“I can’t imagine women in the altar, as priests, deacons, alter servers….” These are the words of a kind and thoughtful 91-year old man who has spent his whole life in the church, whose children serve the church in a variety of significant capacities. His is a distressed response to what was likely the first conversation he has ever heard regarding the possibility of women priests in the Orthodox church.
It is an understandable response. It is understandable because there is nothing in the practice of the Orthodox church today that would allow such an imaginative possibility. I use the word “allow,” although I could also use the words encourage, create, spark, inspire. Imagination does not occur in a vacuum, it does not create something out of nothing. Imagination is dependent for its inspiration on the mundane and often seemingly unconnected realities around us, which when put together by someone gifted at seeing connections creates something that appears new: a new idea, a new style of art, a new way of relating to a fellow human being. Yet it is never completely new, but dependent on the old and made new by a fresh insight, a sudden connection that reshapes our world.
In the case of females in the altar, there is simply nothing in our present practice which might spark the imagination to envision something “new.” We cannot imagine a possibility of which we can see no trace. To suggest something for which nothing in our lived experience gives even the remotest of indication is to suggest, well, the unimaginable.
If, in the context of our ecclesial tradition, the lived experience of the church had never given such an indication, then, well, perhaps this is how it simply is, how it should be and we should not contemplate the unimaginable.
However, in the case of women serving in the altar, this is not a problem of the tradition of our church, but our present paucity of vision, caused by our modern paucity of practice.
It is an incontrovertible (at least to all those who have studied church history) fact that women have served in the altar during the eucharistic liturgy. There was a time when members of a parish would not have had to “imagine” such a reality, because it was simply a part of their worship experience. Women served in minor orders as Virgins and Widows (offices about which we know very little), and as a part of the hierarchical leadership of a congregation, these blessed women sat in the altar during services. We also know that women served as deacons, ordained at the hand of a bishop in the altar, and received the eucharist immediately after the rank which preceded them, male deacons, but before subdeacons (and Widows and Virgins).
We no longer engage in the practice of ordaining women to the diaconate, and the orders of Widows and Virgins disappeared long ago. Today, if you want to see a woman in the altar, you must go to a women’s monastery. There, with the priest serving the liturgy, are women in the altar serving as assistants in the liturgy.
The names of early female deacons (Pheobe, Macrina, Olympias to name only a few) can be repeated ad nauseam. We can cite texts which refer to female deacons (the Didascalia Apostolorum), we can even show the ordaining prayer of female deacons. We can cite fact after fact, but it will do no good. Why? Because until most of us see it before our eyes, we cannot imagine it. Instead, we assume that what we see (or rather, what we do not see) is what should be, and we end up turning a blind eye to the gifts and calling of the women in our midst, perhaps even to our own calling, because such a work of God is simply not a possibility.
By not allowing girls to serve in the alter with their brothers (in a position which itself did not exist for centuries of Christianity), by not ordaining gifted women to the diaconate (despite repeated calls to do so be ecclesial hierarchs), we impoverish the imagination of our people. If we impoverish our imagination to such a degree that we cannot even imagine the joy of a young girl serving in the altar with her brother, to what else do we become blind?
It is the burden of those who do see, who do know our ancient practices, to help all of us share in the vision of God who calls each and every one of us to serve God and neighbor with no regard to social roles or bodily functions. Until they do so, we as a people cannot imagine the possibilities of the work of God in the lives of those we love. If we cannot imagine the work of God, how can we participate in that work?
How poor and blind must we become before our bishops decide to act?