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.
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.
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.