We at WIT agreed to this round table a number of months ago. Honestly, I didn’t give it much thought as it seemed like a good idea. From the moment it registered that I would actually have to write such a post, I have been filled with dread.
I joined WIT in 2013 after writing as an Eastern Orthodox feminist for many years on my personal blog, DeiProfundis. I applied for two related reasons. First, in Eastern Orthodoxy, silence and isolation was a tool to quell dissent. Second, and related, there were simply no public and collaborative venues for the discussion of Orthodox theology in a feminist and liberationist vein. I am no longer Orthodox, but I still write for WIT because underlying both of these reasons is the conviction that drove me to graduate school in the first place: collaborative public theology matters.
By 2013, I had completed my PhD in Theological Ethics, and realized in the three years since that (1) no Orthodox institution would ever hire a woman who wrote about women’s ordination, and (2) no non-Orthodox institution knew what to do with an outspoken feminist, liberationist, Eastern Orthodox woman. There was no niche in which I fit, at least, not a niche that offered legitimate employment. I had no clear place in which to advocate for what I cared about most: the full dignity of women in Orthodoxy, and the ethical necessity of recognizing their full participation in the sacramental priesthood.
When I spoke about the ordination of women to the Orthodox priesthood, whether on my blog, in churches or classrooms, I was regularly told, “no one shares your opinion, you should go be an Episcopalian.” (It should be noted that for too many Orthodox, this is simply another way of being called a heretic, or even apostate.) In academic conferences where women in ministry was the topic, I was never invited to contribute, unless, ironically, the conference was organized by non-Orthodox. I was in a plenary session once given by a highly respected Orthodox theologian where I asked a question about women in the church. He literally responded, “you are currently the world expert on this topic,” and then proceeded to avoid the question, go on to organize conversations on the topic, and never once proactively invite me to contribute. ‘Safer’ women were invited. The reality is that sympathetic male Orthodox theologians (and priests) in positions of influence are in a difficult position. They risk losing their jobs if they ever show public support. I knew I was not alone in my convictions, but the openly supportive group was very small. In Orthodoxy, a silent non-response, or, when forced, a dismissive silencing, is the norm. Open dissent, no matter how graciously delivered, is met with hostility. (Watch this video by Kyra Limberakis on the female diaconate, a historical FACT, and then read the comments).
Writing for WIT rather than my personal blog, DeiProfundis, was a way to make more public a conversation many had no idea was actually happening. Part of the silencing that happens within Orthodoxy was the constant public assurance to non-Orthodox Christians (and disaffected evangelicals and Anglicans) that Orthodoxy would never change, and no ‘good’ Orthodox was also a feminist.
Good Theology is Collaborative:
Being outside of the academy also meant that I was not in the kind of conversations that give me joy: my conversation partners were in other cities, and while I was a part of some truly amazing and thoughtful facebook groups, they tended to be insular (and also, safe, in a sometimes very necessary way). My best theology, by which I mean those theological pieces I have written that people tell me give them hope, make them think, and challenge them to persist, always came from a collaborative space.
I went to graduate school not because I love academic study (I am certainly partial to it.), but because I think theology matters. What we believe matters because it affects what we do and how we are in the world. Too often, people think theology is some remote discipline. The mistake is understandable since so many theologians converse primarily among themselves. Conversation sharpens our thought, reminds us of those we have neglected, offers metaphors and stories that deepen the impact of doctrine (truth: I LOVE orthodox — yes, that is intentionally a small “o” — doctrine, I just don’t think it is as constricting as both traditionalists and progressives seem to think. Now THAT is a book I want to write).
WIT gave me an opportunity to engage in a more public conversation with women and men who shared my convictions, but not always my perspective.
Collaborative Public Theology Matters!
I not only wanted to be in supportive theological conversation, but I wanted a public conversation (Public Orthodoxy didn’t yet exist). We forget that one of the great controversies of the church was carried out via the raucous singing in the streets of the (Byzantine) Roman empire as Arius and Athanasius wielded weapons of sung theology, while arguing the created or uncreated nature of the Son.
Consider Nadia Bolz-Weber’s recent book Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. It is a very good book (if a bit Augustinian for me, but then, she is a Lutheran and I am Orthodox-now-Episcopalian, so that is hardly a surprise. And she really does pick the best of Augustine even as she rightly calls him out on his crap). As someone who has studied sexual ethics for a while now, what she says isn’t new to me. But Bolz-Weber’s ability to take significant theological material and make it clear, accessible, and convicting is a gift many more academically-inclined theologians lack. I dream of being able to write like Bolz-Weber — a dream I will never realize because we have different kinds of theological gifts. What we share however, is the conviction that theology should matter to all of us, and should be shared among all of us.
WIT was my opportunity to be a public, feminist, liberationist, Orthodox theologian. To freely write a theology that I hoped was life-giving not just for me, but other Orthodox, and for non-Orthodox.
So, why dread writing this?
I applied for WIT based on my writing on DeiProfundis. Most of my posts there were about the ordination of women. What I had not very publicly said was that by 2013, I was in love with a woman. My first WIT post, Fragile Repentances, included examples from my immediate life, not just others (most, though, are from others). The first line however, had been said to me two years before: “I can no longer offer you the Eucharist. While I cannot tell you to leave this parish, I would prefer you no longer attend.” Despite this dis-invitation, I had continued attending liturgy, and not receiving the Eucharist. It was one of the most awful periods of my life, standing in a church I loved knowing I was unwelcome. On Palm Sunday of 2013, a priest I had known most of my life went a step further: not only was I not to receive communion or attend this parish (the parish in which I was raised), I was told I was not welcome in any Orthodox parish in my hometown. People will tell you that only bishops can excommunicate you. But bishops abrogate this responsibility all the time, leaving such decisions up to the “pastoral discernment” of their local priests. I, and my wife, were effectively excommunicated from the church that I loved. That I still love.
For me, it was the last straw. It was bad enough to stand in church, hear “God’s Holy Gifts for God’s Holy People” and know that I was not considered a member of that group. It was another to not be able to worship at all.
I left. We left. I reluctantly followed my wife to the Episcopal Church.
It was glorious. Beyond glorious. For the first time, I could worship without the rage and grief of being a woman called to the priesthood forced to watch only men live their calling. People loved that I not only loved theology, but could teach it with passion, conviction, and humor. My gifts as a theologian and teacher were not a threat, but a welcome contribution to the community. I could hold my wife’s hand. We could be married before God and our community! Hallelujah!!!!
As I wrote in “The Home that Joy Built”, I was excommunicated from Orthodoxy because I was partnered with a woman. I will never return because finally, I could be recognized as a priest.
I love being a priest. Truly, I love it. I don’t love all the things that go into being the part-time rector of a small, struggling parish. Seriously, who does? But I love that, finally, after years of struggling to acknowledge this call from God that would have been so much easier to not have, I get to be who God has called me to be: a priest in her/his/their Church.
But it makes writing a problem. In part because I just don’t have time. But also because for so many years, my writing was fueled by a desire to help bring change to my beloved community. But that community does not want me, and I am not sure I want to care about it anymore. That sounds harsh, but I am tired of fighting it and fighting for it. I feel like I have deserted my friends. Some of my friends think I have deserted them. But I am so tired. So tired that my dissertation, the only English-language (there is one in Greek) book-length argument for the ordination of women to the sacramental priesthood from an Eastern Orthodox theological perspective, languishes in a Dropbox folder. I am not sure who it is for anymore.
And my new community — it isn’t that it is perfect, but it is so much… more peaceful. I am still getting to know it. The Episcopal Church is what I call “practice forward.” It is willing to do what it thinks is right: to practice compassion and justice and mercy, even if it does it clumsily or incompletely. I am so very grateful for its shelter. My Presiding Bishop, instead of issuing an ‘educational document’ that shames trans folks based on an utterly imagined view of gender complementarity, expressed gratitude for how LGBTQ siblings “help the church, not to build a bigger church for church’s sake, but to build a better world for God’s sake.”
As a priest, I am grateful every Sunday that I get to stand at God’s table and welcome all those who are hungry to come and feast.
But it is strange being a priest in a culture that is not your own. (I have so many half-written blog posts about church as culture, about the romanticization of Eastern Orthodoxy by Western Christians, about the things that shouldn’t be romanticized, and the things that really should be taken more seriously.) I am also the priest of a small, historically African-American congregation. The only one in the Pacific Northwest. I am an Episcopalian from the Christian East, learning the culture of a deeply anglicized and Western church, leading a still-significantly African-American congregation, in the whitest major city in the U.S. My learning curve is steep. I live in a cultural maelstrom that I am not yet able to put into words.
But I will continue to write for WIT. Because women theologians, and priests, need a voice. Because silencing is the enemy of the work of God. Because theology matters, because it is best done in collaboration, and because it must be public.
May we never allow ourselves to remain silent.