requirement that women be submissive and silent in church (I Tim 2:11-15 and I Cor 14:34-35). Yet this can’t 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’s primary concern is that worship be reverent and orderly. It’s not just women; he wants men to shape up, too. In I Timothy, he admonishes men to pray “without anger or quarrelling” and tells women to “be silent,” as if both men and women have been restless, noisy, and disruptive. The problem isn’t women speaking in church, it’s women talking in church Speaking in church would be something different, a way of participating in worship, which we can guess Philip’s daughters did when they functioned as prophets.
By the way, when Paul says women should “be silent,” in New Testament Greek it’s “be in hesychia,” a state of prayerful stillness.
In the I Corinthians passage, it looks again like St Paul is concerned about orderliness. He says it is “disgraceful” when women talk in church, and equally “disgraceful” when they pray without wearing a veil. Yet among those Protestants who insist that women must not speak or preach during worship, there aren’t many who insist that women should wear veils when they pray.
Recently I was talking with a woman who books speakers at a large Protestant retreat center, and she was trying to find a time that I could come speak. She kept mentioning this Ladies’ Lunch and that Women’s Weekend, till I broke in to say that she didn’t have to think of me as a speaker for women’s groups only; most of the time when I speak it is to a mixed group of men and women.
But she said, “We don’t do that.” At their retreat center, women are not allowed to address groups that include men. Women speak only to female audiences. It’s because of these passages in St. Paul. She said that, rarely, a couple may address a mixed audience together, but the woman is allowed to speak only when her husband is present.
I felt like saying, “Didn’t you ever hear of St Nina of Georgia?”
Now, if all you have is the Bible, you read St Paul saying, “Women should keep silence in the churches, they are not allowed to speak,” maybe you have no alternative but to take it literally. But what a tragedy to not have St. Nina and St. Thekla and all the other woman evangelists of the early church. How blessed we are to have a *living* tradition, that sets scripture in a context of real people and real lives, so we can see how the scriptures should be handled.
I have to admire, in a way, how these Protestants are so consistent in sticking by their principles, no matter how strange it makes them seem to the outside world. But I usually want to ask them, “So, if you believe in strict enforcement of the scriptures about women, where’s your head covering?”
Here’s another argument: a priest must be male because he represents Christ. When I was in seminary 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 don’t exclude from ordination people who don’t have Jewish genes.
We don’t find the argument that Christ was male 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, Christ’s maleness isn’t 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.
I’m grateful that I am now in a church that doesn’t make a big deal about the differences between people, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, age, occupation, or anything else. If you visit a Protestant or Catholic Christian bookstore, you’ll see that book publishers put out bibles designed for a whole array of niche audiences—there are bibles for women, Latinos, singles, grandmothers, Marines, and teenagers. The bible part is all the same of course—what’s specialized is the support material, the articles, study questions, and footnotes. This may be smart marketing—you can sell more bibles if everyone has to have their own special version—but I am grateful that in Orthodoxy we have none of that divisive nonsense. Soon after my chrismation I was talking to a priest’s wife, and mentioned that I was looking forward to learning about what women’s spirituality was like in Orthodoxy. She looked at me, puzzled, and asked, “Why would it be any different?”
Another familiar line goes, “But we’re not putting women down. Women and men are equal. They just have different roles.” Okay, but this still doesn’t answer the question “Why?” Sure, every person has a unique calling. Every role is “different” from every other role. I understand why men are better at combat, firefighting, and being lumberjacks. But what is it about the priesthood that requires maleness?
If the Holy Spirit is leading us to make a change as regards women’s ordination, it will become undeniable. We pray “Thy will be done” by the millions every day, and if his will is that we begin ordaining women, we will be unable to avoid recognizing it. Personally, I would be surprised to see that happen, because I can’t understand why the Holy Spirit would have denied ordination to Orthodox women for two thousand years. If women’s ordination is right, then it is unspeakable cruelty to have blocked all those women’s gifts and ministry for all those years. So I can’t imagine how it could be that women’s ordination was wrong in the 4th century or the 13th century, but it’s right now. I don’t think it could be that today’s women (or men, for that matter) are somehow holier or more worthy than they were in ages past.
However, I did see a problem in my mainline denomination that I would want to warn against. In that church I saw how the movement for women’s ordination kept separating women from men, into two separate groups. And it was as if the two groups were fighting against each other—that there wasn’t enough to share, and women had to fight to get their rights. It ended up isolating women as a group, separating them from men. There was also a tragic tendency to give in to self-pity and brooding over past wrongs. Anger grew, indeed was nurtured by, this brooding.
It was especially worrisome to see women demanding power, praise, and honor—something that should be instinctively alarming to any follower of Christ. But thinking so long on how wrongly women had been treated led them to see only wrongs, and to demand so-called rights. Division and self-righteousness resulted. Brothers and sisters, I would never want to block the Holy Spirit, and if he is calling us all to a new understanding, that women should be ordained, it will be impossible for us to avoid seeing that. But the earmarks of that change will be peace, humility, and unity in Christ. When the focus is on getting honor and glory and a bigger piece of the pie, something has gone wrong. It is time to go back and read the instruction manual.
In 1988 an Orthodox consultation met in Rhodes and considered some aspects of women’s ministries. They recommended resuming the practice of ordaining women deacons (something I don’t know much about, but it seems was a practice in the early church that gradually fell out of use). The group also suggested an image for the balance of male and female: that the all-male priesthood showed a correspondence between the priest and Christ, which reflected that between the Virgin Mary Theotokos and the Church.
But the group also said, “We are in a sphere of profound, almost indescribable experience of the inner ethos of the world-saving and cosmic dimensions of Christian truth.” They feared to trespass on something so far beyond words.
Not everyone is satisfied with ineffability. When you wonder why there’s this pattern of all-male ordination, some people have a ready answer: it’s because the early Christians were dumb. We know better now.
Somehow the concept of evolution leaks over from biology to theology, and it’s 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 we’re 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 don’t. They knew that virginity is a source of great spiritual power.
(Christianity isn’t 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 don’t ask the Dalai Lama those questions.”)
When it comes to understanding the power of virginity or gender differences or anything else related to sex, there’s a good chance we just won’t 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 it’s something that happens to an empty body. Though we are exhorted to be ecologically aware and “green” in every other aspect of life, when it comes to sexuality, the natural meaning is ignored. We are steadily evangelized by the consumer culture to treat sex as an isolated mechanical act with no relation to a person’s past, future, emotions, relationships, or health. (I heard Fr Pat Reardon say: “Sometimes during confession I have to tell people: ‘Your body is a temple, not an amusement park!’”)
That “amusement park” mentality is used to sell us everything from tires to toothpaste. But in reality, sex can’t be separated from the rest of existence. It 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 can’t understand sex in the instinctive, body-deep ways our ancestors did, it’s natural that we won’t understand sex differences. We don’t see any more how savory and good these differences are. While you could sort humans in many ways–by height or shoe size or age–the 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. It’s the distinctives that we highlight: women’s clothes suggest an hourglass figure no matter what shape the lady inside, while men’s 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 these clumsy stereotypes point toward something that fascinates and delights us. The difference between the sexes is the most cheerful and exhilarating thing we know: it’s where babies come from. The difference between the sexes is how we partner with God in ongoing creation of the universe; the difference between the sexes creates life.
If we can’t understand the difference between male and female, we sure can’t 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 we’ve lost, and be able once again recognize and enunciate this mystery.
This article originally appeared in Beliefnet, January 10, 2007. Reprinted with permission of the author.