Intro to 'Metaphorical Virtues and enGendered Presbyters'

Intro to 'Metaphorical Virtues and enGendered Presbyters'

Published: Feb 25, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

A draft of the short introduction to my dissertation, "Metaphorical Virtues and enGendered Presbyters: The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in the Eastern Orthodox Church." Feel free to comment as there is no shortage of topics for discussion:

Any argument for the ordination of women to the priesthood must address at least two questions. First, what is the Orthodox priesthood? The exclusion of women from this ministry depends on particular claims about the office itself and its gender-specific nature. If an examination of the priestly offices finds that they are not inherently ‘masculine’ ministries, then a second question must be asked, what is the consequence of continuing to exclude women from this office? Is it a harmless practice? How do we measure its possible harm to men and women? Or, is the theological inconsistency of this continued practice enough to provide a compelling reason to change?

The first part of this dissertation will examine the development of the priesthood in Orthodox practice and theology. It will not be a comprehensive examination, which is unnecessary and impossible in a single work. Instead, the first section establishes that the priesthood in the form we understand it today developed over time, which means that these offices changed over time. The assumption of an unchanging Orthodox priesthood (or practically any other aspect of our theology or practice) is simply false. Second, ecclesial structures are worked out as a dynamic response to history, experience and pastoral need. Social context cannot be ignored when discussing why the offices developed as they did. Third, ecclesial officials are functional and relational, that is, they do something which establishes a particular kind of relationship within the ecclesial community and which requires particular skills and virtues. The overwhelming concern of early discussions regarding ecclesial office holders is that these functional relationships are respected, and that the men and women (there is no questions as to the existence of female deacons) have the requisite skills and virtues necessary to engage in these relationships. The grace of God is present in the effective practice of virtue and skill, this is the sacrament of the office. Office are not themselves holy, but their service to the community is holy. Failure to properly serve demeans the office, a particular concern of John Chrysostom. Finally, the most consistent method of describing and appealing to these skills and virtues is through a variety of metaphors, some of which are themselves quite inconsistent. Metaphors inspire the imagination, they are figures of speech “whereby we speak about one thing in terms which are seen to be suggestive of another.”Soskice, Janet Martin. Metaphor and Religious Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. Reprint 2002, 15. Among other things, priestly metaphors suggest the functional, relational, and mysterious nature of ecclesial offices within a particular social context. I use mystery here not to indicate confusion or some untouchable and sacrosanct knowledge only available to a chosen few, but to highlight the pinnacle of the patristic theology of the priesthood. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, the priest is the icon of a new humanity, and just as humanity as the image of Christ in God incarnates a human-divine mystery which can never be defined, reduced, or imprisoned, neither can the priesthood. Contrary to present-day Orthodox rhetoric on the subject, this is an argument for the participation of women and adamantly not one for their continued exclusion.

The second portion of the dissertation will focus on contemporary use of metaphors, since it is by metaphor that women are excluded from the priesthood. First, by examining “visual metaphors,” that is, icons, I will argue that the Orthodox Church has never consistently taught the clear gender divisions which posit a different ‘mode’ of existence for men and women as faithful participants in God through Christ by the Spirit. Instead, icons point us to our unique, irreducible and free human nature as it is, and as it is becoming, the image and likeness of God. The most powerful visual metaphors are not those on wood, but those in flesh, the men and women with whom we participate in the life of God. This includes but is hardly exclusive to the priesthood. Second, I will examine our liturgical rhetoric, focusing on the liturgy as the primary (but again, not exclusive) place of our formation as virtuous participants in the life of God. This formation is dependent on the relationships formed within the community, and rhetoric, both verbal and visual, is a powerful tool for the formation of these relationships. The Orthodox liturgy constantly affirms our growth as individuals into virtuous men and women who exist “for the life of the world.” Thirdly, and finally, I will argue that our continued emphasis on only a few (really only one) metaphors which exclude women from participating in ministerial priesthood undermines the trajectory of our iconographical and liturgical formation. Instead of affirming the dignity of men and women as unique, irreducible and free, this rhetoric constricts humanity to our physical “nature.” The consequence of this is that, at the very least, our liturgical life does not contribute to the deification of men and women as much as it might otherwise do; at the worst, it may inhibit our deification by undermining the very relationships which it is supposed to establish.


Fri, 29 Feb, 2008 - 10:38

"Possible harm to men and women" is an interesting topic to explore. I think I first heard Renee Zitzloff express this concern, and I think it's something we don't usually think of when we're thinking about topics like this, that not only are women being hurt, but also men are being hurt. We aren't whole human being when some human beings are being treated as less than.

One question I think worth exploring is on the idea that just because something hasn't been done in the past doesn't mean it can't be done in the future. (As I just said to our deacon.) If we do change the tradition of the church, how should this be done, and for what reasons? How do we not throw out the baby with the bathwater? And how do we decide what is baby and what is bathwater? I don't have answers to these questions, they're just questions that have occurred to me.


Fri, 29 Feb, 2008 - 12:27

The assumption that runs through many (not all) feminist critiques of the church is that its practice is only harmful to women. Renee has many wonderful things to say about this, as do other Orthodox women who are rightly uncomfortable with some strands of feminism. Even many "radical" feminists are concerned about this assumption. False perceptions of who women are or are not go hand in hand with false perception of who men are. I was thinking this morning of the Greek "unity of virtues" and just posted on it here. It is a small part of this discussion, but I think important given the centrality of virtue to the priesthood.

The second question is HUGE. In my first year as a doctoral student, we had to hand in mock dissertation proposals. Mine was on this very topic, how do we understand change in the Orthodox Church. I decided, rightly or wrongly, that this was the sort of thing one wrote at the end of a long and hopefully thoughtful career, not at the beginning. But it is a constant thread in everything I write, since I am clearly advocating for change.

Part of the problem is that we assume that Orthodoxy has not changed. This is just NOT TRUE. Virtually everything we do and think was the result of a change, beginning with the Incarnation. It is one thing to look for hints in the past in an effort to maintain the continuity of our faith; it is another thing to assume that what we have in the present existed in its same form, with its same import, in the past. Our councils are cases in point: they were initiated to clarify 'novel' theologies which grew out of an expanding experience of God in Christ, they were accompanied by decades if not centuries of conflict which we call "the process of reception," and are now viewed as if they articulate what we always thought. Hardly the case. Even the priesthood has undergone change. LOTS of change. As has our liturgy. And our iconography.

I think the crucial part is how do we change. I am in part writing the dissertation to figure out what is the 'baby' of the priesthood, and what is 'bathwater.' Then, I, and hopefully many others, can think about how best to make the change in love.