WDL beta: 'Women Disciples of the Lord' - Conference and Questions

WDL beta: 'Women Disciples of the Lord' - Conference and Questions

Published: May 14, 2011 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

Edit, June 16, 2011:  I wrote the post below before I knew I was attending.  It serves as a great introduction to my questions, but it is chronologically before all the other posts.  Thus the "WDL beta."  Yes, I am a tech geek as well as theology nerd.

St. Vladimir's Seminary is devoting its annual summer academic conference to the topic, "Women Disciples of the Lord." It is a fabulous topic and I am impressed that the seminary is making the participation of women in the ministry of the Church the focus of this popular annual conference. The conference looks fascinating, and I regret that I cannot attend except via Podcast (which I hope is made available!). As an academic and theologian who writes extensively on the participation of women in the church, my heart is deeply invested in honoring the gifts and abilities of women so that the church can more fully benefit from their service. I ) have some questions regarding the framing of the conference which I hope will be addressed, either the conference itself or the dialogue which I hope will follow.

Here are the "primary questions" of the conference (you can read their website for their full announcement or download the pdf):

  • How did our female forebears understand and live in Christ—as women? And how may we follow their examples today?
  • Christ empowered the women among His disciples. How can women’s talents enrich the work of the Church today, energize parishes, and bring the Gospel into the world? How can the Church’s institutions better participate in the preparation of women and other laity for service?
  • How can the Church validate women in their ministries: hiring them, blessing them, and sending them to attend to the Church’s missions? How can it establish positions worthy of its women seminary graduates? What infrastructure needs to be created?

First, in the conference description, most mention of “women” is paired with “lay.” Does this mean that the symposium will not build on conferences which recommended the restoration of the female diaconate (such as Agapia in 1979, Rhodes in 1988)?  Dr. Kyriaki FitzGerald is slated to speak, but not on the diaconate, the work for which she is best known.1

Second, the phrasing of the first primary question, how our female forebears followed Christ — “as women,” is intriguing given current debates among Orthodox regarding the legitimacy of a theology of gender-based ‘charisms’ (seen in the challenges respectfully leveled by Élisabeth Behr-Sigel towards the theology of Paul Evdokimov).2 Does this phrasing presume that they did so in a manner different than men? How was the preaching (both to the disciples and Tiberius) of Mary Magdalene done “as a women”? Was Thekla’s self-baptism particularly womanly? Or Nina’s baptism of Georgian royalty? What opportunities are there for women preach and baptize today? "As women"? For those churches where women already preach (yes, it does happen), is the Church prepared to offer, at the very least, a ‘blessing’ which acknowledges both the responsibility and privilege in the use of such a gift for the service of the Church?

Third, I applaud all attempts to address questions of infrastructure creation and hiring women (seminary graduates or otherwise). Women, like men, need the institutional and financial support of their community and Church to engage in chaplaincies, pastoral counseling, etc. Just as the early church recognized that ‘ordained’ offices according to the type of service given to the community (thus teachers, widows, deacons, presbyters were all recognized as offices because of how each served the community), the Church today must offer support through both structure and official blessing (and perhaps ordination) to all those that serve. As Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas once said, the Church is free to define new ministries and ministers as needed. Women chaplains and pastoral counselors are already engaged in diaconal service, that is, service which is precisely what the office of the diaconate was established to do. The liturgical role of deacons is (or rather, given our current confusion on the subject, “should be”) a recognition of service outside the eucharistic liturgy. The liturgical role is meant to create a continuity between what is done outside the eucharistic liturgy with what is done inside. Currently, our diaconate rarely makes such a connection. Will the current service of women be allowed to clarify such a connection?

There is no mention of our liturgical ‘infrastructure’ in the topics of the conference. This is the place where our vision of the ministry is formed, from which we are called into the world. It is also the place where women (with the exception of clergy meetings of any kind) have the least visibility, despite no lack of ability. Will our liturgical ‘infrastructure’ be addressed? Will the possibility of female altar servers, tonsured female readers and chanters, or again, the diaconate, be considered? Or is the infrastructure to be addressed only that which is non-liturgical?

This conference is an opportunity to clearly address the modern tension within Orthodox theology regarding an assumed complementarity of gifts (a very non-traditional position given that much early theology simply didn’t think women even had exceptional gifts or abilities) and the long-standing struggle of the church teachers in recognizing that women, often despite social norms and expectations, are called to, granted, and capable of exercising the same set of virtues, tasks, gifts (and even functions) of Christian men, according to the need, ability and call of each. Again, I look forward to the dialogue this conference will generate.

You may download the flyer here: http://www.svots.edu/sites/default/files/myrrh_bearing_women_flyer.pdf