John Sanidopoulos, whose posts on tidbits of Orthodox tradition and the Saints I enjoy reading, re-posted an article by Alice Linsley today. Linsley is a former Episcopalian priest who left the priesthood and eventually joined the Orthodox Church. She appears to be a sort of living proof-text used by some Orthodox assure us that women are not called to the priesthood (except, as she says in one explanation of both her call and eventual departure, when men fail to serve. Only then does God call women to serve in this capacity.) Since my response was a bit longer than most comments warrant, I decided to post it here.
Linsley's argument rests entirely on a particular anthropological reading of priesthood and blood purity that was certainly prevalent in some of the cultures mentioned by the author. However, her generalizations regarding all religions and the functions of female priests are certainly dubious, as is the assumption that Christian priesthood is simply a continuation of semitic priesthood. More importantly for the Orthodox Christian, this does not reflect an Orthodox understanding of priesthood (Chrysostom, who she quotes, says nothing about blood purity in his priestly office!) - and has virtually no bearing on the historical reasons (at least those given in the Fathers) for the exclusion of women from the office.
Priesthood within Orthodoxy has changed quite dramatically over the years. All Christian priestly offices have changed over time - Orthodox scholars such as Afanasiev, Schmemann, Meyendorff, Erickson, Bulgakov and Zizioulas all acknowledge changing conceptions of the ordained offices. It is one thing to argue that God initiates something. It is entirely another to argue that God initiates it in a full and final form.
Purity, holiness and blood are indeed ancient semitic concepts. Whether their source is immutable revelation or religious and culturally developed taboos is open to interpretation. What we can say as Orthodox Christians is that this is not primarily how we understand purity and holiness. Blood guilt is simply not how we talk about ancestral sin in Orthodoxy.
Holiness for Orthodox is the result of cooperative participation with God as we are transformed into the likeness of God through Christ in the Spirit. This is deification, becoming fully human in likeness of the One fully human image of God, Christ. The Eucharistic sacrifice, presided over by a member of the community, is no longer a literal blood sacrifice. It is the transformed body of the risen Christ, a vehicle of our Salvation. The Orthodox priesthood is NOT a ritualized (male) killing of a sacrificial lamb. It is, in part, a thanksgiving that such a sacrifice is no longer required as the death and resurrection of Jesus ends such a sacrificial system.
Further, the presence of female deacons in the altar, who received the eucharist with the rest of the clergy as was their prerogative as specially privileged and responsible leaders within the community, belies any notion that Orthodoxy has maintained throughout its history semitic notions of blood purity. Certainly the female diaconate fell out of practice, and Theodore Balsamon asserts that it is ‘obviously’ due to menstrual emissions. However, this was not ‘obvious’ to Christians for over a thousand years, and continues to be quite obscure for many today.
More importantly, and I think completely at odds with an Orthodox understanding of salvation as deification, is this: What excludes a woman from imaging Christ? Christ, the true high priest, became human that we might become divine, assumed our humanity so that it might be healed. What then prevents any (appropriately skilled and called) human from serving as a priest? Unless of course, we want to argue that Christ did not assume female humanity, in which case, females are not saved. Gregory says to Cledonius, “What is not assumed is not healed.” We give up this core understanding of Christology and salvation every time we imply (much less declare outright!) that women cannot bear the image of Christ.
Finally, the implication that female priests results in the belief that “Abortion is a blessing” is simply a non-sequitur, a empty rhetorical flourish convincing only to those who are seek to argue by demonization, not theology. Some priests, male as well as female may hold this horrible belief, but there is no causal connection.
I trust that Ms. Linsley had good personal reasons for leaving her priesthood. Her letters explaining her decisions emphasize her position as at odds with a number of decisions made in the Episcopal Church, and these reasons are worthy of respectful consideration. However, her choice to leave her priesthood does not exclude all women from a call to the priesthood, any more than the call issued to some men means all men are called. The theological reasons she gives appear to be developed in order to explain the restriction of priesthood to men, but in so doing, it does not reflect an Orthodox theology of priesthood, much less reasons to exclude women. It is unfortunate that the Preacher’s Institute thinks this is viable sermon resource, regardless of what one thinks about women in the priesthood.