Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Role of Women in the Orthodox Church

The issue of the role of women in the Orthodox Church is a very current one, which has been examined in many books, articles, conferences and discussions. What is the role of women in Orthodoxy today?
Women in the Church are Saints. We have countless female Saints even living amongst us today. Walking into an Orthodox Church we identify that there are as many female saints as there are male ones, through the icons which adorn the building and by listening to the Synaxarion of the Church, which is read during the Matins Service. The greatest female Saint, of course, is the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, who in Greek is known as Panagia, the all holy one.

Another important role women maintain in Orthodoxy is that of the priest’s wife. This is an important calling within the Church life. The priest’s wife maintains a role in the local community, she is honoured in this role, given the title papadia or presbytera in Greek. This elevates her to a role, which she upholds next to her husband. Being a priest’s son, myself, I observe the importance of the papadia; women prefer to speak to her, take her advice on issues, even concerning theological enquiries. Interestingly enough, St Basil the Great had stated that the priest wife is able to be part of the confession of a woman and give her advice. This exactly shows the significant role she plays within the local community and Church. That is why it is helpful, in a parish to have a married priest. He, through his wife and even his children, is able to achieve a greater ministry in the Church. An important and ever growing role women are gaining is that of teaching, either at a Sunday school level, a school or university level. Spiritual motherhood is another function women have, especially in the monastic context.
An example everyone can relate to, especially here in Great Britain, is the existence of the Ladies Societies, which exist in every parish. They assist in the ecclesiastical life in numerous ways, including raising money for the community, the church, serving on parish councils, assisting for the major events of the community, helping fellow Christians who come from Greece, Cyprus and other countries for health issues to Britain and many more. It is, therefore, apparent, that without women, our churches would not function as well as they do.
I think it’s important to talk about women as chanters, firstly, and then about female deacons, to identify the practice and the Tradition of our Church on these matters.  When looking at the history of Byzantine Hymnography and Music we easily identify the fact that it is dominated primarily by men. Women are not totally absent; they are, however, the exception to the rule. The most famous woman hymnographer is of course Kassiani the Hymnographer (known also as Kassia or Eikasia); she is known for the Troparion of Kassiani which is chanted during Matins of Holy Wednesday, considered as one of the greatest masterpieces within the Byzantine hymnographic tradition.
She was born between 805 and 810 AD in Constantinople, during the reign of Emperor Theophilus (829-842 AD). She was known for her beauty and her cleverness. It is believed that she was part of the ceremony for the bride choice for the Emperor Theophilus, which was organised by his step-mother Euphrosyne. During this ceremony the emperor would choose his wife by giving her a golden apple. Dazzled by the beauty of Kassia, the young emperor approached her and said:  “All the bad things came to this world from a woman” referring to the sin and suffering that resulted from Eve. Kassia then answered: “And all the good things came from a woman”, referring to the Theotokos and to the hope of salvation from the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The emperor’s egoism was injured, which resulted in his rejection of Kassiani, choosing Theodora as his wife.
We know that Kassiani in 843 AD founded a cenobium in Constantinople, near the western walls of the City, where she became the first abbess. It was at this monastery that she began her hymnographical work. St Kassia also wrote secular songs and poems on moral themes which were witty, often crass, sometimes funny, and usually defended women’s rights. She was in close contact with the Monastery of Stoudiou, which played a key role in the re-publications of Byzantine Liturgical Books during the 9th and 10th centuries AD, preserving thus important works. Kassia was not the only female monastic hymnographer. We also know about Thekla, Martha, Theodosia, Kouvouklisena, Palaeologina and many more.
In our churches, here in Great Britain we find that women do chant during the services, giving therefore a richer variety of sound and musical expression to our daily worship. 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.
Moving on, now, to the deaconesses. Female deacons existed during the first centuries of Christianity. In Scripture we find the word deacon in a number of instances, referring to women. Such is the case with Phoebe, who is believed to have been the person entrusted by St. Paul to deliver his epistle to the Romans from Achaia.  In the Epistle to the Romans (16:1), we read ‘Phoebe as serving the Church of Cenchrea as a deacon.’ Phoebe is thus accepted as being the prototype of the women deacon and the first deaconess of the Church. Like St Stephen for male deacons, St Phoebe became an example of faith and service for female deacons. The Orthodox Church also honours St Lydia and St Tryphena, by commemorating them as deacons. The same applies to St Priscilla and St Junia.
A deaconess was honoured as being ‘a type of the Holy Spirit.’  She had a number of duties. She offered pastoral diakonia and charity work and she also had distinctive liturgical functions.  They had a very significant role; for example, in the Apostolic Constitutions we find that, no woman was allowed to speak to the bishop or any deacon, without speaking first to a deaconess.  Additionally, the deaconess also administer Holy Communion to women who were ill, either at their house or the hospital. She would also give donations to the needy women. Pastoral care was also part of the job description, including visits to heathen households so to minister them. However, the most important liturgical services were offered by the deaconesses during the celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism, in particular the baptism of women. Without a female deacon, the baptism of adult women could not take place, due to issues of propriety. 
It is interesting to identify that despite the existence of deaconesses in the Orthodox Church being extinct, there is a small number of exceptions to this rule, which come to us from the 20th century from the East. Before the 1917 revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church prepared some schemes to restore this order. In Greece St Nektarios of Aegina actually ordained a nun on Pentecost Sunday 1911.  Today, there are a few deaconesses in the Orthodox Church; according to one Greek newspaper, To Vima, there are only three Greek deaconesses, without giving their names. It merely states that one is undertaking missionary work in the Far East, the second was ordained by late Archbishop Christodoulos of Greece, when he was still Metropolitan of Dimitriados, and the third lives in Constantinople. 

The role of the women in the Orthodox Church is an important issue. However, the distinction which exists in our world and in the Church, between women and men has no effect to our salvation. This is also expressed by St Gregory of Nazianzus, who stated: ‘The same Creator for man and woman, for both of them the same clay, the same image, the same law, the same death, and the same resurrection.’  The existence of the sexes does not show discrimination but complementarity and reciprocity. This is also highlighted when identifying the existence of thousands of female saints. They are honoured and remembered in the Church daily.
The most important woman saint is, of course, the Virgin Mary. Her role in salvation is crucial. According to the great ecclesial vision, Mary is not the “model” only for women, the prototype of submissive, passive, and oversweet femininity which women today are no longer able, no longer want, to identify themselves with. Mary is not a goddess either, a symbol of a feminist Christianity which is implicitly or explicitly opposed to a masculine Christianity centered on Jesus. . . According to the Orthodox understanding, Mary is fully human and represents all of humanity, the complete humanity which God, in his grace, wanted to freely associate with the realization of his loving plan. She is a sign, the anticipation of a human person entirely given to the Lord, the ultimate eschatological realization of man-anthropos.
The Orthodox faithful always pray to her, saying ‘O, Holy Mother of God intercede for us.’ This intercession is also evident in the iconographic tradition, whereby the Theotokos Platitera is depicted in the Sanctuary, between Heaven (the dome) and the earth. During the Divine Liturgy we sing the hymn: ‘It is truly right to call you blessed, who gave birth to God, ever-blessed and most pure, and Mother of God. Greater in honour than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word; truly the Mother of God, we magnify you.’ This hymn, exactly, shows her importance for us Christians; the role she played and continues to play within the Body of the Church. God in his love sent his Son to be a man, whilst in return humanity offered Saint Mary the Virgin to be the cleansed and perfected vessel in which humanity and divinity meet in the God-manhood of Christ.
Therefore, Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos, played a key role in the salvation of mankind. Without her, Jesus Christ would not be able to be born into creation. In this woman, in this mother sanctified and made fruitful by the Spirit, the divine Agape – Love - took a human body.
The role one maintains in the Church is actually not important, in regards to salvation. This is pointed out when looking at the categories of saints that we have in Orthodoxy; we have, for example the apologists, the equal to the Apostles, the Holy Martys, or even the fools for Christ. These people, women and men, were not priests; in many cases they had a troubled road to salvation; nonetheless, they reached it. Salvation, theosis, which is the objective of Christianity, of our communion with God is reached not by who we are in the Church, a priest, a chanter, a member of staff or even just a simple participant. It is reached if we follow what Apostle Peter says in the Book of Acts (2:38): ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore, Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this renewal is effected not by the discharge, or release, of certain natural energies implied in man’s own creaturely being, but by the “energies” of God Himself, who thereby encounters and encompasses man and admits him into communion with Himself.
Women are, of course, present in the New Testament period, where they played a key role in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Women had profound personal relationships with Jesus of Nazareth: Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, with whom the Lord had a “theological” conversation, Mary of Magdala of the “Easter garden” story and many more. Jesus allowed women to touch him, in both the physical and spiritual meaning of the word. He was not afraid of being in contact with them even when one was a prostitute. He had compassion for their suffering. . . His disciples were surprised by this attitude which contrasted so sharply with rabbinical principles (Jn 4:27 and Lk 7:39). Such an attitude indicated a spiritual direction, introducing a new level of understanding and relationship between women and men.
Their significant role in Jesus’s life is also evident through the fact that they were the first who witnessed His Resurrection. The second Sunday after Easter, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers. This day commemorates when the women disciples of our Lord came to the tomb to anoint his body with myrrh-oils but found the tomb empty. As the women wondered what this meant, angels appeared proclaiming that Christ had risen from the dead. In the Gospel of Matthew we read: ‘And as they went to tell His disciples,[b] behold, Jesus met them, saying, “Rejoice!” So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.’ (Matthew 28:9-10). Also we sing on this day a number of hymns. One of them proclaims: ‘Unto the myrrh-bearing women did the Angel cry out as he stood by the grave: Myrrh-oils are meet for the dead, but Christ has proved to be a stranger to corruption. But cry out: The Lord is risen, granting great mercy to the world.’ Therefore, we can identify the significant and central role women played in Christ’s life and in the life of the Church.
From the above, we understand that the role of women in the Church is considered a ministry. This ministry, in all of its expressions within the Body of the Orthodox Church, is a service offered in the name of Christ. Every expression of ministry, therefore, is meant to build up the body of Christ so that the Church, following Christ’s example – who came to serve and not to be served -, serves the salvation of the world.

Orthodoxy promotes and proclaims equality between women and men, maintaining, however, different and distinct roles within the Body of the Church. Women are the backbone of the Church in that they are the backbone in their respective parishes and homes. The role of a woman and a man in the Church is the same, meaning that we are all members of the Body of Christ. Therefore, the Church is a community in faith, hope and love for both women and men, of the mystery of individuals, ineffably equal yet different, in the image and the radiance of the divine Trinity. 

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