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Restoring the Diaconate of Women

by Teva Regule

“Master and Lord, You do not reject women who offer themselves, and by divine counsel, to minister as is fitting to your holy houses, but you accept them in the order of ministers. Give the grace of your Holy Spirit to this servant of Yours also, who wishes to offer herself to you, and to accomplish the grace of the diaconate, as You gave the grace of Your diaconate to Phoebe, whom you called to the work of the ministry….”

These are the beginning words of the second prayer of ordination of the female deacon in the Byzantine rite.  The female diaconate is a part of our history.  For over one thousand years, the Orthodox Church ordained women to serve as deaconesses. As the Orthodox theologian, Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, writes in Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church:

According to Byzantine liturgical texts, the ordination of the woman deacon occurred as any other ordination to major orders.  It took place during the celebration of the Eucharist and at the same point in the service that the male deacon was ordained.  She was ordained at the altar by the bishop, and later in the service, received Holy Communion at the altar with the other clergy. Depending upon the need, location and situation in history, the deaconess ministered primarily to the women in the community in much the same way that the male deacon ministered to men…. [The order] was gradually de-emphasized sometime after the twelfth century. It should be noted, however, that there does not exist any canon or Church regulation that opposes or suppresses the order.”

For over a century, various voices within the Church have called for the restoration of the female diaconate.  But what is the diaconate?  What is its function in the life of the Church? How has it evolved over time? What did the female deacon do? We know some of the roles of the historical deaconess. Lay women today are filling many of these functions. Is it still necessary to have an ordained ministry?  Is a permanent diaconate, especially a female diaconate, needed in the Church today?  What could this ministry look like in the 21st century?

The Diaconate in History: The Church’s ministry, modeled after Christ’s example, grew out of the needs of the community. In the early Church, when the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food, the Apostles realized that they could not attend to both the word of God and serve “tables.” According to the account in Acts, they sought out “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.” This marked both the embryonic beginning of the office of the deacon.

The first place where we find the word “deacon” used as a title is in Romans. St. Paul writing to the Romans says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon (diakonon) of the church at Cenchreae…” The works of Origen and Chrysostom show that patristic tradition upholds Phoebe’s position as a deaconess.

In one of the letters from Pliny, Governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan (112 AD), Pliny asks for guidance on how to handle the Christian sect, writing that he had to place “two women called >deaconesses’ under torture.”

We have a general understanding of the functions of the male and female deacon from early church documents. Each was answerable to the bishop. The male deacons ministered to men while the female deacons ministered to women. Each also had a liturgical role, although there is disagreement as to their precise functions. This parallelism can be seen in the Apostolic Constitutions passage that outlines the character of the deacon:

Let the deacons be in all things unspotted, as the bishop himself is to be, only more active; …that they may minister to the infirm…. And let the deaconess be diligent in taking care of the women; but both of them ready to carry messages, to travel about, to minister, and to serve…

This reflects an earlier understanding of the functions of the office found in the Didascalia Apostolorum. The Didascalia contains sections on the character of the deaconess and her ministry of assisting in the baptism of women and instruction of women converts.

During the Byzantine period, the diaconal office in the east, especially that of women, flourished, as we see this in the many women deacon saints on the calendar, including Sts. Macrina, sister of Sts. Gregory and Basil (July 19), Nonna, wife of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (August 5), Olympias, friend and confidant of John Chrysostom (July 25), Xenia “the merciful” (Jan 24), and Irene of Chrysovalantou (July 28) We also have descriptions of the makeup of the clergy serving during the Liturgy at Hagia Sophia, including “forty deaconesses.”

During this time, the male diaconate in the East grew in prominence, holding high positions in church governance, including participating in the Ecumenical councils (e.g. Athanasius of Alexandria, a deacon, was secretary for his bishop at the Council of Nicaea in 325). They also served as emissaries and ambassadors of the episcopal seat in diplomatic matters and were administers of church-run homes for the poor and widows, orphanages, and hospitals.

The order of the female diaconate began to decline sometime after the twelfth century. There were fewer adult baptisms so female deacons were no longer needed at initiation. In addition, in late Byzantium the rise of influence of Levitical rules, especially regarding women, led to the perception that the shedding of blood made a woman Aunclean” and therefore, unable to enter the sanctuary or participate in the liturgical life of the Church, though this was in direct contradiction to the understanding of >uncleanness’ found in the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Constitutions. Chapter 26 of the Didascalia admonishes Christians to abandon the rabbinical rules of ‘uncleanness’: “Are they devoid of the Holy Spirit? For through baptism they receive the Holy Spirit, who is ever with those that work righteousness, and does not depart from them by reason of natural issues and the intercourse of marriage, but is ever and always with those who possess Him…”

The Apostolic Constitutions extends this emphasis: “For neither the lawful mixture [intercourse], nor childbearing, nor the menstrual purgation, nor nocturnal pollution can defile the nature of a [person], or separate the Holy Spirit from him…. but only impiety towards God, transgression, and injustice towards one’s neighbor…”

With the rise of Islam and the subsequent fall of the Eastern part of the Roman empire to the Ottomans, the Church turned inward. It could no longer participate in many of the philanthropic aspects of its ministry. Moreover, many of the traditional duties of the male deacon were being assumed by the priest and by the growing number of those in the so-called “minor orders.” This led to the position of the diaconate being perceived as more of a “transitional” one along the way to being ordained a presbyter. Although the male deacon retained his role in the liturgical assembly, the office had devolved greatly. Unfortunately, this is what typically remains of the order in the East today.

Modern Renewal of the Office: In modern times, the diaconate has experienced a renewal and rejuvenation, most notably (and somewhat ironically) in the Western Christian churches. While this movement is due mostly to the needs of the local churches, it is instructive to us, as Orthodox Christians, to realize that the theological reasoning and justification for a re-institution of the order came from careful study of the Early Church, primarily its expression in the East.

Although the diaconate in the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained an active ministry since apostolic times, its scope and function have greatly diminished since the fall of Byzantium. The male diaconate generally functions solely in the liturgical realm and, oftentimes, is only a transitional stage on the way to ordination to the presbytery. The female diaconate has virtually disappeared.

There have been numerous attempts for over 150 years to reinstitute the female diaconate. As early as 1855, the sister of Czar Nicholas I tried to restore the office. Other prominent Russians also lobbied for its restoration, including Aleksandr Gumilevsky and Mother Catherine (Countess Efimovsky). In 1905-06, several bishops, archbishops, and metropolitans of the Russian Orthodox Church encouraged the effort. This issue was to be a major topic at the Council of the Russian Church beginning in 1917, but due to the political turmoil in Russia at the time, the council’s work was not suspended. (Other items on the agenda included adopting the use of the vernacular in the liturgical services and the reinstitution of the married episcopacy.)

Other efforts were made in Greece. On Pentecost Sunday in 1911, Archbishop (now Saint) Nektarios ordained a nun to the diaconate to serve the needs of the monastery. A few years later, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Athens appointed Amonastic ‘deaconesses,’ nuns in fact appointed to the subdiaconate.

More recently, the issue has been discussed at the international conferences for Orthodox women in Agapia, Romania in 1976 (at which its restoration was unanimously recommended), Sophia, Bulgaria in 1987, Rhodes, Greece in 1988), Crete in 1990, Damascus, Syria in 1996 and Istanbul in 1997.

In July of 2000, after over a year of careful review of the subject, a letter was sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch by more than a dozen members of the Orthodox community in Paris, among them Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy, Olivier Clément, and Nicolas Lossky. The letter notes that the Patriarch himself has stated that there is Ano obstacle in canon law [that] stands in the way of the ordination of women to the diaconate. This institution of the early Church deserves to be revitalized.” It also states that the order should Ainvolve more than a simple and archaeological reconstitution of the ancient ministry of the deaconesses … It is a question of its revitalization … in the context of the … present day.”

What would the deaconess do in the Church today? The question is generally preceded by the acknowledgment that the ancient deaconess assisted in the baptism of women, etc. It is oftentimes assumed that since we no longer have many adult baptisms (infant baptism being the norm) that we no longer need deaconesses. (Although a simplistic analogy, it is interesting that the same question is not asked of the male diaconate. i.e. Since we no longer need ‘table servers’ at the Eucharist, a function of the biblical diaconate, why do we need male deacons?) This issue has been discussed within Orthodox circles as well. According to the report of the Crete consultation (1990), a deacon or deaconess could

lead people in prayer, give spiritual counsel, distribute Holy Communion where possible. The renewal of the diaconate for both men and women would meet many of the needs of the Church in a changing world… catechetical work… pastoral relations… serving the same needs for monastic communities without a presbyter … reading prayers for special occasions, …performing social work … pastoral care … engaging in youth and college ministry … counseling … anointing the infirm …carrying out missionary work … ministering to the sick, … assisting the bishop or presbyter in the liturgical services….

The report concludes that a creative restoration of the diaconate for women, could lead in turn to the renewal in the diaconate for men as well.

The Liturgical Role of the Female Deacon: When discussing the reinstitution of the female diaconate, the question of her liturgical role, including her service within the altar area, often arises. It is my opinion, if this question were settled, we would currently have women deacons in the Orthodox Church.

According to the First Apology of Justin the Martyr (100-165 AD), the ministry of the deacon was expressed in the liturgical celebration of the gathered assembly gathered for the Eucharist,

reading the Gospel, leading the intercessions of the people, receiving the gifts of the people and ‘setting the table’ for the meal, serving the Eucharistic meal…. [Moreover] the social service carried on by the deacons seems to be been rooted in the liturgical celebration.

As we have seen, the link between liturgy and service is crucial not only to the office of the diaconate, but to our understanding of what it means to gather as Church in worship. It is in our service to the other that we are united with them. Our service to the other brings them with us to worship. We are their visible representatives.

Although the liturgy enables us to encounter God in a variety of ways and at differing levels, allowing us to experience a “taste of the Kingdom,” we must always remember that we are not fully, as yet, in the eschaton (end times). We live in the here and now and are called to draw all closer to God. In my opinion, it is a distortion of the office to have the male deacon serve only during the liturgy, but not within the community, and conversely, to have a future female deacon serve within the community, but not during the liturgy.

As Dr. FitzGerald says in her book, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church:


It is important to remember that in the past women deacons did have important responsibilities in the Eucharistic assembly as well as in the administration of baptism, in praying with and for those in need, and in bringing Holy Communion to those unable to attend the Eucharist. … Today, these expressions of ministry can certainly continue. At the same time, we also need to examine how women deacons can participate in the Eucharist and other liturgical services in a manner which is expressive of the living Tradition of the Church and which is not defined by cultural norms of another time.

Need? But do we really need a rejuvenated diaconate and, in particular, a restored female diaconate? To help answer this question, it is instructive to understand the responsibilities of a typical parish priest.

Fr. Alexander Garklavs outlined a number of functions expected of today’s parish priest in his presentation at the 2004 Pastoral Conference held at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in June 2004. In additional to all the liturgical duties of the priest (Sunday and any daily liturgical services, baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.), he enumerates some of the priest’s responsibilities in parish life, including pastoral visitations, educational work, Bible study, adult study, youth work, teen work, working with choirs and choir directors, marriage preparation, marital counseling, visiting shut-ins, grief counseling, hospital visits, office work, preparing and printing bulletins and schedules, parish mailings, aspects of parish administration, etc.

In 1953, Archbishop Michael of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America realized that there is so much to do in each community that

the endeavors of these priests alone do not suffice. For should the priest wish to know, as he must, his spiritual children by name, their problems, and their spiritual and moral needs, this would certainly be beyond his physical and spiritual resources. These tremendous needs of the Greek Orthodox Church in America has urged us to make a fervent appeal such as this to our daughters-in-Christ… With the future welfare of our Church and membership at heart, we are considering the establishment in this country of an order of deaconess.

Clearly, a rejuvenated diaconate, a ministry that has service as its primary focus, is necessary in our Church today. No one person can fill all the duties necessary for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, AEach of us has been given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The diaconate is not merely a Astepping stone” to higher orders. It is, as Dr. FitzGerald explains, Aa full and parallel order of ordained ministry to which both men and women are called by God.”

But is an ordained ministry necessary? It is an unfortunate effect of clericalism that lay participation in our churches varies widely. This is especially true of the participation of women. The range of women’s participation in the life of the Church can vary from diocese to diocese and even from parish to parish within each diocese. Still, many laywomen are already doing diaconal work in our parishes.

What does an Aordination” mean? To begin to answer these questions, it is important to remember that we are all called to ministry within the Body of Christ. Each of us is called to minister to others in our daily lives C we are all expected to teach others, especially those in our care. And yet, we set apart certain people to undertake certain care tasks on a professional basis. Unlike us, they must be trained in their profession and pass exams before we, as a society, confer a designation on them as Ateacher” or Amedical professional.” Likewise, throughout history the Church has Aset apart” those Aconsecrated for service.”

The female deacon in the 21st century… The Church is blessed to have a number of laywomen working in diaconal roles already, including pastoral assistants, chaplains, ecclesiarchs, and monastics. Through conversations and reflection, I have collected some of their experiences that I would like to share with just one with you. In this instance I was interviewing a woman serving as a hospital chaplain:

The first time I was scheduled to serve over night as an on-call chaplain, I received a page at 5 AM. I groggily called the Intensive Care Unit, and spoke to a nurse who requested that I visit an anxious, weeping patient who would be undergoing surgery later that morning. I was told that the patient, “Andrew” was Orthodox Jewish. The nurse said that Andrea had a tracheotomy, and therefore could not speak. I entered the small ICU, which was silent but for the beeping ventilator and monitors. I introduced myself to Andrew, a 50-year old man with a scraggly beard and dark eyes. I told him that I would be happy to sit with him in this time of anxiety, and pray with him if he desired. AI understand you are Jewish,” I said, thinking that I might try to locate his rabbi if he had specific religious needs. He shook his head, and began awkwardly attempting to cross himself in an Orthodox manner. “Oh!”, I said, “You’re Orthodox!” Apparently, he had been misunderstood. “Actually, so am I!” I said. His eyes registered surprise and joy, and he began crying calmer, gentler tears. He took a pad and wrote in large, shaky letters, “I am Orthodox. I am scared.” I put my hand on his shoulder and consoled him, and after a short conversation, via the notepad, about his surgery and his fears, I offered to pray for him. I taped an icon of the Resurrection on the wall across from his bed, and standing beside him, chanted the Trisagion prayers and a Psalm. Andrew became visibly calmer; a sense of peace came over his face. He left for surgery, trusting in God’s protection. I did not see Andrew again, but I believe that God led me to him on that early morning, to ease his fears and to refocus his heart on God’s loving presence in a time of suffering.

Consider how much more complete would this story have been if, having been ordained to the diaconate, the chaplain could have brought communion to this afflicted, ailing and frightened man?

It is my hope that the Church will not only restore the ordained female diaconate, but revitalize the office, encouraging women to serve within the community and the Liturgy B borrowing the words of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel of blessed memory B in the Acontext of the culture and present requirements of the day.”

* * *

Teva Regule has completed her Master of Divinity degree at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and is now pursuing a second level master’s degree in liturgical theology. She is managing editor of the St. Nina Quarterly (www.stnina.org). This is an abridged version of a paper presented at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship Conference held in Maryland in September. The full text, with footnotes, is on the OPF web site in the Resources section.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51


Removing the Wall Between Mary and Martha

by Mother Raphaela

Vermeer’s painting of Mary and Martha with Christ

Again and again during the year we hear the story of the sisters Mary and Martha being visited by Jesus. While Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching, Martha was busy in the kitchen. Finally she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”(Luke 10:38-42)

I’ve always had a hunch that, before the Lord arrived, Mary was right there with Martha getting all the food ready and cleaning the house. Martha’s problem was that she didn’t know how to enjoy her parties. My guess is that Mary was a good hostess, the kind who prepares everything ahead of time so that, when the guests arrive, she can sit down and enjoy them. But Martha was sure her guests needed to be waited on hand and foot. The Lord rightly corrected her.

Martha’s error is one many of us fall into, especially if we are task oriented. In our effort to be perfect, we end up doing things that don’t need to be done. While we may gain the satisfaction of seeing many tasks or projects completed, we may lose companionship along the way.

Because of St. Luke’s story, Mary has come to stand for the contemplative life, while Martha stands for the active life. But when we talk this way, we are taking one small episode in the lives of these sisters out of context, assuming that Martha spent her entire life busy serving while Mary was always listening.

Church tradition tells us that both women went on to be Myrrhbearers. Later, according to ancient local traditions in France and England, they became apostles and evangelists.

We see Martha in a different light in St. John’s Gospel. Here she makes the same confession of faith as Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The Lord had taught her a lesson and she learned it.

We should emulate both women, combining in ourselves both their good qualities. In an early story of desert monasticism, we are told of visitors who came to the monastery but were scandalized when they were asked to help with work. They complained that they had come to pray. So, the story goes, they were given use of a room in which to pray, but were not called when it was time to eat.

It doesn’t take long for humans to discover that they are not quite up to a totally non-material angelic life. St. Paul tells us that those who choose not to work should not eat. On an empty stomach, work begins to look good.

For the healthy and able, there is no such thing as a contemplative life stripped of all activity. Balancing the two is the key to life.

Priests’ wives have often told me that they embraced their marriage not only because they loved the husband, but also because they love God and the Church and were eager to combine married life with a deeper engagement in the liturgical life of the Church. But instead of living this wonderful life of constant Church services and prayer, and perhaps even serving the poor and otherwise helping mankind, they found themselves at home changing diapers, wiping dripping noses, and listening to parishioners’ complaints.

Novices sometimes make similar complaints. We have a farm at our monastery which means hard work. We also have a guest house to clean, meals to prepare, lawns to mow, snow to plow, bills to pay, finances to manage, furnaces and plumbing and roofs that need maintenance – and we must do it all without husbands or children to help. Plus we’re the ones responsible for making sure that services are sung in our chapel on a daily basis, usually without benefit of a priest.

So how do we manage to be contemplative nuns? It’s a problem not very different than that faced by many priests’ wives. How can we be both converted Marys and Marthas, holding together the good qualities of both?

Whatever our calling, we need to be fed with the Word of God in both Scripture and Sacraments, but if that food does not give us the eyes to see and the hands to work and the hearts to love whomever and whatever God wills to send us each day, then something major is missing. Because truly, every Christian vocation requires us to live one day at a time before God, accepting that He allows whatever happens to be for our salvation. This can seem hard.

The spiritual life does not mean spending 24 hours a day in church, but we do have to choose to take the spiritual, mental and physical nourishment we need in God’s providence to live the lives we have chosen. And indeed it is true that “not to decide is to decide.”

This means learning that we have choices about saying “no” to certain things around us. Far too many people seem to feel they have no choice – they “must” watch television, must play computer games, must get their children to every sports or school event, etc. Living such a life, there is indeed no room for prayer, or for time spent together as a family, little or no time for church, no time for learning about the faith and the saints who have gone before us.

Consider not only Mary, the sister of Lazarus, but Mary, the Mother of God. It is in the mother of Jesus that we find our best example of becoming a Christian. In St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, after hearing the news from the Archangel Gabriel that she would be the Mother of God, Mary’s response was to go to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, then in her sixth month of pregnancy. She stayed three months, no doubt helping out until John was born.

Beneath all the glowing poetry the Orthodox Church has heaped upon the Theotokos is a sober and practical veneration for her. She is so important in the Church because her created humanity received the uncreated fullness of God.

At the Council of Ephesus, St. Cyril of Alexandria fought for her title, Theotokos, in order to make sure that the Church would never forget that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, was born as a human infant to a fully human mother.

This may not seem so important an issue in our time, but earlier generations found it hard to accept that God could walk on this earth as a human person.

We still have a touch of this. We have one way of relating to the “real world” and another way of being when we shift into a “religious” mode. Being able to weave it all together, to see Mary as both a wife and mother whose feet were planted firmly on the ground, and at the same time to realize that she brought God into the world – that her womb became “more spacious than the heavens;” this really is a stretch for us, perhaps even more than for our ancestors.

As she always has been since the day she met the Archangel Gabriel, Mary is the way to God for us. In her own person, she combines the two “Mary and Martha” vocations of contemplation and activity. It is crucial to have a healthy relationship with her as our spiritual mother.

With Mary, we realize that God needs women. He set up His creation in such a way that He could not enter it as a man without a woman. When one tries to throw Mary out, as so many Protestants have done, we may get the impression of a God who can do just fine without women.

Even in the Orthodox Church we find people who have this attitude. It can lead, for example, to those who think the Church needs only spiritual fathers and that everything is about power. If they are the ones with that power, they should rule the Church, and if they do not have that power, they should challenge those who do.

It may never even occur to such people that women (and often lay men as well) can and should be taken into account and be given more to do than show up for services, bake pieroghis or baklava, clean the church, give money, organize parish festivals, and repair cassocks.

Provided women continue to be mothers, spiritual motherhood is a reality that is urgently needed in the Church. Women can also be excellent administrators, task completers, etc.

Whether men or women, we all need to become saints: While monks in this country are frequently named after American saints, we can’t do the same for our nuns. Sadly, there are as yet no recognized female American saints.

Many of the so-called (and sometimes rightly so-called) “oppressive patriarchal attitudes” in the Church are in fact relatively late developments in Orthodox culture. Historically, widows and deaconesses had official ministries in the Church for hundreds of years.

We nuns who serve at the altar in our own chapels and do some teaching are the remnants of part of that ancient practice. St. Elizabeth, the New Martyr of Russia, consciously revived the aspect of the serving diaconate when she founded her order of deaconnesses in the early 20th century. We also see an example of this in the life of another modern martyr, St. Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris.

A deaconess is different from a deacon. I am not advocating that we women be ordained as clergy. That is another issue. I will say, however, that I think the desire that some express to have women priests in the Orthodox Church comes in part from the vacuum created by the exclusion of women from legitimate ministries.

Mary and Martha, as the women they became, provide a strong corrective to many of our misshapen ideas and impressions. Both sisters were not averse to serving as handmaidens. Both were also women of faith. Both stand in prayer with the Theotokos and share in the same glory and honor of the Queen of all creation.

All of us are called to serve, as St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians: “He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” (Eph 4:10-13).

In the light of our varied callings to prayer and service in both the Church and the world, let us seek Mary, the Mother of Jesus, together with the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany. These three women continue to be here with us as strong, active and praying presences, challenging our view of ourselves as well as our view of them and of our God.

Mother Raphaela Wilkinson is abbess of the Community of the Holy Myrrhbearers in Otego, New York. Her books include Living in Christ and Growing in Christ: Shaped in His Image, both from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. She is also a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49

Wanderings and Wonderings About Women and Walls

By Demetra Velisarios Jaquet

The common purpose of the Eucharistic community is to listen and respond with gratitude, love and obedience to God’s call to holiness.

God created the first human community, Adam and Eve, who through disobedience separated themselves from God and ushered in an era of fallen human nature, where discord and blame cause men and women to seek domination over each other. When one person dominates, the other loses identity. The call to holiness is a call back to full relationship with God, and with others, thereby fulfilling our potential for full human personhood and sacred community.

Our theological anthropology of harmonious complementarity between male and female somehow has not played out successfully in our parishes. The cathedral of theology which we paint so well conceptually so often looks more like a shanty when we view it through the lens of actual praxis.

It is true that the rich diversity of women’s informal ministries has adorned the Church for centuries – building family life, educating youth, helping and visiting the needy. Women have become saints, martyrs, confessors, witnesses, teachers, prophets, evangelists, and monastics, just as men have.

In recent times, women in many parishes have been welcomed by their parish priests onto parish councils and into leadership roles in the life and ministry of the laity within the community. Their participation in diocesan and archdiocesan committees, in International Orthodox Christian Charities and in the Orthodox Christian Mission Center has grown, and for decades women have enjoyed access to theological education at many Orthodox seminaries.

Nevertheless, many women today report that affirmation and blessing of their own and other women’s service within the Church is highly uneven, depending variously on pressure placed by influential parish members, sinful incursions into Church communities of sexual stereotyping or discrimination, ethnic and cultural tensions within the parish, reaction against more radical forms of feminism, or occasionally the arbitrary inclinations of local clergy or the arbitrary fiat of a local bishop. The age-old sins of sexism and hardness of heart continue to infiltrate our Church communities.

After fifteen years chairing the international group Women’s Orthodox Ministries and Education Network, I have heard dozens of stories from women who offered their gifts and talents within the Church, but who too often were met with the tacit message, “We really don’t need you after all.”

Few women have been tonsured as readers, or allowed to hold the cloth at the distribution of communion, to carry a fan in a procession, or assist liturgically in any way. Most parishes still carry infant boys into the altar area at the forty-day churching, but not infant girls. Little examination and no renewal of liturgical language and prayers demeaning to women has been accomplished.

Even worse, it is appalling to hear from women that they are still having to deal with myths and demeaning local practices with regard to issues of the “uncleanness of women,” barring them from communion at certain times of the month, and barring them from reading the Epistle or chanting.

Many women in today’s Church are feeling the call to explore emerging ministries to meet the needs of our time, and they are eager for the Church to welcome, support and encourage them in these ministries. Women are volunteering and engaging in training for formal ministry as hospice and hospital chaplains, pastoral counselors, parish nurses, pastoral care-givers, social workers, prison and nursing home chaplains, as well as studying and teaching theology and religious studies, and engaging in ecumenical work and dialogue. Sadly, all seems threatening to some our fellow Orthodox Christians.

Women are also deeply serious about their sense of being called to offer both pastoral and liturgical assistance in the parish. A welcome sign of the times is that the restoration of the ancient order of Deaconess is being discussed more and more by Orthodox laity and being studied by Orthodox bishops.

At a conference at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania in 2004, Orthodox women from all jurisdictions in America were polled. Over 63 percent of the women believed that defining and reinstating the Order of the Deaconess was “very important” while an additional 12 percent thought it “important.”

These women expressed a longing for more support from the Church for their ministries, but in a number of cases reported problems in acceptance of their ministries in local parishes. Yet they also revealed that, while they are distressed about these problems, in many cases they were not discussing them with their priests and bishops. Often they share their difficult experiences within the Church only with other women. The question arises: why keep these problems confidential?


Silence when it is time to speak: Few women have dared to speak up or make any effort at dialogue on these issues within Orthodoxy. Many are silenced by being told that to do such-and-such “is not the Orthodox way.” Some find it difficult to pursue spiritual growth within a community that avoids addressing their concerns as women. Others experience the chronic discouragement they encounter as just too much, causing them to minimize community engagement or even leave the Church.

One cannot absolve women themselves of the burden of their complicity in bad outcomes in the parishes by putting all the responsibility on those in leadership positions. Sometimes choosing to avoid the tensions of lay leadership allows the layperson to evade the baptismal demand to live in witness and mission for Christ.

Speaking out about the anti-feminine biases which so often creep into the Church is too daunting a task for many women. Not wanting to cause conflict or to risk being regarded as trouble-makers, they often opt for silence. Or they don’t want to lose the unacknowledged benefits of acquiescing to the status quo, choosing to preserve responsibilities assigned to them without the accompaniment of due authority, even at the expense of their own integrity.

There are women who shy away from developing a more active role in parish life because they fear they will be seen as less female. Women are often expected to maintain a certain “innocence” and trustfulness, at least pretending to leave it to the men to know “the ways of the world.” If they let it be known that they are just as aware as men about how to navigate in the real world, they are frequently told that they have let their intellect undermine their faith.

There is a difference between being child-like and childish.

“Childish” means never to grow up, never to be fully aware of the reality of one’s own surroundings, to remain ignorant or unaware of difficult subjects, and to avoid coming to terms as responsible persons with the world around one.

On the other hand, the Gospel quality of being “child-like” means innocence with wisdom, acceptance of the honor and the burden of perpetuating hope, joy and faith by wading into the deep water of life with all its complexities, and doing so with openness and love.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for many women is to acknowledge – to confess – that many of our wounds are self-inflicted by our own unwillingness to state our case squarely, with honesty and love. We women must assume our share of responsibility for tolerating cultural norms of competition and dominance which beget the evils of sexual discrimination. We can and must act courageously and speak openly, regardless of rebuffs or attacks, and we must do so with trust, precisely because the body of Christ is dedicated to a transfigured life. To invite transformation, we must identify within ourselves and our communities the obstacles that make a mockery of Saint Paul’s words that, in Christ’s body, there is “neither male nor female.”

Obstacles to dialogue: Too often, we handle flawed customs in the Church by denying they exist; instead we attempt to focus on what we all are grateful for. We try to avoid all conflict. This is a time-tested strategy for salvation, but does little to help average folks in a parish resolve disagreement or conflict in a healthy way, let alone fulfill their potential for living as one sacred community.

Again and again we fail to address the difficult tensions that come with diversity and to experience conflict within the Church in a transformational way. While we acknowledge the unique distinctions between men and women, we fail to move on to the obvious conclusion that therefore some distinct ministries by women may be appropriate today, as they were in the early Church, and that the uniqueness of women’s insights might be necessary for the Church’s fullness. In parishes that are shrinking or simply not growing, we avoid discussing some of the possible reasons for our lack of growth as a community. By our silence, we make an idol of the status quo.

There are areas in which welcome change is obvious. In recent years Orthodox jurisdictions have paid serious attention to the need for accountability regarding sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy. Few priests any longer counsel women to “go home where they belong” when women reveal in confession that they are being violently abused by their husbands. But instances of more subtle abuse are often met with less sensitivity and less concern for victims of abuse.

Dialogue stoppers: There are many tools for avoiding subjects that are too risky or scary to talk about. Among these are dialogue stoppers. The most popular way to silence a Christian woman who finds the courage to speak is to say something like, “Let’s not talk about women’s concerns. Let’s talk about human concerns instead. There are already too many things that divide us. Rather than focus on the ways in which we’re different, let’s focus on the ways we’re alike.”

Unfortunately, the only persons who can really afford the comfort these sentiments intend are those who have power over others, who do not need to explore differences because they run the system.

When women are deprived of the freedom of exploring what it means to grow up female in a male-dominated Church, they are robbed of their experiences and a part of themselves. Our theology reminds us that our differences are part of what gives us our unique identity. Once we are dissuaded from embracing the uniqueness of our differences by backing off from our own issues and focusing on “common” concerns, we restore the status quo and relegate women to playing a subservient role in a male-dominated system. This does nothing to help anyone become more Christ-like.

Another way to stop dialogue is for men to shake their heads and say patronizingly, “You women are so mysterious – we men can never understand you!” The implication in this statement is, “So why try?” It sounds like flattery, but actually it’s dismissal.

Women are often silenced in the presence of a man who considers himself a champion of women’s equality and a trailblazer in supporting it. He bridles if he is informed of a sexist attitude or behavior on his part. How can he be so misunderstood? Doesn’t he say all the right things? Doesn’t the fact that he tries so hard mean anything? After all, he is one of the few men who really tries to understand and support women. The message is: if what we are saying or doing upsets or threatens him, we ought to stop.

Another time-tested method of preventing dialogue is to accuse those women who are seen as asking questions that ought not to be asked of “not being a true Orthodox Christian.” This is effective whether used against a cradle Orthodox, who ought to know better, or against a convert, who clearly is still under the pernicious influence of a “non-Orthodox upbringing.” A variation is to accuse Orthodox women active in ecumenical settings of being “polluted by the Protestants.”

But being a true Orthodox does not mean never having a differing opinion or never having a conflict. Even the Church Fathers had their disagreements! When you back off from your own perceptions and convictions, the Church loses the uniqueness of your contribution.

What all dialogue stoppers have in common is that they open the cavern of fear and insecurity, and abort the process of dialogue. These techniques of distraction, discounting, and avoidance are commonly used when the stress and anxiety of staying in real dialogue is getting too high and someone needs a way out. Usually people will try several times to stop dialogue and then either give up and leave the room for some “emergency,” or lose control, get angry, and begin shouting.

Dialogue stoppers by definition inhibit growth and change, and maintain a closed system at the expense of the people within it. Dialogue stoppers are key tools for building and stabilizing walls between people. However, once named and calmly faced, they lose their power.

Recognizing dialogue stoppers is just the first step toward letting down walls within parishes. Our memories of past hurts, and our expectations of being hurt again, tend to drive us apart and keep us apart. Refusing to sink hopelessly into the status quo, we must forgive those responsible for past hurts and stay calmly present in the dialogue. This takes preparation by drinking deeply of the waters of contemplative prayer and opening ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.

Sanctified opposition: To dismantle the walls, we must encourage what I call “sanctified opposition” within our church. This means we must explore our differences and admit to the specks we discern in the other’s eyes while humbly remembering the forest of logs in our own. We need not dwell on evil, but neither do we dare to ignore it. Choosing dialogue with continued prayer in an engaged atmosphere of encouragement, openness and trust sanctifies conflict.

Sanctified opposition doesn’t just bless conflict as a tool for use in healing. It is more than healthy conflict utilization. Sanctified opposition is a prayerful engagement wherein both parties invite the presence of the Holy Spirit Who helps us, emptied of ego, to interact with the other deeply, entering into the other’s sacredness and being changed by it. Sanctified opposition within the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit’s presence and action within us is the mysterious process by which God’s grace transforms the very nature of our differences into a sacred shared communion of being with God.

The effort to be lovingly honest in continuing dialogue even when that means loving our way through disagreement could pull down walls. Sanctified opposition, when conscientiously practiced under the umbrella of prayer, can become a sacrament of healing for both persons and communities.

Walls of dear: The walls which most need to be pointed out between men and women are primarily the walls of fear, defensiveness and ego which we have built around ourselves, causing us to harm others on a sliding scale from occasional minor offenses to extreme and chronic paralyzing abuse. From behind those walls emanate arrows of accusation, domination and forced submission which are an affront to God and to God’s spirit and action within us.

Dr. Demetra Velisarios Jaquet, D.Min., M.Div., is a retired pastoral counselor and spiritual director in Denver, Colorado, USA. She teaches religious studies at Regis University, Denver, and trains chaplains and chaplain supervisors at the Rocky Mountain Center for Education and Training. She is chair of the Women’s Orthodox Ministries and Education Network (www.OrthodoxWomensNetwork.org) and President of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion (www.ocampr.org). She can be contacted at [email protected] Portions of this paper have been published previously in “Women in Orthodox Christian Traditions” in The Encyclopedia of Women in Religion in North America, Indiana University Press, 2005.


From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48