Does the Orthodox Church Have a Woman Problem?

Archpriest Lawrence Farley | 12 January 2022

One sometimes hears the assertion that the Orthodox Church has what has been called “a woman problem”.  Usually the assertion comes from people (most often women) from other churches who cannot understand Orthodoxy’s refusal to ordain women as pastors and bishops, and attributes this refusal solely to an ingrained and irrational misogyny.  Or, as one woman with whom I worked once said, “Your church is very retro!”  She said it without venom, as a simple observation, but it was not intended as a compliment.  It was based entirely on her outside observation that we were not like the Anglicans, the United Church, or the Presbyterians in that we had no women clergy and did not fly a rainbow flag or march in the Gay Pride parades.

If she had looked a little more closely, though, she might have found even more ammo.  In many parts of the Orthodox world, women may not receive Holy Communion while menstruating.  Furthermore, the prayers welcoming them back to the Eucharistic assembly after they have given birth make reference to their “uncleanness” contracted through the act of childbirth and persisting through forty days.  Also, the prayers said for them after a miscarriage seem unable to differentiate between a miscarriage and a deliberate abortion (part of one prayer reads, “forgive this Your servant who is in sin, having been involved in the loss of a life”).  Furthermore, women are told they may never enter the altar area for any reason.  Accordingly, male infants, brought to church for the first time, are brought into the altar, but female infants are brought only to the altar doors. For many people these things constitute prima facie evidence of Orthodoxy’s misogynistic attitude and indeed constitutes “a woman problem”.

In response I would like to keep on digging a little deeper, and suggest that this is a misdiagnosis, and that our situation is even worse.  One is tempted to counter-suggest that the Church as a humanity problem, in that it is populated solely by human beings and that human beings get stuff wrong.

For example, despite the fact that our Tradition and early history clearly teach that all the baptized faithful may and should receive Holy Communion every Sunday, for many centuries the only communicants were the clergy.   Despite the fact that our Tradition and early history clearly teach that clergy should preach after the Bible lessons are read at the Eucharist, for many centuries no such preaching occurred.  Despite the fact that our Tradition presupposes and our early history showed that the bishop is the local pastor of a city or village so that (for example) he presides over all baptisms held at Pascha, bishops now superintend over massive areas so that their pastoral function has all but been submerged.   Despite the fact that our Tradition and all of our canons presuppose that there can be put one bishop per city or area, we now have many overlapping episcopal jurisdictions, and no one apparently bats an eye.  Honesty compels us to admit that throughout our history we have got some stuff wrong.

I would include some the practices about women outlined above as examples of some of the stuff we got wrong.  Our Tradition does not in fact insist on any of those things, not even the ban on women receiving Holy Communion during their periods (read the Didascalia. Or my book on the larger question.)  Happily, in many places these things are indeed being changed, as practices regarding women’s supposed uncleanness are altered and service books accordingly revised.

The problem with those who assert (often with some heat) that the Orthodox Church has a woman problem is that they think in strictly binary terms:  either the Orthodox Church must conform to absolutely all the canons of secular modern society (including its canon that women must be allowed priestly ordination) or it is misogynistic. The notion that the Church may not be misogynistic in its refusal to ordain women, but that Christianity’s historic understanding of the pastoral office is incompatible with modern secularism is simply disallowed. Either the Church must ordain women clergy or it will be condemned as having a woman problem. The fact that the Church is coming to grips with past problems (such as refusing women the Chalice during their periods) here counts for nothing. In effect:  either conform to all modern secular presuppositions or get out.

The Church is fact fighting many battles in its ongoing attempt to be faithful to its Tradition.  Feminists often seem to imagine that theirs is the only issue worth considering or the only thing demanding attention. But there are many other issues demanding the Church’s attention as well—as I have suggested above.  The Church needs to re-examine its practice of infrequent Communion.  It needs to re-examine its use of serving liturgically in what are effectively dead languages.  It needs to re-examine its serene acceptance of over-lapping jurisdictions based on ethnic identity.  It needs to come to terms with the many causes resulting in clergy shortages.  All of these things urgently require the Church’s attention because it has a humanity problem.

And, I may add, a secularization problem.  By “a secularization problem” I mean the fact that many people within the Orthodox Church, both clergy in parishes and professors in classrooms, are openly advocating for practices which are at open variance with our authentic Tradition—practices which are based entirely upon secular presuppositions.  The insistence upon ordaining women clergy (starting with women to the diaconate) and legitimizing homosexuality are the two obvious ones. But they are only symptoms of a deeper malaise and a more widespread disease.  We have allowed secular presuppositions to gain a foothold in the Church, and have (at time of writing) lost sufficient nerve to confront the problem and call the errors by their proper names.

The Church has many problems, and many things which urgently require attention and remedy. But the remedies will only be true remedies if they are based on our authentic Tradition and if we recover our nerve to place secularism under the anathema it deserves. Now is the time for an honest appraisal of what is truly wrong in the Church.  Now is the time for courageous action.  The enemy is within the gate.  There is not a moment to lose.

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