Liturgical Ethics 1

Liturgical Ethics 1

Published: Mar 18, 2007 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

Last month when I was at New Skete, Sr. Rebecca and I got into an interesting conversation about the emphasis on sin in the lenten season. Last night, I led an informal discussion about our experience of sin and the liturgy with the monks and nuns. At one point, Br. Christopher asked if there might be something to a 'liturgical ethic'. I jokingly responded that I certainly hope so, as my dissertation depends on the possibility. I also said that I think we tend to have a great vision for what is happening in the 'eschatological' space of the liturgy, but that as long as one among us is hungry, alone, sick, neglected, then I am not sure that our reality corresponds to our vision. Br. Stavros commented that this is certainly not a new concern, after all, Chrysostom preaches about poverty and hypocrisy in the church all the time. He is right. But, this is what I should have said:

As long as our practice is to exclude females from full participation in the liturgy according to all that they are gifted and capable of doing, our liturgy not only embodies an injustice towards the people of God (male and female), it inflicts injustice. As long as any girl or woman's ability to participate is limited by being female, whether it is as simple as carrying a message back to the priest in the altar (which must be done by a man during liturgy, though at other times I can certainly go into the altar to help clean) or as complicated as recognizing by ordination the priestly or diaconal gifts of a woman, our liturgy perpetuates injustice. In the language of Zizioulas, our liturgy as praxis reduces its participants to their gendered nature, which violates his assertion that it is in the liturgy and only in the liturgy that we truly become the unique, irreducible and free human beings we are created to be in God.

Every young girl that is excluded from serving in the altar next to her brother is sinned against by us. Every boy who thinks it is his privilege to serve derives from being a boy is being given a false understanding of the power and relevance of maleness, and is sinned against. I once had a conversation with a Greek man about his son and daughter serving in the altar. He said that his son did not serve in the altar in his church. When I asked why, he replied, "I will not permit that injustice into my household." And yet we bring it into our household all the time. Even those who tentatively agree that women are capable and called to the same service as men in the church often simply shrug at the present situation. 'Injustice' is somehow not a liturgical category, but a category of secular ethics. After all, the liturgy is supposed to change us, not the other way around, and if we are not being transformed by the liturgy, then it is our fault, our responsibility, something wrong with us. It is hardly conceivable that the liturgy may itself be unjust.

Injustice springs from sin, from individual and corporate sin. We choose to allow this injustice to continue in our midst. We choose to allow this sin to continue. When we are confronted with a woman (or man) who is angry, we may be sympathetic, but we don't really know what to do. I say 'may' because often the response to these angry women is not one of sympathy. The assumption is that there is something wrong with the woman, she needs to allow herself to be changed by the liturgy. The problem is, she is changed by the liturgy. Instead of recognizing the injustice outside of herself, she begins to 'recognize' her own 'inadequacy', her own 'inability'. She begins to believe the image of woman that the exclusionary practices of our liturgy convey. We begin to believe that it is acceptable to exclude women simply because this is how we have always done it (which we have not); we begin to believe that there must be some good theological reason for this (which there is not), that God must have intended it to be this way (which I believe God does not), that perhaps women really are deficient in some way (we are not!), or that despite all evidence and theology to the contrary, men and women are called to serve God in radically different gendered ways.

There are many questions that can arise from a liturgical ethic, but one of them must be the question, is the liturgy as it is practiced today ethical? Is it leading us to our telos as unique, irreducible and free human beings? Or is it perpetuating the stereotypes and reductions of culture, 'nature', or even of a theology that does not yet reflect the full uniqueness of each particular human person?


Sun, 22 Apr, 2007 - 01:17

Barring women from the priesthood has nothing to do with the Church viewing women as deficient or inferior. Besides Christ, who is more holy than the Theotokos? She even surpasses the angels. No mere man ever can claim this. Christ proclaimed the Resurrection first to the myrrh-bearing women, who surpassed the Apostles with their bravery. They were not afraid to go and anoint Christ's tomb when doing so could have meant persecution and perhaps death for them. Add the numerous amounts of women saints and I don't think we can say our church is inherently sexist.

So why are women forbidden from serving in the altar? The church on earth is a reflection of the heavenly order. The priest is a living icon of Christ. This is why he is male, bearded and required to wear the rassa. Not every male can be a priest, only those whom the church sees worthy of such a responsibility. Priests are filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit so that they can perform their priestly duties; however, as individuals, priests are human and sinners like the rest of us. Their priesthood makes them worthy of respect because of their responsibilities and the grace that God gives them, but it does not make them more holy than someone else per se. Men sin like women do, so clearly God did not choose men to become priests because they are more holy than women, but because they serve as icons of Christ. Christ appointed this responsibility to men, and we do not have the authority to challenege this. Proof of this lies in the fact that Christ chose only men to be his Apostles (whence we get the Apostolic succession of our clergy), while he had both men and women follwers.

Having said this, women have resposibilty in the church as well. Child bearing and child rearing, no matter how old fashioned this may sound, is a woman's responsibity and argueably more difficult than the priesthood! How important is it the role of the woman here, to raise the next generation of pious Christians! What a tremendous calling. The women train their children to be pious, to walk in the commandments of God, to transform the world with their love. Women also help keep order in the church and often act as examples through their piety and good works. There are so many inspiring women in our church who through their selflessness and love for others put many men to shame and also give strength to us in our spiritual struggles. It's not just child rearing either; look at the nuns, look at the women saints and martyrs. Clearly women are not barred from holiness. The priesthood is a special thing for a particular purpose, it is not the pinacle of Christian life or the top of the church's "corporate ladder". Let us focus on our own sins and try to improve ourselves as Christians and not try to overturn the order that Christ, in his mercy for mankind, has appointed for us.


Mon, 23 Apr, 2007 - 01:18

Paraphrasing from what I once read in a statement from the Pope of Rome:
I cannot conceive like a woman does, this is injustice, and should be redressed.


Sun, 29 Apr, 2007 - 01:18

I'm an Orthodox Jew, and we have an understanding of historical continuity that seems to conflict with your view of ordaining women. I do not fully understand Orthodoxy in the Christian context, but from what little I have seen I sense that you also emphasize a traditional approach to religion, stemming everything back to the time of the Apostles. Thus, from both perspectives, Jewish and Christian, I am not entirely convinced by the above argument based on a modern, western and American understanding of philosophy and ethics than the spirit of the tradition which you have received.


Tue, 11 Mar, 2008 - 10:41

Rock on... The liturgy has many purposes--catechetical, ethical, formative, and ultimately, transformative. We should constantly have these purposes in view when evaluating our praxis.