Tuesday, September 23, 2014

OTRF Conference - Inspiration from Time: Women’s Ministries in the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Theological Research Forum’s 2014 Conference, entitled: ‘Inspiration from Time: Women’s Ministries in the Orthodox Church’, was organised from the 8-10 September 2014. This year’s conference took place at High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, where many Orthodox groups have organised conferences all through the 20th and 21st centuries. This year’s OTRF Conference had a unique feature, whereby the OTRF collaborated with the ‘Women’s Ministries Initiative.’[1]




The first day began with a welcome by the organisers of the conference, where Dr Elena Narinskaya welcomed everyone, explaining about this year’s conference and the Women’s Ministries Initiative. Before the first paper was presented, members of the OTRF had prepared a birthday cake for Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, who celebrated his 80th birthday.



The first paper of the conference was given by Metropolitan Kallistos (University of Oxford), on Women and men in the sacramental life of the Church. He explained the traditions and practices undertaken within a number of sacraments in the Orthodox Church. Baptism is the same for both sexes, where Galatians is quoted, neither male nor female; here St Paul refers to Baptism and not Ordination. In Chrismation again there is no difference between men and women, where we have the personal Pentecost of each Christian.
The Churching of a child, on the fortieth day, however, shows a problem. Only the mother and the godparent are required. There is no mention of the father. The prayers have a penitential character, referring to sin, corruption etc. Giving birth seems to sound as sinful and unclean. Many Orthodox mothers wish not to take part in this because they don’t see the birth of their child as a sin. There is a distinction during this service, whereby the boys are led into the Sanctuary and the girls are not. Then the speaker wished to explain the misunderstanding of the canons, in respect to who can or cannot enter the Holy Sanctuary. Only ordained people can go into the Sanctuary, this means only men, but not all men. Exceptions, of course, exist in women’s monasteries.
Confession is ministered to both men and women in the same manner. Metropolitan Kallistos, after talking about Spiritual Fathers, also pointed out the tradition of Spiritual Mothers, who can be a nun or a lay person.  In the Divine Eucharist we also identify a difference. Women cannot receive Holy Communion when menstruating. Ritual purity doesn’t exist in Christian tradition, but in Jewish tradition. What exists in Christianity is moral purity. However, a rule in regards to not receiving Communion applies to men too, when during the night body fluids come out of the body. This applies to priests too, if there is another priest then he should celebrate the Divine Liturgy; if not, then there is a penitential prayer he could say, before the service. Bishop Kallistos, however, stressed that we should accept only moral purity and impurity. 
In the wedding service we observe, during the blessing of the rings, equality between man and woman; mutual reciprocity. Throughout the marriage service we hear about the subordination of woman to man, referring to Scripture, as seen especially in the Apostle reading.
The next service examined was the ordination service. St. Nectarios, depending on some, had ordained some nuns to the level of either deaconess or sub-deaconess. In the West a deaconess is not seen as an equal to a deacon. In the East we have the same prayers and service for both deacon and deaconess. Are they, therefore, equal? Metropolitan Kallistos claimed that they are. On the other hand, Professor Trempelas claimed that they were not, placing them higher than a sub-deacon. Why isn’t it revived? In the ancient Church they did not give communion as a deacon did, they didn’t preach, but they did assist during female adult baptisms. We could rethink the order of deaconesses. The Fathers don’t give a reason for the priest being a male; we base it on tradition. This tells us that there have never been, but not why. The iconic argument is used by many, such as Alexander Schmemann, who took it from the Roman Catholics. In that sense, does a priest represent Christ? This needs to be explored carefully. Can’t a woman represent Him? The Fathers point out and refer to His humanness, He assumed essential humanity. They don’t dwell on the fact that He is a male. Even in the instance of the circumcision of Christ we understand that He was obedient to Jewish Law. Nothing, during the service and the exegeses given on this festivity, says anything about His maleness.
The anointing of the sick and during the burial service we observe equality between the two sexes. In the monastic orders both monks and nuns have equality. In Greek the same word is used, with only the ending being different (μοναχός μοναχή). The only difference between the two is that a nun’s head is covered.
The imperial coronation is also a sacrament in the Orthodox Church, despite not being used today. During this service, the emperor received Holy Communion as a priest, within the Sanctuary. Would an empress receive communion as a priest, by entering the sanctuary, as the emperor did? We have the Russian paradigm, which followed the Byzantine Right. Metropolitan Kallistos pointed out the fact that Empress Catherine, during her coronation, entered the Royal Doors and received Holy Communion. 


The next talk was given by Professor James Nelson (Valparaiso University), who spoke on Body, Soul and Spirit: Psychological Reflections on Gender and Personhood. The speaker analysed the ontology of the person. ‘Modern psychological approaches to gender difference must deal with many epistemological problems and limitations.’[2] Numerous interesting conclusions in respect to gender variations arise from psychological research, producing theological discussions. The speaker pointed out the differences between men and women by examining the structural and functional distinctions in the brains of the two sexes, by giving a neuroscientific study of the brain. Nevertheless, environment and culture also affect the person. ‘Psychological considerations of person and gender from neuroscientific or sociocultural perspectives are interesting and valuable, but ultimately they fail to completely penetrate the inner, active, free and transcendent mystery of the human person. Investigating this core spiritual aspect of the human person is probably more a task for theology than psychology.’[3]


The last paper of the first day was given by Ms Zoya Dashevskaya (St Philaret Christian Orthodox Institute), who spoke on Particular qualities of women’s Church ministries in liturgical and canonical sources. There are many publications on women’s roles in the Orthodox Church. Ministry is not only gender specific; this is a wrong terminology to use. A great part of the paper analysed the role of the deaconess, examining the canonical literature of the Orthodox Church.


The second day began with Morning prayers, followed by a paper given by Dr Justin J. Meggit (University of Cambridge) on The power and practice of early Christian women. The first church was in a house; this is where women have a certain power, in relation to public places. Speaker claimed that they might have had a public role too, on a larger scale than what is believed today. There are a few texts on women in the early church, not only within Christianity, but generally. Early texts on Christian women describe the lives of elite women. When referring to women’s ministries we specifically talk in regards of the household and the family. On the other hand, today the concept of family is constantly changing. Finally, Dr Justin analysed the fact that in the end of Paul’s letters he greets men and women, showing their position within the Church; especially looking at the end of the letter to the Romans.


Fr Ephrem Lash (parish priest at St Anthony the Great and St John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, London) gave a paper on Goats but no Sheep: The Monastery of Assumption. The speaker gave a historical and a personal account on the Monastery of the Assumption, in Yorkshire, about the lives of the nuns, the assistance they had by the Anglicans in collecting money and finally establishing an Orthodox monastery in the North of the country. Unfortunately, currently the monastery is a holiday home; its life was too alien for new comers. The only Orthodox monastery which has succeeded in England is St John the Baptist, in Essex.  


Dr Mary Cunningham (University of Nottingham) gave a paper on Women as teachers and scholars in Orthodox Tradition: the examples of Elisabeth Behr-Siegel and Wendy Robinson. Women have played an important role from the beginning. Some argue that even when St Paul states that women should be silent in the Church, this could refer to a certain time and community. Women prayed, prophesised and taught in the Early Church. The speaker examined further Elisabeth Behr-Siegel and Wendy Robinson. Both are unique; however, they are examined together because they were involved in similar issues. In the past women, such as St Makrina, were respected for becoming like men. Today this is not the case. Their feminism is present, whether they show it, or people perceive it. They both offered excellent works, deepening our understanding of Christian theology. The paper also  analysed ‘Behr-Sigel’s arguments in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood, asking whether such a position could only have been proposed by a female scholar and whether it is likely to gain greater support among lay and clerical Orthodox Christians in the foreseeable future.’ [4]


Mr Nick Mayhew-Smith (Roehampton University) spoke about Anglo-Saxon Double Houses and the Ascetic Endeavour. ‘Few periods in history can claim such a diverse array of female hermits, nuns, abbesses, martyrs and patronesses as the early British church. Some are remembered as mere place names on a map, ancient church dedications hinting at service and sacrifice unknown. Others, such as St Hilda of Whitby, helped shape the course of history, and with it helped define an era of female monastic leadership that has never been seen again.’[5] In the British Isles there is no female protomartyr. St Ia or St Ives is probably the first. Women had a high status in the British Church. Through a number of pictures of statues, the speaker showed the significance given to the female Saints and the Virgin Mary. Women have not left their mark on the British landscape. They have created it.


Mr Michael Sarni (London) examined the topic Anglo-Saxon Double Houses and the Ascetic Endeavour. The British Church withdrew from the Germanic pagan people. There was a comparison between the Church in Britain and in Ireland. In the first case, the death of a king was seen as a martyrdom; no such honours were given to Irish kings. This reminds us of the notion Jesus-King. There were about twenty five double monasteries. In all instances, they were headed by an abbess, who derived from the royal family, who was the king’s daughter, niece or sister.  The abbesses had the same esteem as the queen.


Ms Sophia Androsenko (St Philaret’s Christian Orthodox Institute) gave a paper on Women’s ministries in Catechism in the Transfiguration Fraternity (1990-s until today). This brotherhood unites more than three thousand people in a number of cities. Out of the sixty catechists, twenty seven are women. There is a need for spiritual education. Certain times gender might be an issue. Male catechumens might not want to speak about some sins to a female catechist, and vice versa.


Sister Kassiani Ciupei (Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex, University of Winchester) gave a paper on “If you cease loving you cease living”: Mother Gavrilia, a Woman of Faith. Sister Cassiani began with an interesting depiction of the three stages of life for both sexes, which are the carnal level, psychological level and spiritual level that differ for men and women. Both sexes were equally created in God’s image; there is same salvation for both.
Sister Gavrilia is one of the most well-known nuns in the Orthodox Church. Her moto was: ‘he who loves does not get tired.’ She dedicated her life in helping others. She had said many wise things during her life. ‘Indeed not to hate but to love was I born. There is much more to wonder at, to rescue and to love in the ruins of man than in the most magnificent ruins of stone. Courage, faith, patience, endurance and, above all, hope and joy can take root and blossom in the human heart, if it is given opportunity, if it is given love. The monastic’s prayer becomes a love bomb clearing millions of acres…not only the desert, but half the world. Do not get attached to any place or person, but only to Christ. Go wherever the Holy Spirit will lead you, bringing his love to all, beyond boundaries and discriminations. Your destination is to love.’[6] She travelled the world with these five languages: smile, tears, touch, prayer and love.


Ms Lidia Kroshkina (St Philaret’s Christian Orthodox Institute) spoke about ‘Holy mother’s way’ and its embodiment in service of mother Maria (Skobtsova).This paper analysed, theologically, mother Maria Skobtsova on the ways of Christian service within our modern era and world. Also her activities were described, encompassing liturgical, ecclesiastical, missionary and theological  aspects.


The final paper of the day was given by Mr Dimitris Salapatas (University of Winchester), talking on Women Chanters and Hymnographers within the Byzantine Tradition. This paper analysed the significant issue of chanting and hymnography within the Byzantine tradition, especially when executed by women within the Orthodox Church. There are many views on whether there should be women chanters, what they can chant, when they can chant etc. Scripture, Church History, the Fathers, hymnology and the Tradition of the Church were used in order to verify the practice of the Orthodox Church.
It is evident that within the tradition of the Orthodox Church there are not many women chanters and hymnographers; the most famous being Kassiani, she is merely an exception to the rule. However, what was analysed within this paper is the fact that many male members of the Church cannot accept women as chanters and are against this reality. Personal beliefs, practices and examples were given, showing the practical issues, especially as seen within the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. Women chanters play a key role in the day to day services, where male chanters are absent. Many times, even children chant, in the absence of a male chanter. However, what is their role today? In order to achieve a better understanding of these questions, a questionnaire was produced, which was given to priests and male chanters who follow the Byzantine Musical Tradition. The key objective was to understand the modern trends and the numerous ideas which exist on the issue of women chanters. The questionnaire was answered by 41 people from Albania, Australia, China, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, UK and USA. 
The important factor is to offer hymns and chants to God, as we claim during the Divine Liturgy: ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul: while I live I will praise the Lord; while I exist, I will praise my God.’ In Psalm 50, chanted during Matins, we read ‘O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.’ Therefore, despite Byzantine music being a complicated musical system, whoever is able to chant should do so.


The third and final day of the conference began with the Divine Liturgy, which was celebrated by Fr Andrew Louth. At this point it is important to thank Fr Anastasios Salapatas who brought all the icons, liturgical objects, communion wine, prosforo and anything needed for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. An interesting detail, which was acknowledged by a few of the members of the conference, was the fact that Fr Andrew read the Gospel in English by translating it on the spot from the original Greek.


The first paper was given by Fr Andrew Louth (University of Durham) on St Makrina, Didaskalos. St Makrina was the sister of St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nyssa. The speaker, after giving a biographical account of St Makrina, he showed her importance for her brothers and everyone around her. Fr. Andrew claimed that St Makrina should be the fourth Cappadocian, showing thus her significance for Christianity.


Dr Niki Tsironi (Athens) followed, giving a paper on Female emotion or crossing of boundaries? The Lament of the Virgin in middle-Byzantine literature and art. There is currently an emphasis on women. The speaker gave examples from Ancient Greece and Byzantium, quoting folk songs and poetry. Dr Tsironi explored the ‘connotations of the female expression of emotion with reference to the Lament of the Virgin as expressed in the middle Byzantine period.’[7] The Theotokos, especially before iconoclasm, is depicted hierarchically, as an empress rather than a mother. After iconoclasm we identify human qualities, we observe the awareness she has of the loss of Christ. The death is already present, in the iconographic tradition when depicting the Mother of God. Additionally, the speaker identified the sin of ritual lament, which is seen in Kassiani’s troparion, which is taken from ancient and medieval laments. The importance of the Virgin is identified in the Russian Diaspora and by others within the Orthodox countries.


The last paper of the conference was written by Dr Svitlana Kobets (University of Toronto) who unfortunately could not be present at the conference. Nevertheless, she had sent a copy of her paper and therefore it was read by Rev. Dr Julie Hopkins. The paper was on Female Holy Fools in Eastern Orthodox Tradition.



After lunch, the members of the OTRF conference all met for the Discussion Panel ‘Celebrating Women in the Church Today’, where also the Women’s Ministries Initiative was discussed. Future prospects were examined and also themes for the next Orthodox Theological Research Forum conference, which will take place in September 2015. This event will be advertised as soon as possible. Many thanks have to be given to the organisers and the committee of both the Women’s Ministries Initiative and the OTRF who organised this combined conference in order to promote and examine women’s roles within the Orthodox Church.
For more information on the Orthodox Theological Research Forum (OTRF) and its future conferences please visit the OTRF site.


[1] For more information on this group, please visit their Facebook page - Ministries in the Church: Women and Men in Christ.
[2]Nelson, James, M., Body, Soul and Spirit: Psychological Reflections on Gender and Personhood, Abstracts of Papers for the 2014 OTRF Conference, https://otrf123.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/abstracts-of-papers-for-the-2014-otrf-conference/, accessed 16/09/2014. 
[3] Ibid.
[4]Cunningham, Mary, Women as teachers and scholars in Orthodox Tradition: the examples of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Wendy Robinson, Abstracts of Papers for the 2014 OTRF Conference, https://otrf123.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/abstracts-of-papers-for-the-2014-otrf-conference/, accessed 16/09/2014. 

[5]Mayhew-Smith, Nick, From Ia to Godiva: British women and the pre-Conquest church, Abstracts of Papers for the 2014 OTRF Conference, https://otrf123.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/abstracts-of-papers-for-the-2014-otrf-conference/, accessed 16/09/2014. 
[6] Taken from Sister Kassiani’s PowerPoint presentation, given during her talk on 09/09/14.
[7] Tsironi, Niki, The Lament of the Virgin in middle-Byzantine literature and art, Abstracts of Papers for the 2014 OTRF Conference, https://otrf123.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/abstracts-of-papers-for-the-2014-otrf-conference/, accessed 16/09/2014. 

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