When an Orthodox Christian in North America begins to ask questions regarding female ordination to the priesthood, she or he is almost inevitably pointed to the work of Frederica Matthews-Greene (hereafter ‘FMG’) to help settle her or his concerns, in particular, “On the Ordination of Women.” She is one of the few Orthodox writers to consistently address contemporary issues in an accessible manner, and approaches this topic with the definitive answers of someone who is an authority on the subject, who knows what she is talking about. She is hardly alone in either her content or method, as virtually any popular or internet conversation on the topic demonstrates.
The problem is, her writing on the topic of the ordination of women reflects no such expertise or knowledge. Instead, it exemplifies and enshrines contemporary popular piety regarding gender and complementarity, and the sort of ad mulierem attacks that serve only to shame and malign the women and men who are not satisfied with current practice or teaching.1
I will not address every element of her article in detail as that requires a book (yes, I plan to write that book, though not as a response to Matthews-Greene). Instead, I will address the following aspects of her argument: experience as a measure of theology, the conversation as it already exists, the recent introduction of gender complementarity into Orthodox anthropology, and use of ad hominem attacks to dismiss challengers.
There is a categorical difference between allowing personal experience to inform and shape theology, and asserting that one’s own journey of faith is mirrored in the life of others. The first rightly opens the field of theology and faith to the creative work of God in unique persons. The second universalizes the experience of one person, making it the criteria by which the experience and faith of others is measured.
FMG consistently references her own experience, finds a few saints that seem to mirror it, and draws interpretive conclusions for Orthodox theology and its contemporary practice far beyond the what is warranted by the evidence.
Take for instance, her comment that women have always preached in the Orthodox Church. She offers the witness of Sts. Thecla, Priscilla, Nina, and herself. She has frequently preached in the parish in, I presume, liturgical settings. She argues from this that the existence of Patriarchs has not resulted in patriarchy, that there is no repression of women, and that her gifts have found the “greatest acceptance in the Orthodox Church.”
FMG is fortunate that she may use her preaching gifts to serve God’s people. However, she evinces no awareness that perhaps her experience is shaped by certain factors that are not shared by the average Orthodox woman. Her conversion was considered something of a coup for American Orthodoxy. FMG was already a known speaker, famous for her move from liberal feminism and pro-choice positions to being an open advocate for what she called a feminist pro-life position. Pro-life Orthodox were quite excited that this famous and outspoken supporter of the pro-life movement was joining their ranks, and almost immediately offered her Orthodox speaking engagements. FMG is a also presbytera (khouria, matushka, a priest’s wife), a position which has a sort of ambiguous authority within Orthodox parishes, but which is possible only for a few (often one) women within a parish. Finally, I can only assume that her husband recognizes the immense gifts of his wife, and like both a good husband and priest, is eager to see them flourish. These factors, her already prominent reputation (furthered by a non-Orthodox Christian community), her honored role within a particular community, and a husband who both seeks to honor her gifts and has the authority to do so as a priest, make FMG quite unique among Orthodox. Simply put, her experience is NOT shared by virtually any Orthodox woman I have ever heard of or met. The irony here is that at some level, she seems aware of this. The only time I have heard her speak in person was as the invited keynote speaker at a conference on the ministry of women in the Orthodox church. The substance of her point was that her ministry as a writer within the church was difficult and likely not attainable by most other individuals, male or female.
In contrast to her experience, I hear stories over and over of women gifted for preaching, teaching, and leading in a wide range of capacities, who are rarely if ever given the opportunity to practice these gifts. It is controversial for a woman to chant the epistle at a seminary service. If you doubt this, know that only a few years ago a group of men walked out of a seminary chapel service because a woman was chanting the epistle. Just because women read in a few churches does not mean that the practice is common, much less encouraged. Women with the exact same degrees as our priests have virtually no opportunities to offer their lives in similar, much less the same, service as their brothers in Christ.
FMG says nothing about these women. Instead, she parallels her freedom to preach the gospel with women whose lived during the first few hundred years of Christian ministry. Listing four women, inclusive of a 1400 year gap of silence, does not prove that the Orthodox Church encourages women to use their gifts as a blessing to the people of God. It does not prove that the Orthodox Church is exempt from sexism. Ironically, the very Rhodes conference to which FMG appeals regarding the restoration of female diaconate, of which she admits ignorance, explicitly acknowledged and repudiated the sexism practiced by Orthodox within the Church.
The conversation exists!
Her ignorance of the female diaconate brings me to my second concern: her experience does not include a particularly substantive or rigorous knowledge of the theological tradition on which she is considered an expert. Possessed of this knowledge, she could not claim that the issue of female priests has never come up. It has. Epiphanius of Salamis mentions it to dismiss it outright: such a thing has never happened, he claims.2 But good historians know that there is no need to dismiss something that isn’t at the very least an issue. It seems that Epiphanius did however, ordain female deacons in his own diocese.3 John Chrysostom dismisses women priests, not out of some preservation of mysterious sacramentality (an contemporarily theory made popular by the impossibility of defining much less dismissing such ‘mystery’), but because the task of the priesthood is too difficult for most men and all women.4 FMG notes that she happily relinquished her own desire to pursue ordained ministry when she witnessed the difficulty of her husband’s job. Ministry is difficult, and no one should choose it thinking otherwise.
However, FMG’s personal decision and Chrysostom’s statement are entirely different. FMG seems unaware that Chrysostom rhetorically shamed men, attempting to motivate their virtuosity by exclaiming that women were passing them by on the road to virtue! His reasoning is that if women can be virtuous, men should clearly be more so. Chrysostom appeals to contemporary stereotypes the physical weakness of women corresponded to a moral weakness: women are are less able than men to engage in the virtuous life. Despite women’s clear excellence, and his long-time friendship with the influential, and I suspect, authoritative and exceptionally assertive and strong female deacon Olympias, Chrysostom never retracted such statements about women’s weakness and inability to excel relative to men. Perhaps FMG agrees with Chrysostom regarding the moral weakness of women, though she says no such thing. On this point, even Chrysostom’s contemporaries did not share his view. The view of Gregory of Nazianzus towards women is considerably more positive, lauding their faithfulness as a model for all Christians, no shaming involved. Certainly even the most ‘traditional’ Orthodox in the 21st century rarely articulates such a view (they might hold it, but not because their theological tradition tells them to). Today, we prefer to assign virtues to gender (hardly traditional, more on this below), not assert the weakness of an entire sex.
FMG is also unaware of the strange reasoning used to explain the already declining (if not absent) female diaconate in the late-8th century. In a section of canons discussing bodily emissions, clear parameters for refraining from the eucharist are given to men based on the circumstances under which they emitted semen. If it was willful, priests were to refrain from the eucharist (both partaking and presiding) for a number of years. Nocturnal emissions however, were not willful, so were given no significant penalty. Given this logic, female menstrual emissions would seem to fall under the latter category. Alas, this logic is not extended to women: their bodily emissions prevent females of any age (even pre-menstrual and post-menopausal) from being in the altar. Or so goes the much-after-the-fact explanation for their disappearance from diaconal (and altar) service.5
The list could go on. Our tradition is full of sexist reasoning and repressive practices. The existence of exceptions does not prove a rule of gender-openness, rather, it indicates just how exceptional these women are. Or how exceptional were the men who gave them room to flourish and bless the Church with their service.
Oh, which reminds me: the record on St. Nina6 is that she performed the early baptisms herself. FMG’s claim that she conveniently brought a priest with her when she was dragged into slavery is a gloss on an element of Nina’s story that might undermine claims that women never baptized. And St. Thecla? She was so impatient to join the Christian community and begin her evangelistic ministry that she baptized herself. Some of the very sacramental ministries that FMG claims were always the provenance of males were, at times, even exceptional times, done by women.
The Red Herring of Gender Complementarity
More than a lack of historical knowledge, FMG’s arguments rest on a decidedly modern defense of an exclusively male priesthood: gender complementarity. The phenomena of able women who can and do do everything but stand at the altar is never explained by FMG. What she offers in the face of clear evidence (evidence that she offers to us) that women can exercise all the gifts and abilities required of priests is a vague notion of gender difference and complementarity, and the presumption that we “cannot” understand sex in the way that our forebears did.
Our inability to understand sex as did our forebears is a euphemism for our ignorance relative to their knowledge. FMG rightly points out that we have forgotten the power of consecrated virginity, though given the sexual behavior in the ancient world, I am not really sure many of them knew it all that well either. It is a perennial issue in our Church. But any close, or even cursory, reading of our theological forebears indicates that late-ancient “knowledge” (that is interpretation) of sex, gender and intercourse was hardly uniform. Good, loving, mutually enjoyable and life-producing (which is more than just procreative) sexual intimacy requires a mutuality and shared receptivity and assertiveness that was rarely discussed by our forebears (one of the few exceptions is Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on one of the greatest pieces of erotic poetry we have, the Song of Songs). As a matter of fact, the more holistic understanding of sex, virginity and marriage that FMG thinks is normative of the whole tradition is actually the result of the hard work of twentieth-century theologians, such as Paul Evdokimov and Olivier Clément.7 Marriage and positive sexuality of any kind has had a harder road on Orthodoxy that she seems to be aware of.
Yet FMG’s argument here seems to undercut itself. She rightfully identifies that sex requires vulnerability and trust, two qualities which require truthfulness. How bizarre then, is her affirmation of obvious gender differences based on female outfits that imply an hourglass figure regardless of the actual body beneath, or padded shoulders which make a slim man appear more brawny. This is clothing which attempts to conform men and women to stereotypes that real men and women do not embody (if they did, why would they need clothing to give them a shape they don’t have?). They are lies which hide the reality that bodies do not match our ‘ideals,’ ideals which are all about the very sexualization that she rightfully condemns. Here, her positive view of sexuality elides with a vaguely defined norm of gendered behavior and abilities.
FMG does not source this elision in the tradition.8 Instead, she overlooks the variety of false opinions about sex, about female reproduction and male desire that permeate our history. Orthodox theology is not monolithic on virtually anything, much less sex. Late-ancient Orthodox theology of sexual intercourse is still based on an Aristotelian biology which is factually, scientifically, WRONG. Women are not just receptacles of male sperm and so theologies which extrapolate spiritual capabilities from misunderstood physical qualities are simply spiritually and theologically vacant. And yet the theological (which is not the same as empirical or scientific) assertion of gender differences and supposed complementarity is frequently based on precisely these ancient views of reproduction and desire cloaked in theological language. More importantly, these norms are modern. The late-ancient theologians of the Church made very few arguments based on normative spiritual qualities of men versus women, though they did make many based on social status and propriety.
FMG offers this confused endorsement of modern gender norms as an affirmation of why women can do everything but stand at the altar. Yet at no point does she even attempt to explain why it is that this one sacramental aspect cannot be embodied by a woman. Perhaps she does not explain it because she has already rather effectively challenged the very arguments used by twentieth-century theologians to justify it. A woman cannot stand at the altar because she cannot image Christ, an argument which FMG adroitly dismisses, echoing Metr. Kallistos Ware.9 She also dismisses arguments that women cannot have authority or are subordinate to men, the line of argumentation currently favored by Frs. Thomas Hopko and Lawrence Farley. It is not clear what remains, other than a repeated assertion that our forebears understood something about gender difference and complementarity that we don’t, and so we must accept their practice without understanding their reasoning.
The historical irony here is that arguments from complementarity are not ancient, they are quite new. Further, we can understand the reasoning of our forebears because they tell us. Chrysostom was quite clear: there were no tasks of the priesthood that a woman cannot do. She simply lacks the strength to bear the burdens. This is not an argument from complementarity, nor an argument about sacramentality. It is an argument about weakness. Chrysostom does not argue that women are better at some things, men others, and that together they form a more complete set. He does not divvy up either the tasks of leading the ecclesial community or leading the life of faith along gender lines. Ever. Such an argument would have been anathema to men who were also defending the pre-eminence of a celibate life-style for clergy (yes, Chrysostom was doing this, he just didn’t win this battle). It would also have made no sense in light of theosis, which was viewed as living a life of active virtue. Virtue for the ancients was unitary. There were no such things as masculine or feminine virtues. There were simply the virtues to which all Christians are called, period.
However, this does not mean that the Fathers did not see a key difference. If and when they did, it was that women were less able, less strong, less virtuous. This is the gender struggle of our forebears: are women even capable of virtue? To their credit, most of them answered “yes” though they may have thought it was a bit harder for women. What they did not say was that men and women naturally excel at different virtues, that they have different ways of being Christian, or that the Christian life must be about fulfilling complementary roles.
The Holy Spirit and the inevitable ad mulierem
Vague assertions of complementarity lead to the most pernicious of all aspects of her argument: women who have the temerity to express a desire to use their gifts in the same way their brothers do are accused of arrogance and an unseemly desire for power, prestige, and “rights.” It is a horrible bind: to have the desire to use one’s God-given gifts interpreted as evidence of godless vice.
“Holy women,” claims FMG, “do virtually everything men do, except stand at the altar. That leaves them the rest of the world, which is where most of God’s work gets done.” FMG manages to simultaneously elevate the work of women and devalue standing at the altar, making us wonder of course, why women who can do pretty much anything would even want to stand at the altar. Obsession with standing at the altar is a sign of clericalism, too often simply women “demanding power, praise, and honor—something that should be instinctively alarming to any follower of Christ.” The women listed by FMG who have preached (Nina and Thecla), contributed to our liturgy (Kassiane), debated apologetics (Catherine and Perpetua), exercised authority over men (Theodora, Mary Magdalen, Helen and Junia) are evidence both of giftedness and its appropriate use, and figures whose accomplishments shame any woman who might want to vary the ‘position’ of their stance in church. She says nothing of their wealth and class, which allowed them access and education to a degree unavailable to most other women. She says nothing of how women of education and economic stability today might do these things which are so clearly available to her.
This kind of characterization belies her statement that considering the question of female ordination is legitimate. She hardly legitimates women who express a desire to offer their gifts when she characterizes so many of them as craving power and authority, as sowing division and being self-righteous. This is the worst kind of demeaning language: to even ask the question is to exemplify behavior that should instinctively alarm any genuine Christian. What woman wants to wade through such slander before she can even get to the meat of the discussion? Every conversation becomes an exercise in defending one’s faithfulness in the face of ad hominem arguments whose intent is nothing but to derail the conversation itself.
This insistence on using such demeaning language is made doubly offensive when one looks at the language of women such as Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Eva Topping, Valerie Karras, Susan Ashbrook-Harvey or Sr. Nonna Harrison. These are all women who have, in some form or other, questioned the exclusion of women from our liturgical practices (not simply “standing at the altar”). Not once have they stridently demanded that women’s “rights” be respected in the Church, nor have they sought division, power or authority. Orthodox theologians who argue for the ordination of women to the priesthood never use the language of rights. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel was acutely aware that she would never live to see women ordained to the priesthood, but she spent the last 20 years of her long life speaking on behalf of the women who will someday be ordained. And she spoke with a graciousness that still brings tears to my eyes, if only because I do not understand how she could remain gracious when her sisters characterized her hope and passion as divisive self-righteousness. I crave her ability to persist in peaceful resistance in the face of slander. FMG may be concerned with how these discussions played out in her previous denomination, but before she warns us of their dangers, it would behoove her to read and bask in the gracious tone of the Orthodox women who have spoken on the subject. Warning us of a danger that does not exist is yet another way to dismiss the conversation.
Is it possible that women have indeed raised this issue before? Orthodoxy is the only Christian tradition that has no written work by (not about) a single female saint or theologian until the 19th century (though if you count liturgical poetry, the Hymn of Kassiane might be the sole exception). We have plenty of stories about them, all told by men. Is it possible that the still, quiet voice of the Holy Spirit is drowned out by those who claim that to raise the question, to desire to use one’s gifts is a manifestation of selfishness and clericalism? I can attest to the difficulty of offering something constructive when I must spend so much intellectual and emotional time defending against repeated attacks on my intentions and the genuineness of my faith. It is exhausting, and silence would be so much easier.
New and Greater Things
It is clear to me that FMG’s journey of faith is uniquely hers and is not a measure of anyone else’s. It is however, a contribution to the experience of her brothers and sisters. Despite all of what I have said above, I truly am glad that FMG has not experienced sexism at the hands of the Orthodox Church, and I am even more grateful that she is able to exercise her gifts. I just wish she would not use her own privileged experience to silence her sisters in Christ.
It is not clear to me that the late-ancients knew something about gender that we don’t. This does not mean that they lack wisdom, but simply that we may have wisdom of our own to contribute. This is the nature of theological development which FMG so tritely dismisses: our theological community and conversation span time, and so our understanding of what faithfulness entails grows and changes with and through time. This is not a denigration of ancient knowledge and an elevation of modern insight. It is recognition that the work of God is ongoing in and through all of us, and we are called to eternally participate in our infinite growth into God. This is theosis, not merely of individuals, but of our community, the body of Christ.
Which brings me to my conclusion: the radical and new actions of the women listed above who have paved my way as a theologian are precisely an expression of the work of the Holy Spirit in doing something new. So often, former-evangelicals and very traditional Orthodox overlook the fact that Jesus did not ever tell us, “Replicate exactly what I am doing now.” Rather, he said that the Spirit would come amongst us and we would do new and greater things (John 14:12). We are not limited by the choices Jesus made, we are called to make choices in the face of new opportunities as he would have made them: with love, graciousness, and a desire that all are called to follow him and offer themselves ‘for the life of the world’ each according to her or his actual, god-given gifts.
- Actually, in comparison to many list-serve ‘dialogues’, Matthews-Greene is quite gracious. Nothing brings the claws out on Facebook or the notorious Indiana or Yahoo Orthodox listservs like suggesting that the Orthodox Church could be well served by ordained women. ↩
- See his Panarion 79, § 2. ↩
- See Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, edited by Kevin Madigan, Carolyn Osiek, http://books.google.com/books?id=JW0Md2wmQOsC&pg=PT61&lpg=PT61&dq=epiphanius+women+ordination&source=bl&ots=7lRwfczCBz&sig=spW4y1s0kAl5hnWOhclteJEPqCc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=YOnOUs3ZJNbooASL6YGoCA&ved=0CGIQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=epiphanius%20women%20ordination&f=false ↩
- See On the Priesthood, III.6. ↩
- The first canon regarding mensturation and alter servicee is found in the Canonical Letter 2 written by St. Dionysios of Alexandria in 260, and affirmed in Canon 44 from Laodecia. The interpretive liberties were taken by Theodore Balsamon and Matthew Blastares and can be found in their commentaries. A discussion of this can be found in Patrick Viscuso, “Menstruation: A Problem in Late Byzantine Canon Law,” Byzantine Studies/Etudes Byzantines New Series, Vol. 4 (1999). ↩
- On St. Nina ↩
- The Sacrament of Love. Translated by Anthony P. and Victoria Steadman Gythiel. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001. See also: http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com/2011/05/paul-evdokimov-and-olivier-clement.html ↩
- To be fair, neither to Evdokimov, Hopko, Wesche, Mitchell or Farley, all of whom build a theology around gender-complementarity without citing more than a few(and in some cases, none at all) patristic proof-texts to support the entirety of a theory that is simply not developed within Orthodoxy until they take it upon themselves to do so. ↩
- Ware, Kallistos. “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ.” In Women and the Priesthood, edited by Thomas Hopko, 5-53. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. ↩