Gender, Ordination and Same-sex relationships: An unavoidable association?

Gender, Ordination and Same-sex relationships: An unavoidable association?

Published: Jun 19, 2012 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

In May 2004 I wrote a response to an article printed in The Word, the magazine of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocesan.  In it, I argue that Orthodox theology allows for the possibility of female priests.  In doing so, I was entering into a discussion with the likes of Mdm. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Metrs. Anthony Bloom and Kallistos Ware, Dr. Valerie Karras and Sr. Nonna Harrison, and Fr. Thomas Hopko, all of whom consider (or ‘considered,’ both Behr-Sigel and Bloom are of blessed memory) the topic an open question. At least one of the responses to my article projected that my arguments were merely a precursor for the ordination of openly (and presumably sexually active) gay clergy. 

At the time, I was annoyed at what I thought was a shallow attempt to derail reasonable arguments with semi-hysterical fear-mongering.

At the time, I believed that I could challenge the stereotypical gender roles which serve as the foundation for our exclusion of women (no, contrary to the popular rhetoric, it is really NOT our theology, nor even our practice) without challenging Orthodoxy’s beliefs about marriage as between a man and a woman.  I believed this in part because, as a friend once said, there is no necessary connection between challenging traditional gender roles and same-sex relationships.  Marriage is a relationship between two unique persons who are called to love one another, and who, by doing so, grow with one another into greater love of God and neighbor.  This is what Orthodox mean when they speak of marriage as a “path to salvation.”  This mutual challenge to grow further into God is not dependent on fulfilling particular gender roles, such as male leadership or female nurturing.  Some women lead, some men nurture.  There is no necessary connection between the success of a marriage and filling gender roles.  Therefore, challenging gender roles does not necessarily undermine heterosexual marriage.

At the time, I wanted to avoid the entire debate over same-sex anything because I (still) believe that my calling as a theologian is to advocate for the full recognition of the giftedness of women and the need for the Church to recognize and welcome our gifts.  Homosexuality would simply derail the conversation, and any hint that I might entertain the possibility of faithful, sexual relationships between people of the same sex would discredit my arguments.  People simply would not listen.

At the time, I was under the rather naive assumption that I could speak about the ordination of women as if it were a separate and distinct issue from homosexuality.

I no longer believe this is possible, and this terrifies me.  It terrifies me because I want more than anything to see sisters standing next to their brothers as they share in altar service.  I want to hear the preaching of a woman, and see her hands raised in prayer over the eucharist, mirroring the Theotokos who rises above her, Christ’s body in her womb and at her breast.  My greatest fear is that anything I say about same-sex relationships will cause women to be obscured from view, yet again.

But here is the reality:

Every defense of heterosexual marriage I have read by Orthodox theologians rests on the belief that ‘traditional’ gender roles are “natural.”  God has instituted them from from the beginning.  To people like Frs. Lawrence Farley, Johannes Jacobse, or John Whiteford, any challenge of gender-roles is a challenge to heterosexual marriage.1 For them, there is a necessary connection between marriage and traditional notions of what it is to be male/masculine and female/feminine.  No matter that the saints hardly conform to these stereotypes.  No matter that nature is not static, nor that Orthodox theologians such as Yannaras or Zizioulas roundly criticize any sort of “natural theology” (too much so in my opinion).  All that matters is that, as Farley argues, gender roles cannot be properly taught unless both genders are present to do the teaching, and society will be the worse for the loss of these roles.

And some more reality:

All too frequently, when the ordination of women is addressed by its detractors, suddenly we are in a conversation about pornography, incest, pedophilia… the list of ills goes on.  Is recognizing the full gifts of women really tantamount to encouraging pornography and allowing our children to be sexually abused by their elders?  Hopko once associated the ordination of women to the ordination of criminals and the disabled.  This is not only hysteria masking as dire warnings, it is deeply insulting to women, and, since same-sex relationships are usually on the list of depravities, insulting to men and women who are engaged in faithful, loving and enduring same-sex relationships.

And lest you think this polemic is merely the the purview of fanatical conservatives within Orthodoxy, Farley’s articles are posted on the website of the Orthodox Church in America.  Fr. Morris’s article, a factually incorrect and theologically flawed piece which inspired my first public defense of the ordination of women, is available on the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, but my response is not. Perhaps this is an innocent glitch in electronic record keeping. Perhaps not.2

Farley claims that we are standing on the front lines: 

The front line today is not drawn over questions of Christology or icons, and our children are not in danger of becoming Arians or iconoclasts. The world’s frontal assault on our Faith is no longer theological. Movies and magazines and columns and blogs do not revolve around the question of the homoousios or the Filioque clause in the Creed. They do revolve around questions of sex. Is gay marriage acceptable? Is casual sex okay? Is virginity unnatural? May women be ordained to the priesthood? Is homosexuality a valid alternative lifestyle? What about trans-gender? What about the explosive growth of the pornography industry? What about the pervasive use of sexual images around us? We may duck these issues and refuse to meaningfully engage in the debates, but the debate will continue in our society nonetheless, and will eventually make inroads in the Church, whereas we have been called to make inroads in the World. That is why this debate is not just a debate, but also the front line in a battle. If we refuse to deal with these issues, the enemy will push us back and our children will fall prey to an alien ideology and a harmful way of life.3

Yes, the lines have been drawn, and not where I would have liked.  We must engage in meaningful debates, and we must not duck the issues.  But contrary to what Farley says, issues of sex and sexuality are theological issues and iconoclasm indeed rises again. We make idols of stereotypical images of gender and sex and hang them over the heads of real women and men. We are not destroying painted images, but women and men who are uniquely made in the image of God. By doing so, we fail to recognize the unique image of God within each and every man and woman, an image which cannot be reduced to gendered stereotypes of any kind.

If challenging gender-roles on behalf of women simultaneously causes us to consider the possibility that same-sex relationships are fruitful ground for the growth of the Spirit, the so be it.  I would rather be on the side of encouraging faith, hope, love, compassion, kindness and self-control wherever it appears than associate myself with such a demeaning polemic.