In the my initial round of questions I noted a number of elements which struck me in the conference description: no use of the word “ordination” or “diaconate” (despite one of the female diaconate’s major proponents offering a plenary address), the consistent and careful pairing of “women” with “lay,” a workshop on the term “helper” in Gen. 3 but not a single reference to female leadership, and a constellation of other workshops which affirm the currently accepted venues for women: children’s education, mothering, music, counseling (though not apparently confession), service, etc. Let me be very clear, ALL of these ministries are crucial, important, and well-fulfilled by women. Yet as I said initially, the absence of another constellation of venues which are not so readily accepted by many in the Orthodox Church, serves to underscore my sense that this conference accepts the 20th-century rhetoric of sexual complementarity, even if in a modified form. Perhaps I will be proven wrong here, the conference has yet to start.
However, one of my questions going in to this conference is, “How do we have this conversation?” The reality is, belief regarding what is the acceptable participation of women in the ministries of the church varies widely among Orthodox. While a perusal of Orthodox websites might give the impression that we Orthodox women are content and see no problems, for some of us, this is not the case, and we have been addressing the problem for over 40 years. Yet in the public material of this conference, there is a studious avoidance of any terms which might trigger ‘reactions,’ a decision which, according to Bouteneff’s Faculty Footnote, didn’t quite work. People reacted, on both sides (and not, apparently, in the middle).
Which raises for me this question: what is the value of not admitting what we are talking about, up front? If, as I have been reassured, the diaconate will be mentioned, why not say so? If, as I have also been told, that the workshop on “helper” will note how the Septuagint Greek word used to describe the woman as a helper is also used to describe God as our helper (Phyllis Trible wrote a great book on this same dynamic in the Hebrew, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality), which hardly affirms patriarchal headship models of relationship, why not an open discussion on female leaders in the bible? Frederica Matthews-Green is a featured speaker, and while at some point many years ago she wrote that believed that women should not teach men, her whole writing career has been an exercise of spiritual authority in the lives of women and men in the church. She is often (though I disagree with her on many things) a wise woman. I can only assume that she no longer believes that women cannot teach men (perhaps I will ask since we are here together, though that is hardly a question you ask on a first meeting). And what of Saturday’s “homily/reflection” offered by Sr. Cece of New Skete? Is it not a sermon? What is the qualitative difference between a sermon and a reflection? Does the use of a term make its referent something other than it seems to be?
So why not talk about women as leaders as well as helpers, as teachers of men as well as children (some of whom are male), as preachers and confessors? Is that just too direct? Or is this conference really about affirming a complementarity of gifts based on gender?
I will confess my greatest fear of attending conferences such as these: someone will tell me, with love and confidence and grace and kindness, that women like me, who don’t quite find the terms used fitting for themselves (though quite fine for others), really have no place in the Church. That would be bad news indeed.