Women’s Gifts

There is much talk among Christian feminists of the necessity of utilizing “women’s gifts” in the Church and of the subsequent necessary ordination of women in order to allow for this utilization. Obviously nobody wants to have anyone’s gifts in the Church go unutilized, and so both fairness to women and love for the Church (it is argued) demand that women be ordained to all orders in the Church. Most of the feminist fury and indignation have centered around their insistence that women be ordained as ministers/ priests (and bishops where the denomination is episcopally ordered). Of late in Orthodoxy precisely the same rhetoric and arguments have been marshalled to insist upon the ordination of women as deaconesses. Many if not most of those insisting on the ordination of deaconesses also insist that deaconesses are simply female deacons, even if the claim has no historical support whatsoever. It seems clear that feminist political agenda trumps real scholarship.

One sees yet another example of this insistence in the recent blog piece of Dr. Carrie Frost, published in Public Orthodoxy entitled “Women’s Gifts and the Diaconate”. It is an extraordinary piece. Having met Dr. Frost over a cup of coffee I have found her to be a delightful, down-to-earth sister in Christ, who no doubt has abundantly earned her doctorate. (I especially appreciated her essay on childbirth and impurity.)  This makes this current piece all the more extraordinary, and makes me wonder if perhaps there is not something to the idea of alien abduction after all.

She begins by writing with commendable clarity, “The reinstitution of the ordained female diaconate in the Orthodox Church today would result in a much-needed and transformative outpouring of women’s gifts into the Church and into the world.” Reading this gave me a kind of weird déjà vu, as if I had stepped back through a time warp into the Protestant world of the late 1970’s, for this was almost the exact wording used by those then pushing for the ordination of women to the priesthood. Since that time when Protestants hearkened to the feminist call and ordained women as priests, one looks in vain, I suggest, to see how it resulted in anything much-needed or transformative. The main result has been the further and escalating secularization of their denominations with the resultant loss of numbers, so that on a quiet night a listening ear can almost hear the doors of Episcopal churches slamming shut. It was envisioned and promised that the ordination would result in a rejuvenation and revitalization of the denomination, as multitudes flooded in to take advantage of the women’s gifts newly offered. The actual result was a perfunctory approving nod of the head from the secular world which then went back to ignoring the church in the same way as it did before. Secular people concluded that the church was becoming a lot more like the world, applauded, and then continued staying home on Sunday morning.

I would challenge the whole idea underlying Dr. Frost’s rhetoric that a woman (or anyone) needs ordination before their gifts can be effectively utilized. Surely this is a slap in the face to the laity, to whom God gives His spiritual gifts at baptism. What St. Peter wrote was, “As each one has received a charisma, use it for one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10), not “As each one has received a charisma, seek ordination so that you can use it”. Women indeed have spiritual gifts, just as do many unordained men. All that ordination adds is a title and a vestment—i.e. visible status. Is it not clericalism of the rankest sort to insist that only those with titles and vestments have valuable and transformative ministry? True, Dr. Frost admits that unordained women do exercise a valuable ministry even now, but adds that “the good that could be done would be a hundredfold more” if they could be ordained. There is some pastoral advantage to being ordained (as well as some distinct pastoral disadvantage), but to suggest that the ordained priest is a hundred times more pastorally effective that the unordained layperson is nonsense. It is also clericalism, and that on steroids.

Dr. Frost’s discussion of the Fathers is even more extraordinary than her inherent denigration of lay ministry. She quotes briefly from St. Basil’s On the Human Condition and then draws the remarkable conclusion that his assertion of ontological equality of the genders “amounts to a rejection of any hierarchical understanding of the relationship between men and women in the Roman world”.  As a scholar she must know that it amounts to no such thing, and that St. Basil and company would vigorously dispute such a sweeping conclusion. St. Basil did not allow the ordination of women to leadership in the Church then for the same reason that those who oppose it reject it now: they can read the Bible.  Like St. Paul, St. Basil endorsed “hierarchical understanding of the relationship between men and women in the Roman world”.

Dr. Frost as much as admits as much when she goes on to say that “this does not mean that all Christians throughout history embraced this understanding. For example, the early Church acquiesced to Roman norms of a patrician man’s authority in the domain of his household…” In other words, from the time of the New Testament onward and continuing with the Fathers whose avowed intention was fidelity to the New Testament, the Church’s understanding of women was opposed to what Dr. Frost and her feminist colleagues now propose. “All Christians throughout history” indeed embraced an understanding in which women were subordinate to men, both domestically and ecclesiastically, in the sense that all Christians throughout history believed a wife should follow her husband’s lead and women should not rule in the Church. This yawning gap between what all Christians throughout history held (a.k.a. “Holy Tradition”) and what feminists now propose as its replacement should not be understated. It does not constitute a tiny tweaking of the Tradition, but the wholesale scrapping of it. The magnitude of the change should be openly acknowledged, and not minimized. Characterizing the Church’s past theology and praxis as “an imperfect historical record” is disingenuous in the extreme. In fact feminist writing and rhetoric have denounced it in the most vociferous of terms. It is indeed “disrespectful to the Church” to suggest overturning it.

Dr. Frost tips her hand when she characterizes the Church’s eventual abolition of the office of deaconess once it had ceased to serve any useful purpose as “a tragedy”. Her assertion that “for something like eight hundred years the Church has not benefited from women’s gifts offered as deaconesses” reveals a lack of historical understanding. The “benefits offered as deaconesses” consisted primarily (in some parts of the Church, not all) of their assisting naked female baptismal candidates during their baptism. (Compare the testimony of St. Epiphanius in the late fourth century who wrote that the office “exists for the purpose of preserving decency for the female sex, whether in connection with baptism or in connection with the examination of [women undergoing] suffering or pain, or whenever the bodies of women are required to be uncovered”.) After this and other pastoral ministrations were no longer necessary, the pastoral benefits associated with the then merely honourary office of deaconess were precisely nil. It is simply untrue that the lapsing of a by that time useless order “deprived the Church of the experiences, perspectives, and unique gifts of generations of its faithful women”. Women then as now continued to use their gifts in the Church, even without being deaconesses.

It is true, as Dr. Frost says, that “the Church needs its women’s gifts”, including a pastoral ministry of “woman-to-woman”. This is especially true in situations involving sexual trauma, since “women have a different lived experience of sexual abuse and assault, from which the whole Church would benefit.” It is not clear that ordination would enhance this ministry, since the value of it depends upon shared experience, vulnerability, and gender solidarity—and not upon clerical status. Indeed, clerical status might even detract from it, insofar as clergy are identified (rightly or wrongly) with power. Dr. Frost’s assertion that a deaconess might have a ministry a hundred times more effective than an unordained woman is not only nonsensical, but deeply disrespectful to the women presently exercising their unordained ministries.

Most jaw-dropping of all was Dr. Frost’s statement that “there is effectively no movement in the Orthodox Church today to even consider—much less push for—the female priesthood”.  It would be uncharitable to accuse Dr. Frost of lying. I would prefer rather to simply express my perplexity at such a statement when feminist rhetoric, both within Orthodoxy and outside it, is filled with demands for precisely this. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom expressed his approval of the move, as have a host of others. To paraphrase Hebrews 11:32, “time would fail me” to tell of Behr-Sigel, Topping, Ladouceur, and others. Even Metropolitan Kallistos Ware seems to have moved to a more sympathetic and supportive position regarding this possibility. It might be worthwhile to call for a show of hands. If the church were to produce a new canon which read, “If anyone teaches that a woman may be ordained to the sacramental and holy priesthood just as men can, let him be anathema!” would these Orthodox feminists sign on and agree with the canonical sentiment? Would Dr. Frost? Hands up, please.

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