Women in the Orthodox Church


A guest blog by poet and author, Karissa Sorrell. @KKSorrell

St. Maria Skobtsova (of Paris)

Though there were many beautiful and theologically correct things that brought me to Orthodoxy, one challenge for me was that women are not allowed to be priests. I had come from a denomination that ordains women and allows women to hold many leadership positions in the church. The idea of an all-male priesthood and the fact that women were never allowed behind the altar chafed against my conscience. I also hated the thought of my daughter never being able to be an acolyte. The fact that the early church had deaconesses only added to my chagrin. Deaconesses administered the sacraments to women and girls since back then men couldn’t touch women.


Sts. Paul and Thekla, Equal to the Apostles

My best friend from college, who is an ordained (female) minister in the Nazarene church, asked me over and over: “How can you be part of a church that doesn’t ordain women?”
I tried to explain to her that I’d found a church that engaged in right worship, was built on historical Church tradition, and offered a community of saints. Spirituality was a practice, not an emotional experience. If I do feel moved emotionally in an Orthodox liturgy, I am certain that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, not the effect of singing Just As I Am or Lord I Lift Your Name On High twenty times. “Maybe all that is more important than women being ordained,” I said.

My bestie wasn’t convinced. I don’t think I was, either.


Photo by Jürg Vollmer

My friend and former Orthodox priest, Paul Finley, once told me, “The reason why gender equality is such an issue in Protestant churches is because they have taken Mary out of the picture.” In a way, it’s true: in the OC, Christ is the head of the church, but His Mother is right by his side. Though we don’t worship her, she holds a place of high honor as the ultimate Christian; she brought God into the world. Protestants, however, focus on the fatherly figure of Jesus, but often overlook Mary and her importance in the story of salvation. My friend Paul was suggesting that Protestant denominations are in fact more male-centered then the OC, so there is not a major push for women to be clergy because Orthodox women don’t feel disenfranchised by a male-centered faith.
While I see this opinion as having some merit, as a woman I still witness the practical side of things every week. At my church, the women are in the kitchen, teaching the children, or decorating the church. The men are teaching adult Sunday School (we’ve never even had a woman fill in for the teacher when he’s out for a week!) and reading the epistle and, of course, serving at the altar. Orthodoxy claims not to change with culture, but part of me feels like the OC adapted to the culture of the 1950s and stayed there. (For the record, I’m a working mom and do not apologize for it.) I admit I’m being a bit trite, and I realize that there are deeper theological implications at work.

My church believes in apostolic succession; the individuals in that succession have always been male. God chose to reveal Himself as a man; therefore, priests, who are icons of Christ in our midst, must be male. If you read all the prayers that the clergy pray as they are preparing for liturgy, you will see that confession and humility are a huge part of being a priest. Even when putting on their vestments, the clergy ask for God’s blessing. As they prepare the elements, they ask for forgiveness. The priesthood certainly takes men away from the cultural expectation to be strong and proud and places them in the humble, servant footsteps of Christ.

This helps me a little. I also think that Christ taught his followers to respect women. When you look at the way He interacted with women during His earthly life, Jesus obviously cared deeply about recognizing women as people with value. In an article on www.antiochian.org, Fr. Alister Anderson says, “Through St. Mary Jesus has raised the status of all women everywhere and for all time. They were no longer to be regarded as chattel but to be treated as being equally precious as men in the eyes of God. Christ hallowed the state of marriage which was much abused in those days to the detriment of women.” All of this means that male clergy should respect and value women. Great! But what about the stereotypical gender roles that remain in the church? What does valuing women look like in a 2012 Orthodox Church? I don’t think we’ve found the answer yet.

In the book Praying with Icons, Jim Forest quotes Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann: “What the Mother of God’s image gives us first of all is a woman. Christ’s first gift to us, the first and most profound revelation of his teaching and call, is given to us in the image of a woman.”

Oh, how I love this quote! It is my hope that one day Orthodoxy will open itself to an honest discussion about this “profound revelation.” Until then, I continue to love my church, struggles and all, and I pray for Mary’s help as I walk this journey.

Read Karissa’s blog and follow her on Twitter at @KKSorrell.

Karissa Sorrell

12 thoughts on “Women in the Orthodox Church”

  1. Plain and simple, Orthodoxy is Not for women, and it is a male-only religion. We as females Can’t do or participate in ANYTHING in the Orthodox Church. I love how many other Christian-base churches have female more actively involved in church life, unlike Orthodoxy

  2. Thank you for this. I struggle with the same issues myself, as a recent convert from the UCC, where we had joined partly because they had female pastors. I am happy that in our church they do at least have women at times (like this morning) reading the epistles.

  3. Dear Karissa,

    Christ is Risen!

    It is rare that one is quoted correctly, you succeeded with respect to me. It is even more rare that anyone remembers anything I say – I’m flattered. I remember the conversation which I think took place at the home of the Smith’s in Brentwood, TN. Like you, I have to live with the weight of the traditions and canons of the Church. You refered to me as “former Orthodox Priest” Paul Finley. I can tell you that not a liturgy goes by, not a day goes by, that I don’t long to be serving as an Orthodox Priest, active – not former. Many still refer to me as Father Paul, many advise me to seek to be reinstated, some have even offered to advocate for me in this regard. I have been reminded by Bishops and Priests alike that I am still a priest even though I operate under this present discipline as a result of having been divorced, “…thou art a priest forever…,” I am often told. As you say, “while I see these opinions as having some merit” – the fact remains that I continue to bear the cross of my present discipline and have not sought any relief from it. Why am I writing all this? Simply to say, I know how you feel. It is not easy to live with a limitation. I do think that divorce is more problematic than womanhood. Womanhood is not problematic at all, it is not a limitation (I know I am comparing apples to oranges here). But the feeling is the same, I really long to participate in a specific way and in a specific role, but I am constrained by the teaching and practice of the church. Like you, “I continue to love my church, struggles and all, and I pray for Mary’s help as I walk this journey.” Presently, I take this struggle as something given for my salvation. I don’t always understand it, I never like it. Nevertheless, I know I am home in the Orthodox Church and home is where I will stay. I do think that we will see things in a different way in the age to come. Perhaps not different, but fulfilled. The iconstasis won’t be there anymore, we will see the saints and be surrounded by them. We will see the Queen (the Theotokos) standing at the right hand of the Son of God dressed in garments of gold and many colors (as the scripture says) – that would be near the Heavenly altar/throne wouldn’t it? Space and time will not be experience in eternity. The body of Christ will be fully revealed, made up of men and women, Christ still the Head. The reality that Chrismation allows us to fully share in Christ’s ministry as Prophet, Priest and King will be fully realized. I do believe in the church’s position with respect to me and with respect to the role of women, but I also think the church’s position is often misrepresented and offered in a chauvinistic way. I have heard men say dogmatically, “Women aren’t allowed behind the iconostasis.” Well, they have obviously never been to a monastery for women or never observed the location of the icon of Mary “More Spacious than the Heavens.” They forget that men aren’t allowed behind the altar either without a blessing and unless they are in good standing with the Church with respect to that blessing. Ok, I am rambling. Please know that I throughly enjoyed reading your article. I appreciate the honesty. Let’s pray for each other, and may God grant you many years. Your fellow-servant in Christ, Paul Finley

    1. Paul, Please forgive me if I mis-spoke when calling you a “former” Orthodox priest. I also did not intend to be dismissive with the comment following your quote. That evening is forever ingrained in my memory, and the words you said have helped me many times. You were the first person to really give weight to my concerns about women and to give me a real answer – not just, “Well, men and women have different roles.” I appreciate your authenticity and am glad to know that like me, you see the OC as imperfect but still the best spiritual home to be in. I appreciate your prayers and will indeed pray for you! Congrats on the new grandson! – Karissa

  4. I really like Fr. Alexander Schmemann and just had to see more of what he was writing concerning the quote you use about the Virgin Mary. I found this extended quote following here and I hope to get the book. Thanks:

    “Today many people are hesitantly beginning to acknowledge that genuine answers are impossible without faith, without breaking through to what is transcendent and eternal. But even faith in God takes different shapes and can be merely some other way out, an escape, its own brand of psychological drunkenness. In other words it can be pseudo-faith, counterfeit faith. sadly, it is possible even in the name of faith and of God to hate and do evil, to pull down and not to build up. Christ himself said that “many will come in my name . . . and lead many astray” (Mt 24:5), and “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 7:21). Therefore, from its very earliest days Christianity never simply asked, “Do you believe?” for it knew that even Christ’s betrayers and crucifiers also had believed in something, in some way. No, Christianity’s question was this: How do you believe? And in what?
    It is right here, in attempting to answer this question so fundamental to genuine faith, that the image of the Virgin Mary almost unconsciously and involuntarily begins to grow before our spiritual eyes. Oh, this doesn’t mean that her image somehow eclipses the image of Christ, or that she is presented to Christianity as an additional object of faith set apart from Christ. Not at all, for it is from Christ and from Him alone that we receive this image as a gift, the unfolding of all that His teaching and calling means. And so we ask ourselves, what is the strength of
    this image, what help does it give us?

    My answer may surprise many people. What the Mother of God’s image gives us first of all is the image of a woman. Christ’s first gift to us, the first and most profound revelation of his teaching and call, is given to us in the image of a woman. Why is this so important, so comforting and so redeeming? Precisely because our world has become so completely and hopelessly male, governed by pride and aggression, where all has been reduced to power and weapons of power, to production and weapons of production, to violence, to the refusal to
    willingly back down or make peace in anything or to keep one’s mouth shut and plunge into the silent depth of life. The image of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin Mother, stand against all this and indicts it by her presence alone: the image of infinite humility and purity, yet filled with beauty and strength; the image of love and the victory of love.

    The Virgin Mary, the All-Pure Mother, demands nothing and receives everything. She pursues nothing, and possesses all. In the image of the Virgin Mary we find what has almost completely been lost in our proud, aggressive, male world: compassion, tender-heartedness, care, trust, humility. We call her our Lady and the Queen of heaven and earth, and yet she calls herself “the handmaid of the Lord.”

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “On the Image of Woman” Celebration of Faith: The Virgin Mary, vol. 3 of the Sermons of Fr Alexander Schmemann translation by Fr. John Jillions, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995, pp 19-22

  5. For some reason, the priesthood thing doesn’t bother me that much. Some of the language around the headscarf thing, though, just really sticks in my craw in the worst way. But I go to an Antiochian church, and maybe 2% of the women wear headscarves, and my priest never says boo about it. (And I have to admit there is something beautiful in the headscarf, even though I can’t define it.) So it’s kind of a non-issue, really.

    Overall, my experience with Orthodoxy has overwhelmingly countered the view of women that I came to the church with. I feel not just allowed, but encouraged to be strong and to simply speak, and that’s not something my family or previous church experiences really did. So I feel good about being where I am, even if I do still have occasional moments of frustration.

    1. I’m glad your experience has been so positive! I have not worn a headscarf yet, but there are several women in my church who do. (I’m too rebellious still. :))

  6. A very important fact…. Women were the first apostles. It was the women who went to the tomb to anoint Christ, and the angel told them he was gone. They were the first to announce that Christ had risen! Where were the men at that time. They were hiding and afraid.
    There is a strength in women that comes from a very deep place. The strongest muscle in the human body is the uterus. A muscle that is capable of bringing forth new life.
    I feel no less significant in my ministry within the church by the fact that I am a woman.

    1. Thank you for these thoughts! I too am amazed at the strength and dedication the myrrh bearers had while the male apostles cowered away! In fact, my daughter’s saint is Mary Magdalene.


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