Why can't you be satisfied?
Published: Apr 14, 2010 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
Question: So many opportunities exist for women in the Church, why are you so concerned about the priesthood? Women can be parish council presidents, Sunday school teachers, the wives of priests, why do they need more? Why can’t you be satisfied with what you already have?
It is a sort of deflating question, one that implies I and others are grasping for something inappropriate, out of place, ignoring all the wonderful things women already do. Pressing the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood distracts from the ways in which women are welcome participants in the Church. The implication is that my energy would be better spent thinking about those many other roles rather than arguing for an innovation which inappropriately grasps for power.
The irony is, the question implies the very framework of power which the asker is supposedly rejecting by insisting that I leave the priesthood alone.
Let me explain:
It is true that women have influence in the Orthodox Church. They are parish council presidents, singers (and sometimes chanters), and they are the wives of priests. For example, Presbyteras, Matushkas and Khourias should not be dismissed or undervalued for the way their unique position within the community contribute to the ministry of the Church, led by their priest husbands. At the very least, these women contribute in their encouragement and support of their husband in his work. At times, it is quite clear that the influence of a wife keeps a husband in balance and may even mitigate social or pastoral situation. Some clergy wives take a very active role, partnering with her spouse by attending events, house blessings, perhaps directing the choir or leading children’s education. One woman I know has developed an extensive support network for shut-ins, and even though her priest husband is no longer alive, continues this vital work in her parish. These unique contributions should be honored, respected, and as is sometimes suggested, formally blessed as their own unique ministries of the Church. Each of these roles deserves more considered thought than theologians of the Church have given them. At the very least, what is clear is that each of these roles is important, unique, and requires specific capabilities and charisms to be done well.
Notice however, an interesting element of the question: influence. By pointing out the many places in which women are already ministering in the Church, it presumes that the issue of women priests is about having something, anything, to do in the Church, to have a place of influence, power. Now, it would be neglectful to not point out, since we are speaking of influence and power, that very few of the roles for women in the Church even remotely compare in spheres of direct influence to the roles available to men. Certain clergy wives are very influential, and a few female theologians are read with great respect, but there is no role in the Orthodox Church which compares to the theological, pastoral and liturgical influence embodied in the ordained clergy. So if the question is supposed to be about influence and power, then no matter how many roles currently available for women, we are still confronted with a situation of extremely imbalanced distribution.
Yet it is practically a mantra of the Church: priesthood is not about power. Despite the fact that this mantra crops up with disturbing regularity when it is women who are asking to participate, it is, I think, true. It is a reality that the clergy wield influence and power. They are in part clergy precisely because the community recognizes their particular gifts and abilities to wield the profound influence entrusted to teachers, pastors, and those who lead us in prayer. But acknowledging that their position involves power and influence is quite different than saying that their position exists in order to wield power or have influence. Those who seek ordination thinking that such power will be bestowed upon them as they rise from their knees bearing the marks of their office will be sorely disappointed in the reality of parish life. Hopefully, these men will adjust their expectations of the priesthood well enough so that their parishioners do not have reason to wish they had never been ordained in the first place.
Isn’t it strange then, that when women seek to be included among the clergy, which is not about power or influence, they are asked why they want this_office when there is such an abundance of opportunity and influence available for them in _other places? Out of one side of the mouth we are told that the ordained ministry is not about power and influence and to seek it is a sign of selfish grasping, while out of the other side of the mouth we are encouraged to exercise our influence in other ‘more appropriate’ venues where our gifts, passion and energy can be used to serve the Church.
It is precisely because I have thought about these “other” places and roles that I continually return to the issue of female clergy. Ordination is not primarily about power and influence, though it is utterly disingenuous for anyone to claim it is not in part about such things. Rather, as with all official and unofficial ministries in the Church, it is about the unique set of capabilities, skills and charisms required for the ministry, and their possession by the person recognized by the community for such service. Denying women a place among the ordained clergy
- fails to recognize the uniqueness of all ministries, but especially those of the clergy,
- fails to recognize the uniqueness of the particular person standing before us,
- and fails to recognize the importance for the theosis of both the person and the community of a match between gift and role.
Ironically, this denial is done in precisely in the service of that which we are not supposed to serve: power and influence. It would simply be ironic if it were not so excruciating to bear by those who are falsely accused of grasping at that which anyone truly called knows cannot be grasped. Instead, it is tragic, bitter, and repulsive to think we would stoop so low, be so mean, in our desperate attempts to stave off the inevitable recognition of women as full and unique participants in the unique ministries of the Church.