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Kalliope A. Bourdara

The ordination of women in the eyes of an Orthodox woman

"Anglican Theological Review", Summer 2002.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century women have argued energetically and extensively, on the basis of the principle of equal rights of women and men before the law, that there be equal opportunities and an equal participation in society, for example in education. This struggle began in the U.S.A when the women workers in the textile trades took to the streets of New York to assert their rights. In Greece the first women's organization emerged at about the beginning of the twentieth century, mainly giving voice to demands for equal educational opportunities, i.e., equal opportunities for education at all levels, the opportunity to train as teachers, and demands for (active and passive) voting rights. In 1936 Greek women received the right to vote and in 1952 to stand for election. The equality of men and women was assured by the 1975 Constitution, article four, paragraph two. Through the adjustment of the legal status in the passing of the constitution, women have in fact attained full recourse to law and equal opportunities, even though I have to say that the principle of equal rights was by no means assured in the mentality of Greek society. The church, the Greek Orthodox Church, remained far removed from an attitude that might countenance the possibility of women's ordination. In recent decades women's organizations in the West have demanded vehemently that women be admitted to priestly office. Among Protestants these demands have found fertile ground because, as we know, there are women pastors in the Protestant traditions. In the 1980s the Anglicans, who-as is well known-differ markedly from the other Protestant confessions with regard to a hierarchical ordering of the church, the sacramental character of the eucharist, and the priesthood-took steps in this direction. The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church also felt pressure in this direction from lay people and clergy as well as from the women's orders. It was characteristic of this movement that there was not just increasing publication of supportive literature from the Roman Catholic theologians about the priesthood of women. There was also the response to the publication, on October 15, 1976, of the "Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerning the Admission of Women to the Priesthood," promulgated by Pope Paul VI. This declaration, and the Vatican Commission responsible, received general opposition from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

This phenomenon is naturally not new in the history of Christianity. It is merely more pronounced in the past decades. I am aware that between the second and the fourth centuries various gnostic heresies admitted women to all levels of priesthood. The reaction of the church lay in the warning that neither the Scriptures nor the tradition made any reference to the priesthood of women. This was because our Lord Jesus Christ called only men to the apostolate, and this was also the continuing practice of the apostles with regard to their successors, even though significant women were among the membership of the early church, and the schismatic Montanists ordained women to the office of priesthood.

In the Orthodox Church there are no compelling circumstances of the sort that might give women a place in the sacrament of priestly office. Despite this there have been some writings and demands. The Orthodox have also discussed this theme. In 1988 a special gathering took place at Rhodes at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, in connection with the relevant decisions of the third Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference. This gathering took as its theme "the place of women in the Orthodox Church and the question of the ordination of women." Various presentations and conversations were facilitated on this theme.

As an Orthodox Christian woman with a deep faith and a close connection with the church, I profess my support, if the ordination of women were to be possible. Women's contribution to and participation in the church are important. From the earliest Christian centuries, we know of the important activities of truly admirable women. I will confine myself to the example of Thekla, not to mention by name the famous women who bore witness to the faith in Christ, who were persecuted and tortured, who suffered martyrdom and were canonized. Women served in the catacombs and beyond in the communities of the church. As a consequence, many sanctified themselves to God. There were many famous cloisters in Byzantium where such women placed themselves at the service of society as a whole. These communities were centers of education for women, hospitals, and institutions for the pastoral care for women. At the same time they were workshops for the manufacture of textiles, bedding, and other articles for first aid. Women were also well known as hymn writers, icon painters, and calligraphers. During the Turkish hegemony we have the important example of Philothea Benizelos (1522-1589) who established a famous girls' school where she, herself a nun, gathered Orthodox girls and taught, as well as handcrafts, literacy skills from the Greek ecclesiastical books.

We also know that women had their own role in the church, and that from very early on there were particular groups of charismatic women, such as the prophetesses, the deacons, the widows, the virgins, and so on. I am concerned here especially with the women deacons. In order for a woman to be recognized as deacon an ordination had to take place. In the opinion of the theologians I have consulted, the spiritual role of the woman deacon comes from the Didaskalia of the Apostles and the Apostolic Constitutions. The ecclesiastical consciousness recognizes on the basis of these documents that they exercised a particular charisma within the wider mission of the church. Any tendency is ruled out, however, to see in the ministry of the woman deacon a real connection with the sacramental character of priesthood (ipp(ou,6vn). This is not only because she may not carry out any priestly tasks, but also because she is expressly excluded from any possibility of ascending by the canonical sacrament of ordination to the office of priest ((iota)(epsilon)(rho)(omega)(sigma)(upsilon)(nu)(eta)). For the sacrament of priesthood includes, and presupposes, the possibility of an ascent through each of the three orders of sacred office (iota)(epsilon)(rho)(omega)(sigma)(upsilon)(nu)(eta)). If, again in accord with scholarly theological opinion, the "ordination" of women deacons were understood to involve an elevation into the clergy, then it would have been impossible to rule out an ascent through the other levels of the sacrament of orders.

The Apostolic Constitutions see the task of the woman deacon covering particular needs within the wider context of the total spiritual service of the church. It is characteristic when the Apostolic Constitutions say "for in many women's need, we require of the deacon. At the baptism of women the deacon anoints first only her forehead with the holy oil, and after him the woman deacon anoints her, for it is not fitting that she be touched by men"(1).

In general the Apostolic Constitutions encourage the idea that there are women deacons for "the ministry to women ... Because it is not possible to send a [male] deacon to women in their homes on account of the unbelievers, so a woman deacon is sent instead, on account of malicious thoughts"(2).

The duties of women deacons within and outside the church building were varied, but all corresponded to particular needs. Epiphanius of Salamis alludes to the necessity of the institution "on account of the modesty of the female sex when bathing, while visiting because of pain or suffering, and if the female body is uncovered, that it may not be seen by men who would perform the liturgy"(3).

The diaconate of the woman deacon is very clearly related to the ministry of the male deacon because her work, which is "honored as the image of the Holy Spirit," must relate to that of the male deacon who is present as "an image of Christ." As the Apostolic Constitutions put it: "She says and does nothing without the [male] deacon, just as the Paraclete says and does nothing of itself but glorifies Christ and waits on his will"(4). According to the Apostolic Constitutions the woman deacon is ordained "according to her worthiness" into a ministry of the lower clergy (subdeacon, lector, cantor). She takes no part in the distribution of blessings like the deacon, she has no right to "excommunicate" like deacons and other members of the clergy, she may not bless or do any other thing "that the priests or deacons do," and in general she must restrict herself to the duties that are clearly associated with her order.

Theological scholarship comes to the following conclusion with regard to the office of women deacons: the "commissioning" of women deacons in the early church with a special form of "ordination" cannot be equated with the usual form of sacramental ordination, just because it is mentioned as a special "laying on of hands" for the exercise of a traditional ministry. The established ministry of the woman deacon is strictly distinguished from the efficacy of priesthood and from sacramental ordination. It is related to the ministry of the male deacon, and it is in this connection alone that the ministry of the woman deacon in the Eastern church is to be understood. So the type of "ordination" of the woman deacon cannot properly be explained by a simple comparison with the other forms of ordination, but only by reference to the specific ecclesiastical intention behind this institution and this ministry. In accord with this intention the "commissioning" of the woman deacon for a specific ministry is identified with her assignment to the company of charismatic women in the local church.

As I have already mentioned, I believe that women must have the possibility to become priests. In my early years I was puzzled by the fact that a priest from a neighboring men's cloister came to celebrate the liturgy exclusively for women. Would it not be proper for a woman to celebrate? On what grounds was this not possible if Christianity spoke of the equality of men and women? Let us not forget Paul's "neither male nor female." I have discussed this matter with experts and have studied all the relevant texts. They come to the conclusion that this is not possible, and give reasons. I cannot enter the discussion as I am not a professional theologian. The experts have analyzed their arguments and come to the same conclusion, that while the man bears properly the Christocentric type of Adam-Christ, the woman bears properly a sort of auxiliary, pneumatocentric type that finds expression in the person of the Virgin Mary and which becomes, through the presence and creative power of the Holy Spirit, "full of grace" and the preferred image of the charismatic human person (5).

I respect absolutely the theological approach and the holy tradition. But I would like, as an Orthodox lay woman, to make some comments. God is the creator of women as well as of men. Both have their origin in God. In addition, Christ came to redeem both women and men to the same extent, and to restore the relationships of both sexes to God. In the holy Scriptures and in the tradition there is a distinction between male and female. This distinction has its roots and its basis in the historical and cultural practices of former ages. I do not believe that this distinction means any sort of positive or negative evaluation in the sight of God. On the contrary, this distinction is defined by God himself as part of his plan. Redemption does not bring about the negation of our identities as men and women, but rather the transformation of these identities.

In today's society there is a tragic denial of the value of human life. I believe that we Orthodox have a duty to uphold the value of the human person, female as well as male. In the present period of the undervaluing of human life, of the scarcity of fundamental principles, ideals, and morals, we observe that many young people-men and women-turn to the church. Many of them are well-educated people of high spiritual standards. Religious community life is flowering, both among men and women. Many significant people, scholars and nonscholars, enrich the Orthodox cloisters. Their social contribution is of significance. There is an unequivocal turning to Orthodoxy among the young of both sexes. Many young women are studying theology. I do not want to dwell on this phenomenon: I have already written about it elsewhere. But the fact remains. For this reason there must be an even greater participation in the life of the church by women, even if they cannot take part in the sacrament of the priestly office. Apart from this the church has throughout the centuries encouraged Christian women to exercise a comprehensive diaconal ministry, in cooperation with men and in correspondence with their own nature, their personal interests, and vocations. These ministries have been related to liturgical, pastoral, catechetical, teaching, missionary, and social tasks. We must give special attention to the area of the women religious who, under difficult circumstances, have done so much to raise the position of women in the church. Despite the great efforts of the church to advance the equality of women and men, Christian congregations have not always and everywhere been able to overcome the positions, customs, usages, historical developments, and social relationships that have distinguished the sexes in ways that in practice have worked to the disadvantage of women.

For these reasons the church must always test over and over again the realities, the opinions, and the effects that fail to correspond to unshakeable theological and ecclesiological principles, but which have insidiously crept in from elsewhere.

It is in my opinion necessary to meet specific role commitments within the church, especially with regard to issues related to church structure. The Orthodox emphasize, as far as I know, spiritual and not worldly authority. When I refer to church structure I mean above all the church's pastoral dimension. We have to emphasize the importance today of the task that women carry out in the domain of the local congregation. Allow me to say here that the church does not encourage these activities on the part of women.

I want to mention especially a number of areas in which women can become active. In this way the participation of women can be strengthened:

1. In upbringing and Christian education at all levels from church schools through to higher theological education in the seminaries;

2. In spiritual counseling for couples and families, preparation for marriage, for baptism, and in professional pastoral care for those whose exceptional circumstances require it;

3. In church leadership, through participation in decision-making bodies of local congregations, dioceses, and national churches;

4. In social services, such as work with the elderly, in hospitals, with the troubled and the neglected;

5. In the leading of choirs, in the training of lay readers and singers;

6. In the art of iconography;

7. In youth work;

8. &, delegations of the various areas of the ecumenical movement;

9. In publication and the work that supports it.

All these tasks need to be understood as supporting pastoral ministries that complement and work in harmony with the special priestly ministry of the clergy.

We can mention the fact that the growing number of women who have completed a degree in theology or other further studies constitute a new reality which the church is invited to value in a constructive way. The enthusiasm, the faith, and the devotion of many of these women can effectively contribute to the renewal of the local congregations and the life of the church. This is especially the case if women are given more attention and if the exercise of these charismatic and theological capabilities in the work of teaching, in ministry, and in pastoral care were to be blessed with special ecclesiastical attention.

The same is even truer for the capable and gifted women religious who, parallel to their monastic discipline, could be present in the local congregation to look after the special needs of the embattled church. All this must involve cooperation between the church and the theological faculties.


1. Apostolic Constitutions 3, 16, 2 (SC 329, 156; PG 1, 796A-797A).

2. Apostolic Constitutions 3, 16, 1 (SC 329, 157; PG 1, 796A).

3. Haereses 79, 3, 6 (GCS Epiphanius 3, 478, 16ff. PG 42, 744D-745A).

4. Apostolic Constitutions 2, 26, 6 (SC 320, 239; PG 1, 668B).

5. Cf. the Conclusions from the Rhodes consultation, in Gennadios Limouros (ed.), The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Katerini: Tertios, 1992) para. 11-14.

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