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From the April, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Facing Women in the East by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.

Facing Women in the East

Women and the Priesthood
edited by Thomas Hopko
Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999
(260 pages; $13.95, paper)

reviewed by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.

The declaration of an unofficial meeting of Orthodox and Old Catholic theologians in 1996 that “there are no binding dogmatic reasons present against the admission of women to priestly service”1 caused eyebrows to rise throughout the ecclesiastical world. Were the Orthodox changing their minds? While the Bild Christi und Geschlecht conferences (in Poland and Switzerland) at which that statement was drawn up were not official and did not offer any directive to the respective communions to begin the ordination of women, the words rang oddly in Orthodox Christian ears. The conference’s deliberations (which run to some 281 pages, and are still not published in English), include 14 essays on “The Image of Christ and Gender.” They are at odds on some points with the commonly accepted teachings of Orthodoxy on the matters they address.

That a different perspective was being brought to the ongoing debate in Orthodoxy about the place of women in the Church, and the possibility of their ordination to the priesthood, was further clear with the appearance in 1999 of a new edition of Women and the Priesthood, edited by Dean Thomas Hopko of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. The original edition appeared in 1983, and changes in tone, opinion, method, and viewpoint are clear in the 1999 edition.

The sands have shifted in the ecumenical world to no little degree since the first edition. In the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II would appear to have settled the question of women’s ordination in Inter insigniores, Mulieris dignitatem, Ordinatio sacerdotalis, and, most recently, Ad tuendam fidem, with a decidedly negative response. In catholic-minded traditions that do not have a Magisterium to teach definitively on matters that arise in the development of doctrine and life in the Church, the issue is, on the other hand, more muddled.

In Anglicanism and Old Catholicism, for instance, traditionalist groups hold out with the contention that the ordination of women to the priesthood is an alteration of apostolic teaching and catholic order, while splinter groups and their closely related sects of episcopi vagantes proliferate in response to the official practice of both communions. The effects of women’s ordination have been largely negative—declining numbers of communicants, significant shifts in teaching on the nature of Christian marriage, and even departures from orthodox Trinitarian and incarnational doctrine. Despite these actualities, there appears to be no sign of reversal (which is, officially, still quite possible at least in Anglicanism) in these two bodies, though Southern Baptists—the largest of the Protestant churches—have overwhelmingly reaffirmed their decision not to ordain women.

Currents in Orthodoxy have not remained stable since 1983 either. Still, Hopko makes it clear that “no author in the present volume calls for the ordination of women bishops and priests in the Orthodox Church.” But at least one hierarch—Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh—and several prominent theologians, among them Dr. Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, Dr. Susan Ashbrook-Harvey, and Dr. Constantinos N. Giokarines, support the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Orthodox Church. So do contributors to periodicals such as the St. Nina Quarterly and the Australian Martha and Mary journal. According to Hopko, “they say, simply speaking, that the ordination of women is compatible with, and even demanded by, the anthropology of the Church fathers.”

With such a change in attitudes among clergy and laity alike, a new edition was certainly necessary. Below, I examine each of the essays in its 1983 and 1999 editions.

No Biblical Precedent

George Barrois, who died in 1987, was a biblical archeologist and a convert to Orthodox Christianity. His essay on “Women and the Priestly Office According to the Scriptures” is one of two essays presented without change (except for typographical corrections) from the 1983 edition. The subject for him “is one of burning actuality.” “Only in relation” to “the historic work of Christ,” he writes, “can we ascertain the part of women in the ongoing economy of salvation in and through the Church.”

His aim, then, is “to examine the biblical data in its historical context.” A survey of both the Torah and later Scripture “does not support the thesis of a radical inferiority of women in biblical culture.” For example, the ministry of prophets in Scripture is one aspect of women’s public involvement in the life of Israel. “Biological factors play no part in the exercise of the prophetic charism . . . because it draws its origin not from the will of men but from the Holy Spirit.” But the priesthood for Israel was another matter altogether: “The difference of sexes was a determining element in the organization of Hebrew worship.”

“The New Testament writings,” however, “leave us dramatically short of information on the organization of the Church during the decades immediately following the resurrection.” The later Epistles fill in some of our lacunae, and show men in positions of authority in the first church communities. But they also show women acting as important ministers. Yet Scripture nowhere mentions or gives its approval to the formation of a hierarchical priesthood including women. Just as “the Theotokos had not been called to offer the sacrifice on Calvary, neither would women be admitted as members of the Church’s sacred priesthood.” With no biblical precedent or dominical order, Barrois finds no justification.

“Historical and cultural contingencies aside,” the “sacramental, eucharistic priesthood” is not given to women in communities that claim direct continuity with those in the New Testament. “The life of the Church may call for new forms, but these shall have no chance if they are not traditionally rooted. This is why, if I am asked bluntly whether, in my opinion, women should be ordained to the priesthood, I will, even if I seem to overstep the limits of this essay, give an equally blunt answer: no!”

A Montanist Aberation?

The ecclesiologist Nicholas Afanasiev gives an extremely close and enlightening reading of Canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea in his essay from the 1983 edition, which also remains unchanged in the new edition. The canon, included in the acta of a council whose specific date and membership are unknown, reads, “There shall be no appointment of so-called presbytides or female presidents in the Church.”

Afanasiev examines a large number of hypotheses about just who these presbytides were, and why a council should have condemned them. The scholarly ground on the matter is ambiguous, he admits: “Historians and canonists have yet to agree on answers to these questions.” One theory, which Afanasiev rejects out of hand, is that the presbytides were deaconesses, or the eldest among deaconesses in local churches. He also rejects as ungrounded in fact the idea that they were “archdeaconesses” who presided in some way over deaconesses. Neither clarifies the problem. One hypothesis, which does hold some water, is that of Epiphanius, who wrote that the eldest of the widows—a distinct group in the early Church—were known as presbytides. According to the Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ, “a Syrian document of the fifth century,” however, these women were not accorded a liturgical role higher than the deacons and did not occupy the first place in liturgical assemblies. Afanasiev concludes that Epiphanius’s presbytides may be those of the Syrian text, but that they are almost certainly not the appointments condemned by the Council of Laodicea.

With several hypotheses exhausted, then, “we must conclude that the eleventh canon refers to some totally unique ministry that perhaps was similar to the ministry of widows but not identical to it.” He finally comes to the conclusion that they must have been “female presbyters who apparently did not have defined liturgical functions.” Like deaconesses, they would have had “extremely limited, strictly ancillary” roles in the Liturgy. But a lack of evidence other than the Laodicean canon “forces us to conclude” that presbytides were “not a Church-wide phenomenon,” but rather that they were “limited to an apparently not very sizable circle of several local churches.” Moreover, these particular local churches were probably influenced by Montanism. The council thus likely condemns the further appointment of women who “first appeared not in orthodox churches but in Montanist communities. One way or another, they made their way into several orthodox churches within a very limited geographical circle.” The ecclesial communities into which they insinuated themselves found their presence disturbing, and took appropriate actions to make clear that they were not a catholic order.

Afanasiev is clear that his own conclusion is also “a hypothesis,” but that it is more credible than other hypotheses. Without a greater amount of contemporary evidence, analysis is difficult. In his concluding paragraph, he asks, “If deaconesses sought to take on the full ministry of deacons, and even to expand it, then how much greater would the danger have been if the church authorities had recognized the ministry of women presbyters who had left Montanism?” The Church simply never “recognized in them a priestly dignity,” and the canon in question is further evidence of the antiquity of this non-recognition, which probably dates to the second half of the fourth century.

Not an Instrument of Oppression

Sister Nonna Verna Harrison, an author of several books on patristic and Orthodox theology, contributes her essay on “Orthodox Arguments against the Ordination of Women as Priests.” She is the only new contributor since 1983. Harrison opens with the assertion that “despite the contemporary urgency of the question . . . it needs to be approached slowly and irenically, with much love for God, openness to the Holy Spirit, reverence toward the Church, prayerful study of the Tradition, and respectful concern for today’s men and women.”

In explaining the Orthodox arguments against women’s ordination from the perspective of Tradition, she spends a good deal of time explaining patristic anthropology and scriptural views of gender. She finds the “argument that men should hold all leadership positions in Church, family and society particularly disturbing.” In the Fathers, she writes, the divine nature is devoid of gender, and conceived in wholly apophatic terms. On the human plane, however, “the ideal is whole and abundant life” rather than the “androgyny” in modern ideologies, which reduces men and women to lowest common denominators. The goal is a development of positive human qualities in the pursuit of holiness, many of which will make “women in the end acquire masculine virtues, as well as feminine ones,” and vice versa.

In a side-note in her explanation of Tradition, she makes the somewhat problematic suggestion that, since “none of the Western Churches have the same kind of liturgical continuity that exists in the Eastern Churches,” and “since they have changed so many other things,” it is difficult to see why they should not have women priests as well. On one level, then, she conceives of the problem as distinctly liturgical.

Sister Nonna closes with a reflection on the “Iconic Argument” and the significance therein for the maleness of priests. This argument begins with the identity of the priest as an icon of Christ, and says that the priest should be a man so as to faithfully “express his likeness.” Some may find a stumbling block here, in the hint that women are not fully created in the image of God, and Harrison writes that “Christian women participate in the divine image through their creation and baptism” to counter this misconception. Another difficulty is to be found in the concept of “images” in Orthodoxy, which is “multidimensional” and “complex.” One aspect of this complex imagery and “iconism” in the priesthood is the service of the “priest . . . as the icon of the divine bridegroom who comes to meet his bride.” Therefore, his maleness “has an important yet specific meaning.” Readers should not take this to mean that the “iconic symbolism” cannot be regarded as exhaustive or exclusive. And yet the example of Mary rounds out the argument: “She fulfills this ministry of royal priesthood perfectly, but it does not follow that she or other women are called to the liturgical priesthood.”

This feature of life in the Church is thus not “an instrument of oppression,” but rather an expression in many ways “of the love and fullness of life in Christ in which all men and women are invited to participate.”

Deaconesses & Ordination

An essay on “The Nature and Characteristics of the Order of the Deaconess” appears in the 1999 edition in a slightly different form than its predecessor in the 1983 edition called “The Characteristics and Nature of the Order of the Deaconess.” The second longest essay in the collection, this gives a good overview of “the major characteristics of one of the ministries in which women served” during the history of the Christian Church.

FitzGerald begins with Scripture, looking especially at Phoebe in Romans 16:1–2. Despite arguments that have explained this passage as referring to a woman who was a “helper” rather than actually a deaconess, she asserts that the patristic tradition upholds Phoebe’s identity as a deaconess. She gives the commentaries of Origen, St. John Chrysostom, and Theodoret of Cyrus in support of this reading, and proceeds to explain the evidence in church tradition. Melania, Theosebia, Xenia the Merciful, Apollonia, Gorgonia, Olympia, and Nonna are all deaconesses whose holy lives have led to their recognition by the Church as a whole as saints. History appears to confirm that their ministries were different and distinct from those of widows and consecrated virgins. The Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions both accord deaconesses a role among what have subsequently been known as major orders (bishop and priest) or minor orders (subdeacon, doorkeeper) respectively. Their duties were “catechetical” and “charitable,” and they appear to have been important in the baptism of female converts.

Scholarly opinion is divided on whether they were actually “ordained” or simply “appointed.” The latter position points to the male diaconate as a “purely priestly ministry” and holds that to speak of the “ordination of deaconesses” is “abusive.” The former position concludes, based on “Byzantine writings, legislation and liturgical texts” that these women did indeed receive a genuine ordination. This is at odds with the Roman Catholic Aimé-Georges Martimort’s own study of the same issue. FitzGerald comes down on the side of those who contend that women were in fact ordained to the diaconate.

In any case, more recent developments in Orthodoxy have done much to change the atmosphere in which the debate takes place. Efforts to restore a female diaconate have been taking place in Orthodoxy since 1855 and were an aim of the recently canonized St. Elizabeth of Russia. St. Nektarios of Aegina himself “ordained a nun into the diaconate on Pentecost Sunday 1911,” and this was done “following the same order of prayers as the ordination of the deacon.” Archbishop Chrysostomos of Athens also appears to have appointed a number of nuns to the subdiaconate, though they were widely known as deaconesses. Most recently, Metropolitan Christodoulos of Dimitriados “appointed the abbess of the women’s monastery of St. Spiridonos Promiriou as a deaconess” in 1986. She was charged with administering Holy Communion to the nuns when needed, and the action was clearly based on the earlier one of St. Nektarios. This account was of course not present in the 1983 edition. She concludes that:

The time may well now be upon us to discern prayerfully and courageously, the numerous situations where the sharing of the presence, love and joy of “the grace of the gift of Your diaconate” is to be extended, “not to men alone, but also to women.” (her italics)

Appended to her discussion is the text of a Byzantine ordination prayer for deaconesses, dating from probably the eighth or tenth century. For a lucid introduction to a matter likely to receive serious attention in Orthodoxy, FitzGerald does readers a good service.

Feminist Distortions

Deborah Malacky Belonick writes an essay called “Testing the Spirits.” In 1983, it was “The Spirit of the Female Priesthood.” Taking her cue from Betty Friedan’s prediction that the greatest change wrought by feminism would be “theological,” she examines the “spiritual revolution” that “has come to pass” in the wake of the women’s movement. Both of her essays note that the Christian faith finds itself at an important point in history, when it must test the fruits of “female priesthood” where it is practiced, and evaluate the theology behind and resulting from it against a litmus test of orthodoxy. Belonick writes that “anthropological and theological arguments supporting the ordination of women often reflect a secular” philosophy, and continues her essay with the premise that “the phenomenon of women priests forms the tip of a great iceberg of misconception and error.”

She subsequently examines traditional Christian doctrines—in Christology, Trinitarian thought, and anthropology—in light of their interpretations by feminists. By seeking the “effacement of sexual distinction on earth,” feminists, she shows, promote an androgyny completely at odds with the traditional Christian sense of “a complement as well as a common human nature” between the sexes. Her concise explication of relevant Scripture, church tradition, Trinitarian theology, and Christology shows that a scriptural passage like “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female . . . in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) can be incorrectly read when considered outside the totality of its various contexts. The result of a theology based on inaccurate or incomplete readings of parts of the Christian tradition is simply not consistent with the biblical vision of God, and with the continuity of revelation passed on in the Church.

The passage of nearly two decades since the original date of publication allows Belonick to update her essay in a number of ways, among them her acknowledgment that “women and men are realizing the fraudulence in the feminist idea that sexual complement either should be denied or perceived as culturally learned interplay.” The time between editions has also allowed for a confirmation of many of the currents she examined less than a decade after women were first ordained in the Episcopal Church. An undeniable restructuring of the Christian faith is at work in those communions and denominations that have embraced feminist theology. And “support for the ordination of women and the feminist theology underlying it is swelling among those inside and outside the Orthodox Church” still. In place of the “modalist, unitarian model” of the Trinity offered by feminists, and the loss of “a model for personhood and personality,” the “Church must defend truly biblical definitions of God, woman and man.”

In closing, in both 1983 and 1999, she writes that the Orthodox Church cannot defend innovations that have “caused such distortions” in Christian doctrine when they have taken place in other communions.

The Sacrament of Headship

Thomas Hopko, the editor of the volume, has views on the matter that have not substantially changed. His essay in the present edition is, however, more streamlined and focused. From the original, “On the Male Character of Christian Priesthood,” he has written, “Presbyter/Bishop: A Masculine Ministry.” He opens with a decided point: “The Orthodox Church has never had women bishops and priests.” And he gives “three possible reasons” for this: (1) Sinful men refused of their own designs “to ordain women to these ministries”; (2) “cultural conditions of the past,” with their flawed anthropological assumptions, have made such ministries impossible; or (3) that “one among the many theological and spiritual qualifications required to perform these ministries is to be a man.”

Hopko throws his weight in with the third reason and proceeds to demonstrate that in the Christian tradition, “Man’s priority and headship in his union of love with woman in no way signifies his superiority over women, neither ontological nor relational.” A truly eloquent portrayal of the life of the Church follows, fleshing out the implications of the fundamental conviction that “God has raised Jesus from the dead and made him the head over all things for the Church until he returns in glory to govern his deified creation.” In this “sacramental, mystical, eschatological community,” there are given roles—gifts—and one of them is that of presbyter/bishop; it is a sacrament of Christ’s own headship.

He echoes Belonick’s observations when he notes that “the changes in the churches which ordain women to the pastoral ministry . . . speak eloquently to the issue.” They touch marriage, sexual identity and activity, and Christian witness and service, not to mention liturgical worship and Trinitarian teaching. A way forward, then, is a reaffirmation that “persons, not natures or genders, have callings from God.” Two passages in particular deserve lengthy quotation:

Since it is a human person with a name, face, place, time, gender, family, talent, training and testing who is called, approved and ordained, it is, as we have already said, incorrect and misleading to say that men may be priests and bishops simply by virtue of their maleness, and that women are excluded simply because they are women. It is rather the truth that persons with certain qualities, characteristics and charisma are called by name to every vocation, ordained or not.

And finally,

an essential element of this particularity, according to Christian Orthodoxy, is that the presbyter/bishop be a believer with all the necessary qualifications prescribed for this ministry in the Bible and in the scriptural, canonical and spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church, but one of which is to be a man.

Three Crucial Questions

Bishop Kallistos Ware’s contribution to the collection shows the greatest degree of change in position from the first edition. In the foreword, Fr. Hopko notes that Bishop Kallistos “has changed his views on the subject more significantly than the other authors. He has moved in the direction of greater tentativeness about the possible ordination of women as priests and bishops in the Orthodox Church.”

Bishop Kallistos’s essay, the longest in the book, opens with a consideration of what has often been called “the Western captivity” of Orthodoxy; in this construct, Orthodox opponents of Roman Catholicism use Protestant arguments against them, while Orthodox opponents of Protestantism use Roman Catholic arguments against them. The result is an Orthodoxy that does not speak with its “own true voice.” In the debate currently surrounding women’s ordination, this tactic simply will not work. A revival of Orthodox consciousness in the last century has allowed thinkers to articulate truly Orthodox perspectives on current issues, “without uncritically adopting Western presuppositions.” In this light, Orthodox Christians should not necessarily take as applicable to them the definition by Pope John Paul II in Inter insigniores that the Church cannot confer priestly ordination on women.

At the moment, “there exists as yet no pan-Orthodox statement, possessing definitive Ecumenical authority,” (his italics) and there is likewise no “extended and fully argued study from a purely theological point of view.” Orthodox are thus “still at the very beginning” when it comes to considering the question of the ordination of women.

“My views on the issue have altered,” he writes.

In 1978 I considered the ordination of women priests to be an impossibility. Now I am much more hesitant. I am far from convinced by many of the current arguments in favor of women priests; but at the same time a number of the arguments urged on the other side now appear to me a great deal less conclusive than they did twenty years ago.

Bishop Kallistos urges caution and patience in the exploration of the question, however, given the weight it possesses in the whole of the ecumenical world, and in the very faithfulness of the Church to her divine Savior and mission. He outlines three questions of “crucial importance”: The first is about “the nature and authority of Tradition”; the second deals with anthropology, and how far we can attach “theological significance” to distinctions between men and women; and the third is about the precise meaning of priesthood, and the significance in that definition of Christ’s own maleness as opposed to his humanity.

On all three of these matters Bishop Kallistos offers interesting and sometimes surprising reflections, admitting that their full implications have not yet been examined by the Church as a whole. On the nature of the priesthood, for instance, he writes that “at no point in the actual prayer of consecration does [the priest] speak in persona Christi.” Rather, the Orthodox priest speaks during the Anaphora “in persona Ecclesiae, as the representative not of Christ but of the Church.” As a result, the “iconic argument against the ordination of women is bound to seem less conclusive to Orthodox Christians than it does to Roman Catholics.”

Yet of course, “in the divine economy nothing is mere coincidence.” And so the Church needs to examine more fully the fact that “maleness and femaleness, as gifts from God, have dimensions that are not only biological but spiritual” in light of Christ’s own incarnation as a man rather than as a woman. Also to the point is the question whether it is “in fact possible to proceed with the ordination of women priests, and at the same time to maintain intact the Church’s traditional forms of worship and liturgical invocation.”

It needs to be stressed that Bishop Kallistos does not call for the ordination of women in the Orthodox Church at present. He asks in honesty: “Does the exclusively male character of the Christian priesthood form an integral element of that revealed God-given symbolism, with which we tamper at our peril?” In his attempt to answer that question, he writes, “let us at least explore, with a rigor and humility that we have not so far displayed, the deeper reasons for our existing practice.”

Every essay in both editions of Women and the Priesthood contains much that will enlighten the reader of any Christian background. The contributions do come from a specifically Orthodox perspective, but there is little room for objection or even difference from most communions and traditions. The volume thus forms a significant resource for members of churches that do not, and churches that do, ordain women. 


1. “Wir sind dabei zur gemeinsamen Überzeugung gekommen, dass keine zwingenden dogmatisch-theologischen Gründe vorliegen, dass Frauen nicht zum priesterlichen Dienst geweiht werden” from Bild Christi und Geschlecht: Gemeinsame Überlegungen und Referate der Orthodox-Altkatholischen Konsultation zur Stellung der Frau in der Kirche und zur Frauenordination als ökumenischem Problem, ed. Urs von Arx and Anastasios Kallis, page 2. Also published as vol. 88, no. 2 of Internationale Kirchliche Zeitschrift (Bern, Switzerland: Stämpfli, 1998).

Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is a student at Columbia University, where he plans to complete undergraduate studies before entering seminary with the goal of becoming an Anglican priest.

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