This is a response to Karissa Sorrell’s guest post about women in Orthodoxy.
The tradition of the Orthodox Church is not a static deposit but a life-giving stream. Culture is part of that stream. We move through history together. So to disregard the wisdom of the secular is not only impossible and intellectual dishonest but deeply unChristian.
That is to say, we change, but change takes time, especially in the Orthodox Church.
For example, not long ago, women did not take communion during their periods, but as our views about holiness and impurity evolve, this rule is gradually being ignored.1 I like this example because it illustrates that saying saying, “This is the way it has always been done,” carries a lot of weight in the Orthodox Church, but it does not make the argument. What we have always done still has to make sense.
For several decades now, some Orthodox Christians have been calling for greater public participation of women in the life of the church. This includes restoring the office of the deaconess and, for some, even opening the priesthood to women. The late Elisabeth Behr-Sigel was at the forefront of this movement. Even those who opposed her appreciated the way she challenged them to develop their own reasons for keeping women from serving behind the altar.
For instance, Paul Evdokimov and Fr. Thomas Hopko originally said that women cannot be priests because they correspond to the the Holy Spirit, who “hides” behind the male Christ. But Behr-Sigel pointed out that this reasoning was tritheistic. Thus Fr. Hopko revised his position (I do not know much about Evdokimov). His latest argument is that a male priest is needed to establish a kind of iconic link to the male Christ. In a paper I published a few years ago, I said that this turned the sacrament into a kind of magical ritual by making it depend either on the gender of the priest (which is in a certain state of “flux”) or the sex of the priest, that is, his biological “equipment” (which is just silly).2
Despite Fr. Hopko’s opposition to the female priesthood, he did say the matter remains an “open question.” Posts like Karissa’s show he is absolutely right. In my opinion, they show that we do need a diverse ministry to address our diverse parishes.
So I guess you could say I am for the revival of the female diaconate and even a female priesthood. But I also recognize that I hold this opinion at a particular moment in history, and that a majority of my sisters and brothers, past and present disagree with me. But, for what it’s worth, the conversation about women’s ordination is not just happening among feminists and “liberals.” Orthodox scholars who once strongly opposed women’s ordination are becoming less sure of themselves. The most prominent is Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, who says he is not convinced by any arguments for or against female priests. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom actively supported Behr-Sigel.
Of course, I am a lay theologian, so I can afford to be a bit more bold. After all, I never speak for the church. I speak from the church as one with the church.
I also speak as a father with a daughter who wants to know why she cannot be an acolyte. I respond that she cannot be an acolyte “for now.” Some will disagree with this and say I am giving her “false hope.” I understand that, but I do not think such hope is necessarily “false.” After all, the church once did give women a more prominent role in public ministry than it does today, and there is no telling where the life giving stream of our tradition may end up taking us.
If you are interested in this topic, I have put together a small bibliography.
Books and Journals
Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, The Ministry of Women in the Church. Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood, 1991.
Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, “The Ordination of Women: A Point of Contention in Ecumenical Dialogue,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 48:1 (2004), 49-66.
David J. Dunn “‘Her That Is No Bride’: St Thecla and the Relationship Between Sex, Gender, and Office” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 37–68.
Fr. Thomas Hopko,”On the Male Character of Christian Priesthood,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 19 (1975)
Fr. Thomas Hopko, “Presbyter/Bishop: A Masculine Ministry,” in Women and the Priesthood, ed. Thomas Hopko (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1999).
Vassa Larin, “What Is ‘Ritual Im/Purity’ and Why?” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52, no. 3–4 (2008): 275–92.
Valerie A. Karras, “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church.” Church History 73, no. 2 (June 1, 2004): 272–316.
Valerie A. Karras, “The Liturgical Functions of Consecrated Women in the Byzantine Church.” Theological Studies 66, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 96–116.