For those unaware, a firestorm has been ignited over the decision of Bishop Matthias (OCA) of Chicago to no longer allow laity to hold the altar cloths at communion.  Apparently in his announcement of his decisions, he explicitly mentioned his discomfort that women had contact with sacred things.  While he denied this in a letter, it is women who bear the brunt of this decision, and who have no recourse (short of monasticism) to obtain the tonsure that might “rectify” their lay status.  Many reasons are floating around to explain away this unfortunate bind.  I will address some of them in future posts.

Today, I am addressing the reason that woke me up in the wee hours of the morning:  Female participation in liturgical service around the holy things is not necessary for their salvation.  Therefore, the women who dare to desire these ministries are being told to just let it go.

Yes, holding communion cloths is not necessary for the salvation of the one whose hands hold the cloth.  But allowing women to hold cloths is necessary for the salvation of the rest of us, especially of those those who exclude.

Salvation is Theosis, which can be described in a number of way, one of which is to become more ‘like’ God, whom we see in Christ, the one who is fully human.  However, this process is largely dependent on how we engage in relationships, with ourselves and our neighbor.  Failure to treat someone as neighbor does not mean they are not a neighbor, but rather that we are not being a neighbor to them.  This the lesson of the Good Samaritan, we are called to be neighbors, not have them.  Another way to say this is that if being a neighbor to others is to be, like Christ, fully human, then the failure to treat another persons as a neighbor is to be less that human.  It is to miss the mark of becoming more like God in Christ.

So the question before us is this is this: is the exclusion of women from liturgical service treat women as less than human?  

The answer to this depends, in part, upon what it means to treat another person as a full human being.  Certainly those who are convinced that the exercise of women’s gifts is limited to the domestic sphere “by nature,” and those who similarly hold that women simply don’t have priestly gifts, believe that they are affirming the dignity of women by abiding by the way things are, the natural law of God’s creation.  Of course, “nature” is defined as they see fit, rarely paying attention to the gifts of unique women (and men).  “Priestly gifts” are usually left undefined, since the moment they are delineated, some inconveniently gifted woman appears as a counter-example, undermining the point that women just can’t have them.  The fact that, repeatedly, the capabilities of women, some of who are saints, fail to fall within the appropriate parameters of what they define as ‘natural’ is simply ignored.  

Instead, strange and roundabout reasons are given.  Take for instance, Bishop Mathias’s decision to stop allowing lay members to hold the communion cloths.  Apparently, when asked for clarification, he actually referred to “women”, a misspeak that did not go unnoticed or addressed by some of the priests present.  He “corrected” his Freudian slip in a written letter since he really has nothing against women, really.  Except that it is primarily to women that this decision must be explained as lay men are free to serve in the altar, and therefore, hold cloths if there is need.  According to supporters of his decision, or perhaps simply those priests who must implement the decisions of a bishop they disagree with, lay people (women) should not touch the items on the altar.  Really?  Why is that?  Mary birthed what is on the altar, according to Simeon the theologian, His flesh is from her, and when we eat of Him, we eat of her (yes, Simeon says this, see his First Ethical Discourse, X).  Apparently, kissing the Gospel and cross, both of which rest on the altar, is acceptable since it is in a controlled liturgical environment.  Of course, so is holding the communion cloth, so why one is acceptable but another is not is, well, confusiong.

Is training the issue?  Yes, women lack training, just like the 7 year-old wobbly little boys who aren’t quite sure where they are supposed to go next, and who, quite logically, are directed by a more experienced boy or man.  On the job training doesn’t seem to be an impediment, if you are a boy.

If the status of ‘laity’ is the problem, then the solution is simple: de-laicize the men and women who hold cloths.  It can be a simply procedure, a mass tonsuring, just like what happens to dozens of little boys at about the age they can be trusted to hold a candle without setting their hair on fire (though this too is not always the case).  Just tonsure the women for goodness sake!  (Again, for argument's sake, I am putting aside the fact that ordination is not conferred by tonsuring in our tradition, therefore, the altar is already filled with laity).  

Oh, but we can’t.  Can’t what?  Tonsure women.  Why not?  Women can’t be ordained.  Why not?  Because, well, we just don’t do that.  Why not?  Because women can’t be ordained.  Why not?  Because, well, they are women.  So what?  ….


And here is where the real problem lies, a problem obfuscated by technicalities like training or tonsuring or lay status or what have you.  Fundamentally, in our current practice, being a woman is the problem.  No amount of honor given to the Virgin Mary can balance out the fundamental dishonor it is to be a woman in our Church, especially if you are a woman who has capabilities and desires to serve the church beyond beyond parenting, baking, cleaning, singing, and educating children.  All of which men can do too.  And no, the existence of a few “Spiritual Mothers” and the fact that nuns touch the holy things (in the altar, quite regularly), does not lessen the deep and profound loss experienced by women who once had the joy of literally sharing the meal of God with the people of God.  Who are now told they cannot do so based on technicalities.  

These women do not experience these decisions as technicalities.  What they experience is that being a woman is a problem.  This isn’t just a passing experience of exclusion, an experience which defenders of the current practice are so willing to deride as the histrionics of a woman who has learned her place from the secular world rather than the Church, and must be corrected so she will feel better about her exclusion.  Of course it is just histrionics, we are women.  Men, if you care, speak up.  Now.  We women are, after all, just too emotional to be taken seriously.  I am not joking here.  Our experience is of no matter to many in our church, but yours is.  Use your place of privilege to care for those who have none.  Take seriously that the grief you are witnessing is the reaction of a woman of God who is no longer being treated as a person of God.

And this is why the exclusion of women is a matter of salvation.  Because those who exclude are not treating their mothers, sisters and daughters with the respect they accord to the youngest of boys.  Because rather than wrestling with gifts and abilities of the beautiful woman of God before them, they treat them as technicalities.  When this happens, the work of God through an utterly unique person is ignored.  Whatever gifts she has, which God may want to serve the community in a manner that does not fit into the straightjacket of romanticized visions of ‘Woman’, are denied.  They are denied in her, and they are denied to the community.

Those who perpetuate practices which exclude women, whether through silence or specious reasoning, no matter how well masked as love and kindness and pastoral care, sin against every girl and women who stand before them.  Since, as Orthodox, our salvation is corporate, sin is corprate.  Sin against one is sin against all, and by all.  The liturgy, instead of a place of joyful participation in God becomes a place of painful rejection of the gifts of God.  

As it turns out, I misspoke when I ceded that holding the altar cloth is not a matter of salvation for the holder.  Holding the altar cloth is indeed a matter of salvation for all involved.

Pauline Costianes

Mon, 30 Jul, 2012 - 13:46

Then just TONSURE us!  I've seen the biggest know-nothings tonsured as "readers" just to reward them for being in a parish for 25 years and they wouldn't know Tone 1 from Yankee Doodle Dandy!!

Tonsuring is NOT ordination. We should be tonsured readers, ESPECIALLY if we're choir directors and know more about music and rubrics than anybody else in the parish. We're tonsured at baptism, girls and boys alike.

Tonsuring is NOT the first step to the priesthood. such thinking being a late development and wrongly so.

Get over yourselves, male clergy,and do the right thing!

Did you really mean to suggest that, aside from holding the communion cloth, "parenting, baking, cleaning, singing, and educating children" are the only options for women in the church? Maybe you could add "bellyaching about the decisions made by bishops concerning the church for which they are responsible before God."
Look, not holding the altar cloth is not going to put anyone's salvation in jeopardy. What will jeopardize one's salvation is taking on the attitude that says "I deserve to hold the altar cloth! I deserve to be tonsured! I'm good enough to touch holy things!!" Guess what: no you're not. No one is. No, not even priests (although they sometimes forget this). But the thing is someone has to do it. So a few---VERY few--people are singled out for that duty. Yes it's a DUTY, not a RIGHT. Nobody has the right to do it. In fact anyone, male or female, who thinks they have a right to handle holy things, has no business going anywhere near them.
This isn't the Episcopal church where anything goes. In the Orthodox Church we have order and accountability. If you want holiness, you're in the right place. If you want to exercise your "rights" go somewhere else.

Matt, I don't believe I used the word "rights" at all, because I agree with you, liturgical service of any kind is not a right. I would argue that it is a gift, which doesn't preclude duty. However, it is not clear to me how your statement makes an argument against why women could not, should not, shoulder this duty. Perhaps you would like to clarify?

Of course, it is easier to simply un-invite me from my church or dismiss my concerns as bellyaching. I just don't think it is a particularly helpful way to engage in a conversation with someone who is your sister-in-Christ.

You're absolutely correct, you never used the word "rights." (I shouldn't have put it in quotes in my previous comment).

But let's be honest, shall we? Your post and Pauline's comment that follows it are not about being willing and available to perform whatever duty one is called to perform, they are not about humility and self-denial, and they are certainly not about submitting to authority (Heb 13.17). They are about who does and does not have the right to perform certain liturgical roles in the Liturgy...and scolding the bishop for making decisions you don't like.

(There is a wide gap between "TONSURE us!" and "Be it unto me according to thy word," don't you think?)

Perhaps you're right that litugical service is a gift in addition to being a duty. Do you think we are all given the same gift(s)? (Rom 12.3-8; 1Co 12.27-31) Do we or should we all have the gift of liturgical service? Should we demand that we have whatever gift(s) we want?

Yes I believe women are perfectly capable of performing the role of altar service, but not all women are called to do so (some are). Likewise, most men aren't called to be altar servers. I have never been behind the iconostasis, never held an altar cloth, probably never will. Yet you will never hear me demanding that I be allowed to do so. Why? Becuause it's not about me. And it's not about you. What we do in the context of the Liturgy is about God. Period.

I apologize if "bellyaching" comes off as too dismissive. If you would like to suggest a more appropriate word for what is going on in your post, I'm all ears.

However, I will repeat my invitation to consider finding a more accommodating worship experience; one that will allow you to exercise your gifts in any way you see fit. Heck, women can even be bishops in the Episcopal church!

Matt, if you believe that some women are called to be altar servers, then I think we are in agreement. My post is addressed to the belief that women are not, can not, be called to serve. Often, it is argued that they cannot be given such gifts. But as you point out, everyone has different gifts, and sometimes, those gifts are exactly the gifts that correspond to priestly (and liturgical) service. I am not quite sure, if you think what you said you think, why it is such a problem for you that I express out my objections to the poor theology which undergirds the exclusion of women. This exclusion is not based on call, or gift, or willingness. My article is not about the "right" of anyone to serve in the church. It is about the sin we all participate in when we exclude people for demeaning or simply incorrect reasons. It is an expression of my hope that all those who are capable are invited to come forward if they wish, and that those who choose not to (like yourself) are not in any way obligated to do so, nor demeaned because of your choice. And choice is key. You have a choice not to serve at or in the altar. Most women have no such choice, because their bodies or gifts are not seen as 'fit.' And I simply think this is wrong. As for your invitation, I simply don't understand why you are so willing to ask me to leave my church. You do not know me, you do not know my history with the church, you do not know the love I bear for it, and the grief I feel at its foolishness. You do not know whether I would find the Episcopal church more accomodating, since the differences between Orthodoxy and Episcopalianism are far greater than just their treatment of women. So why are you so ready to have me leave?

Yes, I believe some women are called to liturgical roles, and there are women who do so. Go to any womens' monastery and you'll see this happening. So your claim that "women are not, can not, be called to serve" is simply not accurate. It happens. I think your gripe really is that not all women are called to litugical service. But not all men are either. So what's the problem? Where's the injustice?

It's not a problem at all for me if you express your "objections to the poor theology which undergirds the exclusion of women." But your post really didn't address the theology behind it at all. If you had taken those theological arguments apart point by point and explained why they are wrong, I may have disagreed with you (or not), but I certainly would not have accused you of bellyaching. Instead what I see in your post is a lot of complaining, demands being made, and very flimsy--and frankly insulting--claims being put forward. For example, your incredible claim that those who object to female altar servers, etc do so because they want to keep "the exercise of women’s to the domestic sphere." And your suggestion that women who are excluded from altar service are capable only of "parenting, baking, cleaning, singing, and educating children." For one thing, there is nothing wrong with any of these vocations. They are gifts, too, are they not? And for another, you overlook the many female evangelists, missionaries, medical and legal professionals, artists, professors, writers, etc who use their gifts for the service of Christ and the furthering of His Gospel. And you're in a snit because SOME women are not given the gift of holding the altar cloth?!

As for my suggestion that you explore other Christian options: All I'm saying is that you might be more comfortable in a setting where there is really no distinction between women and men; where your reform efforts might be more effective (and welcomed). Given your history within the Orthodox Church, you may have noticed that the idea here is for the Church to change us, not vice versa. Perhaps a Christian tradition more open to tinkering might be a bit more to your liking. I'm not saying I want you to leave. I'd rather you stick around and discover that the Orthodox Church is not here to conform to your wishes, but to conform you to Christ's.

(btw, I don't think wobbly 7-year-old boys should serve behind the altar either)

My "gripe" is not that all women are not called, but that all women are not permitted to receive a call based on their particular gifts unless they are also called to a monastic life. Men simply do not have this additional criteria for service in the Church.  

You are right, this article does not address every theological argument given.  As I mention in the beginning, I plan to address other theological reasons in the future.  If you have read other posts on this site, you can see that I have already addressed many of them.  This post was about a particular reason for women to not get upset about the decision, that their salvation is not dependent on such a role.  And so I wrote a post specifically addressing some points about salvation and how we view one another.

Please reread my "incredible claim."  I do not say that ALL those who object to female altar services limit women's gifts to the domestic sphere.  In that sentence, I am speaking speficcally of "those who,"  ie., those theologians who believe this regarding women, and so deny their ability to serve in the altar.  If you are familiar with the arguments regarding female liturgical and clerical participation, this belief is a major component of their arguments.  

Nor did I limit the gifts of women to the list you gave.  Rather, that list encompasses most, though not all, the ways in which women are already allowed to serve in the church.  These are indeed good gifts and many men and women take great joy in serving people through them.  However, they are not a complete list of the gifts of women (or men) and so I do not think that women should be limited to functions which only utilize that list of gifts.

My point, which is theological, is that as unique creations of God, uniquely gifted, we are called to exercise our gifts for the benefit of others, and the Church is called to make that possible to the best of its (i.e., our) ability.

I am saddened that you are receiving this post with such hostility, and, I think, misreading much of it.  Clearly it upset you.  However, I am a member of a Church that is filled with the Spirit, and has responded with change to the Spirit throughout its history.  I am sure I would be happier elsewhere, but I am not sure my happiness is the primary goal of my call as a theologian who speaks on behalf of some (clearly not all) men and women on these particular issues.

I suspect that we have a fundamental difference over what it is that Christ wants for us.  I do not believe the present practices of the Orthodox Church regarding women are practices which reflect the reign of God that Christ's present initiates.