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What Beef Have Women Theologians with Divine Order?

Orthodox Theologies of Women and Ordained Ministry

Rebecca Herman

When my husband and I, after a long struggle within the Anglican Communion, were in the process of becoming Orthodox, we were struck and comforted by our priest’s fundamental catechetical premise: “In the Church, we believe that which has been revealed to us.” With equal assurance, he taught that the Faith undoubtedly goes through changes and development in many areas but divine revelation is the same yesterday, today, and forever. You are free to disagree – even to disbelieve – yet, he maintained (as I believe does the Church) that some matters are settled and not up for negotiation. Thus it is that I do not believe women were, are, or ever shall be, called by the Church to the ordained priesthood. I believe this order to be God-ordained and neither a punishment for my sex, nor a glorification of my husband’s.

My purpose in this review is not to sway another’s opinion on women’s ordination; most are content and firm in their present position. I also do not cover the topic of the female deaconate, being content, myself, that some things are allowed by the Holy Spirit to die out. I do hope, however, that Dr Valerie Karras’s argument for women priests sways no one toward acceptance of the novelty; up against the weight of Revelation and Tradition, her premise, though intriguing, is lacking. Furthermore, I am surprised and disappointed that St Vladimir’s Seminary believed Karras’s piece worthy of publication in Thinking Through Faith—New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars (Aristotle Papanikolaou and Elizabeth H. Prodromou, eds; St Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY, 2008).

In all charity and due respect—new perspectives, indeed—shame on them!

An old saying came to mind while reading Karras’s article, and I paraphrase: “She who defines the terms wins the argument.” From the first time she used it, I knew that Karras’s term “women’s liturgical participation” was going to be key to her argument. When you are no longer talking about order, as in holy orders and ordination, but about liturgical participation, the rules of engagement have changed. In fact, while making counter-argument notes in the book’s side margin, over and over again, I wrote order and revelation. (Granted, there are a few places where I wrote OK as well as OMG!)

At times Dr Karras lets others do the heavy lifting when it comes to weighty controversy. For example, she quotes Elisabeth Behr-Sigel as part of the forward:

“An Orthodox woman who is competent to do so can occupy a New Testament teaching post in a prestigious theological faculty such as that of Thessalonica. She is, however, not permitted to read the Gospel in the worship of the people of God. An Orthodox theological conference declares unanimously that ‘any act denying dignity to the human person, any discrimination between men and women based on sex is a sin’. But, following a custom that has progressively been established in the Orthodox Church, women remain barred from the altar” (p.114).

However, the embedded quote was taken from the same Inter-Orthodox Theological Symposium held in Rhodes, Greece from October 30 to November 7, 1988, which stated:

As might be expected, much attention was paid by the symposium to express the view that the Orthodox Church could not envision the possibility of the ordination of women as presbyters or bishops. According to the official "Conclusions" of the consultation, this position was not the result of cultural and social factors, but rather is reflective of the church's understanding of Christ and of the reality of men and women.

Karras tempts one to leaping jumps of justification with insufficiently referenced words such as these:

“In the United States, at least three priests, one in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and two others in the Orthodox Church in America, were prohibited in the past several years by their diocesan bishop and their Synod of Bishops, respectively, from continuing to include girls among their parish’s acolytes. The hierarchs’ rationales ranged from fear of negative reactions from traditionalist elements within the church, in the former instance, to an argument, in the latter, that female acolytes were contrary to tradition because only men have served within the altar (which is historically untrue)” (p.115).

With regard to the above quote, Karras offers the following footnote:

“With respect to the contention that ‘only males are to be admitted to service within the holy altar,’ this is patently untrue, whether one considers the ordination of female deacons at the altar in the Byzantine Church, the regular acolyte activities of nuns in monastic churches, or the informal functions of older women maintaining the sanctuary in Greek parish churches or assisting in the vesting of the clergy in the altar areas of the great cathedrals of Russia” (pp.115-116).

As far as I know, at least as I was taught, no one should go into the holy place (the altar) without a blessing. There are, as Karras noted, instances where females are blessed to go behind the iconostasis. It is interesting to note, however, that she places no proscriptions on those who do so (e.g., post-menopause), but that would, no doubt, lead her back toward the so-called traditionalist elements. Why on earth do Russian clergy need women’s help vesting in cathedrals? That one seems completely out of left field. As the befuddled, such as my sixteen year old son, are known to say, “I got nuthin.” In this case, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Really, though, since when is “traditionalist elements within the church” a questionable position? In my experience, a stance against such would seem a slope worthy of avoidance. (In other words, sans the traction of tradition, you may slide.) May God bless the hierarchs who prohibited these innovative priests from such “untraditional elements.”

Karras then sets up her foundational paradigm with this introduction:

“Unfortunately, both proponents and opponents of restricting women’s liturgical participation rarely explain their argument’s underlying theological anthropology explicitly” (p.122).

Now, substitute the word Tradition or Revelation for “restricting women’s liturgical participation” and you’d have a different problem. That is, both Tradition and Revelation imply God’s guidance and order (assuming, as one ought, there is such a thing). Whereas “restricting women’s liturgical participation” sounds like a rights issue. Better yet, substitute women’s ordination to the priesthood for “restricting women’s liturgical participation” and you’d have a more honest quandary. She continues:

“Even more rarely do they recognize where their particular anthropological view fits with the broader ‘timeline’ of salvation history – in other words, where it lies in the progress of human history from creation to the eschaton (the ultimate end). While most of the Fathers do not articulate their views in the type of clearly organized fashion we use today, most of them do – implicitly, at least – develop their theological anthropology in the context of a timeline of human development. This timeline contains several stages:

STAGE I – God’s eternal plan for humanity before creation (ahistorical ideal humanity);

STAGE II – God’s creation of humanity and its existence in paradise (prelapsarian humanity), which need not be understood literally;*

STAGE III – humanity on earth, after the fall and the expulsion from paradise but before Christ (postlapsarian humanity BC);

STAGE IV – humanity on earth, after Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection (postlapsarian humanity AD); and

STAGE V – humanity in its resurrected state, after Christ’s second coming (eschatological humanity). [pp.122-123]

I guess if one views holy orders within the Church as the culmination of human development, then this 5-stage structure has a future. But, it has no past (at least within the Church) when it comes to women’s ordination to the priesthood. Karras’s anthropological paradigm, rather than reflecting Tradition, displays a form of ecclesiastical evolution.

“[L]iturgical practice—the lex orandi (rule of worship)—is, or should be, related to the lex credendi (rule of faith). This dictum, however, is not always true, particularly where liturgical traditions are based on social, cultural, and other non- theological factors.* But, the assumption that it is operative with respect to women’s liturgical participation has thus led many Orthodox both in writings and at various theological dialogues to assert unequivocally that the Church’s theology does not support the ordination of women to the priesthood” (p.126).

See the asterisk marking the sentence (above)? That sentence was, to me, the assumption! Divine order is based on social, cultural, and other non-theological factors? Our Lord was [sic] truly God and truly man – but with certain limitations? The mind boggles. (Besides, it is a fact that female priests were a reality in Old Testament and New Testament times – just not within the revealed faith of Judeo-Christianity.)

Using giant leaps of logic, after mentioning women preachers in the ancient Church and virgins and deacons [i.e., deaconesses] chanting in the Byzantine era, Karras says:

“Ironically, those who would restrict women from liturgical activities outside of those of the laity as a whole believe that they are being traditional and Orthodox by excluding women from contemporary participations in liturgical activities in which, historically, they have participated” (p.143).

Here, in a footnote, she cites Acts 21:9 and 1 Corinthians 11:5. She also states: “and as commented on by early church fathers such as St John Chrysostom” (p.143).

    Acts 21: 7-9: When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; and we greeted the brethren and stayed with them for one day. On the morrow we departed and came to Caesarea; and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. And he had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied (emphasis on Acts 21:9, mine).
    1 Cor. 11:5: … but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.

I’ve poked around enough in the writings of St John Chrysostom to know that, though he may have mentioned women preachers, he never advocated the ordination of women to the priesthood. Given the veiling portion of the Corinthians passage and the context of the one from Acts, I will let them stand alone.

She then asks:

“Why is male domination of woman considered ‘God-ordained’ by persons who have no theological opposition to receiving treatment for cancer or using machinery to avoid manual labor?” (p.143)

Male domination? Now there’s a defining term! Within our struggles with the consequences of The Fall we are to find a back-handed argument for women’s ordination? It’s interesting that Karras’s paradigm is all about anthropology as opposed to Divine Order and Revelation as perfected in Christ. Order, as I believe St Paul would agree, works both ways, male and female. It is not, however, about male domination.

Dr Karras includes a curious footnote to her 5-stage anthropological paradigm:

“It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the question of whether or not one understands the creation account(s) in Genesis in a literal manner. Certainly, the Greek Fathers were generally unconcerned with a literal approach to understanding the significance of Genesis, and most modern Orthodox theologians do not view evolutionary theory as being incompatible with the belief that God is the ultimate Creator. This means that what is important are the theological concepts of humanity’s movement away from God, God’s movement toward humanity, and humanity’s responsive return back toward God, but one need not believe that the discussion of Adam and Eve in paradise refers to an actual time and place on earth” (p.123).

When readers are told that their belief (e.g., literal or allegorical) in the story of The Fall is inconsequential to the scope of this article — and then to base one’s entire argument on a paradigm of prelapsarian, postlapsarian, and eschatological humanity—seems to suggest that interpreting the story the old way is not required but please, whatever you believe, apply the modern virtue of [obvious] eschatological egalitarianism to it. (In this understanding of the story, Eve = good; New Eve = bad.)

Troubling, though not surprising, is Karras’s disdain for Motherhood. Why is it that one of God’s greatest gifts, one which is only available to women, is so suppressed and diminished by those aspiring to spiritual “fatherhood”? For instance:

    “This emphasis on gifts, functions, and roles as gender-defined is particularly troublesome when the function and behavior of one woman—the Theotokos—is extrapolated to all women. That the Theotokos was not one of the Twelve does not mean that no woman could ever be an apostle. In fact, the Apostle Paul ranks Junia as an apostle in Rom 16.7 …” (p.150).

It’s obligatory for Dr Karras to bring this up, yet providential that I’d just read an article in Touchstone magazine dealing with the subject of Junia and her inclusion in the “women’s right to ordination” agenda:

“Those who, believing her to be an apostle, are concerned to maximize the status of Junia, appear to be on the horns of a dilemma. Either they can make her out to be a leading apostle in a maximal sense of that word, together with Peter, James, John and Paul—in which case they have a major problem explaining her almost- invisibility in the records; or they can assign to her an apostleship in a minimal sense of that term, perhaps like that of Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25—in which case, they have not proved anything that will be of much use to them in their sociocultural agenda” (Touch, p.26)

“If Junia is needed to validate the ‘leadership roles’ of such women as these, then good luck to her. But there are no reasons for seeing Junia and her status as having any relevance to the question of admission of women to the presbyteral or Episcopal priesthood of the ancient churches, in which the sacerdos images the Father and the Bridegroom of his church. Whether it has or has not had any bearing upon the admission of women to the non-sacerdotal ministries of the Reformation tradition, I would not presume to discuss” (Touch, p.27)

[John Hunwicke, former Head of Theology at Lancing College in England, now Senior Research Fellow at Pusey House, Oxford; http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=21-08- 022-f (viewed - 11/6/08).]

Back to Karras and the Theotokos:

“The Theotokos is unique, and her role in the economy of salvation was and is unique. To lump all women into the same category, that is, to assume that all women must act and serve as Christian women in the same manner as the Virgin Mary—something that is never done with Christian men vis-à-vis Christ or any particular male saint—is to ignore the Church’s tradition of canonizing women whose activities and charisms were diverse and to objectify the Theotokos, simultaneously depersonalizing all other women” (p.151).

Granted. But there is no tradition of canonizing women who were ordained to the sacred priesthood. Besides, who are these people that lump all women into the “same category”? Her own words, later in the sentence, show that the Church has, through the ages, recognized and honored various activities and charisms of all Her saints—female and male—all of which are called to emulate the Mother of God!

“The Church’s message is clear: the Theotokos is venerated not just because she is Jesus’ mother, but because she was attentive to God, which made her appropriate to become God’s chosen vessel” (p.151).

Having fled such language in my previous life, I cringe when I hear of the Mother of God referred to solely as “God’s chosen vessel.” She is the Bride of God Unwedded. She was chosen precisely for her faithfulness (i.e., chastity, fidelity). She is the Mother of all Christians and a “role model” for all her children, male and female. She symbolizes the Church which, though an able vessel, is the very Body of Christ.

For Karras, “order” seems to be synonymous with “domination”—

    “The postlapsarian BC model (Stage 3) is biblically grounded in the list of negative consequences of the fall given in Gen. 3:16-19, and is usually used to support male domination over women in the church and family life and significant limitations on women’s liturgical participation … It is strongly inegalitarian and ignores the importance of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection on women’s liturgical life as members of the faith community. Essentially, it makes our fallen condition and specifically our fallen condition from before Christ, normative for the Church. As such, it is insupportable theologically” (pp.152-153).

I have no idea how one can counter such an asinine argument. The Fall of Man is negative — by our own free will and action, yet the consequences of the Fall may be for our salvation. Again, who supports “male domination”? Karras’s arguments seem to go against the very witness of Scripture and the experience, not to mention Tradition, of the Church. All I can do is reread the above quote over and over again and keep coming to the same conclusion: We disagree on what we believe.

Later on, after giving examples of participants in the various “stages” she has devised, Karras says:

“Of course, not everyone fits neatly into just one of these three models: for example, there are many nuns who are living a virtually eschatological life already, but who nevertheless believe it proper to submit themselves to certain gender-based restrictions because they are still women in a fallen world” (p.154).

In the book’s margin I wrote: OMG! Order! But, it is at the end of her piece that Dr Karras, in my opinion, steps completely out of revealed order and tradition (forgive the long quote):

“[T]here is no valid theological reason not to ordain women to the priesthood if we truly operate from an eschatological normative anthropology. Thus, the Logos’ incarnation as a male human being—which has been seen as significant by many of those who oppose the ordination of women to the priesthood, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church—is irrelevant in terms of an eschatologically oriented anthropology. The argument that Christ’s maleness requires the priest’s maleness in order for the priest to be appropriately “christic” in his iconic function is illegitimate since (1) the priest liturgically images the Church (which is symbolically female) more than he does Christ (for example during the anaphora, culminating in the consecration of the bread and wine, he speaks on behalf of the Church); and (2) even more importantly, given Orthodoxy’s incarnational soteriology, any theological argument based on the significance of the maleness of Christ has disastrous consequences for Orthodox soteriology with respect to women. After all, if, as St Gregory the Theologian opined, “that which is no assumed is not healed” (referring to Christ’s taking on of our fallen, mortal human nature in order to restore it), how can female humanity be saved if Christ’s maleness so differentiates him from female humanity that a woman cannot become an icon of him?” (pp.155-156)

Okay, here’s what I wrote in the margin: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Again, I’m speechless. Therefore, I shall let the same Inter-Orthodox Theological Symposium (Rhodes, 1988) cited earlier speak for me:

While men and women equally share in bearing the "image of God," the distinction which allows a few men and no women to be ordained through cheirotonia to this "special priesthood" is a result of the "order of nature." This understanding flows from the deeper understanding of the relation of men and women in the plan of salvation in Christ. This understanding is not viewed "in any case ... as a diminution of the role of women in the Church" (III: 8). Women are of equal honor with men." "As such, women in the Church assume their own rules for the restoration of the distorted image of God, which are a consequence of sin" (III: 8).

Of course, Karras sees things differently:

“Do we really want to advocate for the normative value of a negative consequence of the fall, especially at the same time that we try to alleviate or mitigate the other negative consequences enumerated in Gen 3:16-19 (disease, toilsome work, pain in childbirth, and even death)? (p. 157)

NO! She didn’t! All of these consequences have been alleviated, mitigated—destroyed — in the God-Man, Christ. Our chore is not to do away with these things on earth, but to struggle well with and against them to attain the kingdom of heaven.

Besides, how can she build her salvo upon a story that she’s already informed us need not be understood literally. Perhaps she assumes that those who do understand The Fall, as recounted in the book of Genesis, in a more “literal” sense (i.e., as received and experienced by the Church) are the very ones who need swayed on the issue of women’s ordination? For, as that same catechizing priest taught me years ago: “Where you start determines where you end up.”

I’ll end with another female writer, Frederica Mathewes-Green, who comes at the issue from a totally different angle:

“Since we can't understand sex in the instinctive, body-deep ways our ancestors did, it's natural that we won'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 height or shoe size 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. It's the distinctives 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 palest 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 what previous generations knew about the value of 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.”

[http://lists.ctcnet.net/pipermail/frederica-l/2007-January/000247.html (viewed 11/19/08)]

While I lack the sharpened tools of theological verbiage to counter Dr Karras’s arguments in a scholastically convincing way, I am convinced that we not only do not believe the same things, but that her agenda relies on reaching outside of Revelation and Tradition. I also find it ironic (and unfortunate in a “broad-brush” sense) that comparing her arguments to St Paul’s, with regard to the role of women, I am ever more convicted by St Paul’s. Some women should just keep quiet. I know such a viewpoint differs from that of Dr Valerie Karras. But, then again, really, I’m fine with that. As a woman in the world seeking to bear fruits worthy of the eschaton – even the kingdom of heaven – I’d rather err on the side of the Church “against which there is no law.”

— Rebecca Herman

Wife, mother, woman; happily unordained

Sent to the OCIC by Fr. John Whiteford. Posted 7 December, 2008.