Friday afternoon was given over to a panel of four women engaging in active service ministries. Ann Campbell runs a St. Nektarios OCF house at the University of Oregon. Over 60% of our youth leave the Orthodox Church when they go to college. Her job, as she says, is to provide a committed faith-home for students, to be a “midwife for Christian adulthood,” helping students transition into a mature, adult faith.
Sarah Byrne is one of the few endorsed female chaplains in the OCA, actively praying for and with the sick. As an Orthodox chaplain working in a non-profit healthcare organization, she ministers to men and women from a wide range of faith perspectives. She visits patients, assesses their spiritual needs within that moment. As an end-of-life chaplain, she works to help patients identify their fears regarding death, remaining need for forgiveness and reconciliation, and the resources he or she has to address these areas. As Orthodox Christians, she says, we have a unique way of considering death as a bright sadness, able to pray with our eyes open, taking our lesson from a liturgical life which teaches us to stand and pray in the dark, lighting candles when necessary.
She notes the difficulty, however, in both receiving endorsement (required by her association, and automatically assumed if the chaplain is also ordained by their ecclesial body), and being recognized as a minister both within her church and by her jurisdiction. The lack of ecclesial recognition diminishes the ability of her immediate community to even be aware of and receive from her gifts to minister to the sick within the parish. Further, her lack of ordination prevents her from joining her fellow male, ordained, chaplains, as a ministerial representative with a voice at jurisdictional councils.
Sandra Anderson is a member of the Orthodox Hospital and Prison Ministry rightly observed that God doesn’t ask us for checks, but for us to love, directly. We love feeding children and having clothing drives, but we tend to stop at loving those in prison. It is a much harder ministry, she says, because it is a forgiving ministry, which is hard.
(IOCC also presented a summary of what they do through out the country. They are a fabulous organization, but the content was not primarily about women engaging in direct ministry, either in church or in the field, the IOCC does employ women in its work.)
This panel was the only plenary session entirely focused on the work women are currently doing in response of the call of the gospel to heal the sick, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. It was also the first place in which the question of ordination to the diaconate, was raised. The tasks that all of these women are engaged in are diaconal tasks, ministries of service. While they are each quite successful in their chosen fields, it was clear that acknowledgement and recognition of their work would be helpful. Recognition is important not because of the prestige it might (or might not) grant, but because ecclesial recognition through blessing or even diaconal ordination allows their work and their gifts to be seen by their communities, and therefore received as a service by their community. This ability to use their gifts in service to their own communities is, more often than not, entirely dependent on the whim of their priest. As Sarah noted, she has been in parishes where her work is completely ignored, and in others where the priest has asked her to visit sick members of the parish, and recommended that members talk to her directly about end-of-life issues (about which she has much to say. Invite her to your church!).
Honestly, with the diaconate reduced to, at best, liturgical window-dressing and censor-swinging, or at worst, to an irrelevant stepping-stone the priesthood, why is it that we cannot ordain these women to the diaconate as an affirmation of their ministries? Their liturgical service would then flow from their care for the least, precisely what the diaconate was intended to be, from the beginning (Stephen was a table-server friends, a glorified community waiter). Perhaps the ordination of these women would remind us of what ordination is really supposed to be about: an acknowledgement of gifts to be used in service of the community, and a call to use them with responsibility and accountability.