by Frederica Matthewes-Green
Why won’t the Orthodox ordain female priests? Because they understand the mystery of sex.
Controversy over the ordination of women has plagued many denominations, but it hasn’t raised similar furor in the Orthodox Church. This is because our way of approaching such issues provides a clear answer: wherever the early church kept unbroken consensus on a matter, we continue it. Such consensus is not obvious in every issue, but it is here: for 20 centuries there have been no women priests.
There were plenty of women preachers, however. I’ve preached at worship services in Orthodox churches, myself.
We have some semantic confusion here, because many things Protestants consider restricted to clergy are done by Orthodox laity. We have women saints who were missionary evangelists, church-planters, teachers, healers, preachers, apologists, spiritual mothers, counselors, miracle-workers, martyrs, iconographers, hymnographers, and theologians. Holy women do virtually everything men do, except stand at the altar. That leaves the rest of the world—which is where most of God’s work gets done.
St. Theodora the Empress exercised authority over both men and women, and brought a triumphant end to the destruction of icons. St. Nina, a 14-year-old slave, evangelized the entire nation of Georgia. St. Mary Magdalene, St. Helen, and others are called “Equal to the Apostles.” St. Catherine and St. Perpetua were brilliant debaters.
So I don’t mind if Protestant denominations want to ordain women. Many times, this just means allowing them to do things Orthodox women have always done.
Even if we know the Orthodox Church’s stance on the question of women priests, we still don’t know how they got there. Strangely enough, in the vast writings of the early church the question of women’s ordination never comes up. It seems it just was never controversial. Throughout the ages, Orthodox women and men found the all-male priesthood a satisfactory, maybe even a positive, thing. How can we see what they saw?
What Saint Paul Said About Women in the Church
I don’t think we’ll get much help from the usual arguments. Opponents of women’s ordination often start by citing St. Paul’s requirement that women be submissive and silent in church (1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Yet this can’t mean utter silence, because Paul honors many women in active ministry, like the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1). And he hails Euodia, Synteche (1 Corinthians 4:2-3) and Prisca (Romans 16:3) as synergoi (fellow-workers) in the gospel. Vocal prophetesses are found everywhere in the Bible, from Moses’ sister Miriam (Exodus 15:20) to the four daughters of St. Philip (Acts 21:9). The prophetess Anna spoke out in the temple, telling everyone about the child Christ (Luke 2:36-38).
When read in context, it sounds as if St. Paul is concerned about disorder in worship. In 1 Timothy, he admonishes men to pray “without anger or quarrelling” and tells women to be “in hesychia,” a state of prayerful stillness. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says it is “disgraceful” when women talk in church, and equally “disgraceful” when they pray without wearing a veil. Yet few who stand on the former text make a similar insistence on women wearing veils.
Here’s another common argument: a priest must be male because he represents Christ. When I was attending a mainline seminary and aiming toward ordination myself, I would say, sure, Christ was male, and he was also Jewish, and a certain height and hair color. Why isolate only his maleness as indispensable? Surely the fact that he was Jewish is even more significant, but we don’t exclude from ordination people who don’t have Jewish blood.
We don’t find this argument used in the early church; in fact, early Christians reflected very little on why Christ was male. All their attention was focused on the fact that he was human. As Bishop Kallistos Ware points out, Christ’s maleness isn’t even mentioned in the hymns appointed for the Feast of the Circumcision, which would seem the likeliest opportunity. There might be good practical and theological reasons why Jesus was born male, but the early church did not explore them.
Another familiar line goes,
“But we’re not putting women down. Women and men are equal. They just have different roles.”
Okay, but this still doesn’t answer the question. Sure, every person has a unique calling, and every role is “different” from every other. What is it about the priesthood that requires maleness?
In 1988 an Orthodox consultation met in Rhodes and considered some aspects of women’s ministries. They recommended resuming the lapsed practice of ordaining women deacons, and they suggested that in the all-male priesthood there was a correspondence between the priest and Christ, and between the Virgin Mary Theotokos and the Church.
But they were reluctant to explain too much:
“We are in a sphere of profound, almost indescribable experience of the inner ethos of the world-saving and cosmic dimensions of Christian truth.”
Can We Understand Gender Differences the Way Our Ancestors Did?
Not everyone is satisfied with ineffability. When you wonder why there’s this pattern of all-male ordination, some people have a ready answer: it’s because ancient people were dumb. We’re wiser now. Somehow the concept of evolution leaks over from biology to theology, and it’s presumed that our present generation is what the Holy Spirit was aiming at when he came out with flawed prototypes–“dumb people” like St. Macrina and St. John Chrysostom.
I suspect the reverse is true, and that we’re blind to some spiritual realities that were obvious to earlier Christians. Take the value of male and female virginity, for example. I spent a year once reading intensively about saints, and at the end of that time I was convinced that earlier generations knew something we don’t. They seemed to recognize virginity as a source of great spiritual power. (Christianity isn’t alone in this; other great world religions also consecrate male and female monastics. I like the line in the film “Keeping the Faith” where, after a series of nosy questions about celibacy, a Catholic priest mutters, “They sure don’t ask the Dalai Lama those questions.”)
When it comes to understanding the power of virginity or gender differences or anything else related to sex, there’s a good chance we just won’t get it. We live in a whirlwind of intoxicating messages about sex, which present it in a radically anti-holistic way, as if it’s something that happens to an empty body. Consumer-culture sex is an isolated mechanical act with no relation to a person’s past, future, emotions, relationships, or health.
But in reality, sex always occurs in a complete embodied life, one humming with ceaseless spiritual and emotional activity. In this storm of targeted messages, two significant truths are being suppressed: that, as far as any mammalian body is concerned, the underlying urge is actually to reproduce; and that sex involves significant vulnerability, so the most desired quality in a partner is trust.
Since we can’t understand sex in the instinctive, body-deep ways our ancestors did, it’s natural that we can’t understand sex differences. We don’t see any more how savory and good these differences are. While you could sort humans in many ways–by hair color, height or age–the all-time favorite is by sex. We just get a kick out of gender differences, even though most of the human body plan is shared by men and women alike. So it’s those distinctions that we highlight: women’s clothes suggest an hourglass figure no matter what shape the lady inside, while men’s jackets are enhanced by brawny padded shoulders. After a birth the first thing we want to know is “boy or girl?,” and lumpy, indistinguishable newborns are stuffed into baseball costumes or pastel pink. We pass along gender-based jokes, because clumsy stereotypes point toward something that fascinates and delights us. The difference between the sexes is the most cheerful and exhilarating thing we know: it’s where babies come from. The difference between the sexes is how we partner with God in the creation of life.
If we can’t understand the difference between male and female, we sure can’t understand why previous generations accepted, maybe even affirmed, an all-male priesthood. I can only hope that some future generation will regain the peace and clarity we’ve lost, and be able once again recognize and enunciate this mystery.