Published: Jul 29, 2012 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
For those unaware, a firestorm has been ignited over the decision of Bishop Matthias (OCA) of Chicago to no longer allow laity to hold the altar cloths at communion. Apparently in his announcement of his decisions, he explicitly mentioned his discomfort that women had contact with sacred things. While he denied this in a letter, it is women who bear the brunt of this decision, and who have no recourse (short of monasticism) to obtain the tonsure that might “rectify” their lay status. Many reasons are floating around to explain away this unfortunate bind. I will address some of them in future posts.
Today, I am addressing the reason that woke me up in the wee hours of the morning: Female participation in liturgical service around the holy things is not necessary for their salvation. Therefore, the women who dare to desire these ministries are being told to just let it go.
Yes, holding communion cloths is not necessary for the salvation of the one whose hands hold the cloth. But allowing women to hold cloths is necessary for the salvation of the rest of us, especially of those those who exclude.
Salvation is Theosis, which can be described in a number of way, one of which is to become more ‘like’ God, whom we see in Christ, the one who is fully human. However, this process is largely dependent on how we engage in relationships, with ourselves and our neighbor. Failure to treat someone as neighbor does not mean they are not a neighbor, but rather that we are not being a neighbor to them. This the lesson of the Good Samaritan, we are called to be neighbors, not have them. Another way to say this is that if being a neighbor to others is to be, like Christ, fully human, then the failure to treat another persons as a neighbor is to be less that human. It is to miss the mark of becoming more like God in Christ.
So the question before us is this is this: is the exclusion of women from liturgical service treat women as less than human?
The answer to this depends, in part, upon what it means to treat another person as a full human being. Certainly those who are convinced that the exercise of women’s gifts is limited to the domestic sphere “by nature,” and those who similarly hold that women simply don’t have priestly gifts, believe that they are affirming the dignity of women by abiding by the way things are, the natural law of God’s creation. Of course, “nature” is defined as they see fit, rarely paying attention to the gifts of unique women (and men). “Priestly gifts” are usually left undefined, since the moment they are delineated, some inconveniently gifted woman appears as a counter-example, undermining the point that women just can’t have them. The fact that, repeatedly, the capabilities of women, some of who are saints, fail to fall within the appropriate parameters of what they define as ‘natural’ is simply ignored.
Instead, strange and roundabout reasons are given. Take for instance, Bishop Mathias’s decision to stop allowing lay members to hold the communion cloths. Apparently, when asked for clarification, he actually referred to “women”, a misspeak that did not go unnoticed or addressed by some of the priests present. He “corrected” his Freudian slip in a written letter since he really has nothing against women, really. Except that it is primarily to women that this decision must be explained as lay men are free to serve in the altar, and therefore, hold cloths if there is need. According to supporters of his decision, or perhaps simply those priests who must implement the decisions of a bishop they disagree with, lay people (women) should not touch the items on the altar. Really? Why is that? Mary birthed what is on the altar, according to Simeon the theologian, His flesh is from her, and when we eat of Him, we eat of her (yes, Simeon says this, see his First Ethical Discourse, X). Apparently, kissing the Gospel and cross, both of which rest on the altar, is acceptable since it is in a controlled liturgical environment. Of course, so is holding the communion cloth, so why one is acceptable but another is not is, well, confusiong.
Is training the issue? Yes, women lack training, just like the 7 year-old wobbly little boys who aren’t quite sure where they are supposed to go next, and who, quite logically, are directed by a more experienced boy or man. On the job training doesn’t seem to be an impediment, if you are a boy.
If the status of ‘laity’ is the problem, then the solution is simple: de-laicize the men and women who hold cloths. It can be a simply procedure, a mass tonsuring, just like what happens to dozens of little boys at about the age they can be trusted to hold a candle without setting their hair on fire (though this too is not always the case). Just tonsure the women for goodness sake! (Again, for argument’s sake, I am putting aside the fact that ordination is not conferred by tonsuring in our tradition, therefore, the altar is already filled with laity).
Oh, but we can’t. Can’t what? Tonsure women. Why not? Women can’t be ordained. Why not? Because, well, we just don’t do that. Why not? Because women can’t be ordained. Why not? Because, well, they are women. So what? ….
And here is where the real problem lies, a problem obfuscated by technicalities like training or tonsuring or lay status or what have you. Fundamentally, in our current practice, being a woman is the problem. No amount of honor given to the Virgin Mary can balance out the fundamental dishonor it is to be a woman in our Church, especially if you are a woman who has capabilities and desires to serve the church beyond beyond parenting, baking, cleaning, singing, and educating children. All of which men can do too. And no, the existence of a few “Spiritual Mothers” and the fact that nuns touch the holy things (in the altar, quite regularly), does not lessen the deep and profound loss experienced by women who once had the joy of literally sharing the meal of God with the people of God. Who are now told they cannot do so based on technicalities.
These women do not experience these decisions as technicalities. What they experience is that being a woman is a problem. This isn’t just a passing experience of exclusion, an experience which defenders of the current practice are so willing to deride as the histrionics of a woman who has learned her place from the secular world rather than the Church, and must be corrected so she will feel better about her exclusion. Of course it is just histrionics, we are women. Men, if you care, speak up. Now. We women are, after all, just too emotional to be taken seriously. I am not joking here. Our experience is of no matter to many in our church, but yours is. Use your place of privilege to care for those who have none. Take seriously that the grief you are witnessing is the reaction of a woman of God who is no longer being treated as a person of God.
And this is why the exclusion of women is a matter of salvation. Because those who exclude are not treating their mothers, sisters and daughters with the respect they accord to the youngest of boys. Because rather than wrestling with gifts and abilities of the beautiful woman of God before them, they treat them as technicalities. When this happens, the work of God through an utterly unique person is ignored. Whatever gifts she has, which God may want to serve the community in a manner that does not fit into the straightjacket of romanticized visions of ‘Woman’, are denied. They are denied in her, and they are denied to the community.
Those who perpetuate practices which exclude women, whether through silence or specious reasoning, no matter how well masked as love and kindness and pastoral care, sin against every girl and women who stand before them. Since, as Orthodox, our salvation is corporate, sin is corprate. Sin against one is sin against all, and by all. The liturgy, instead of a place of joyful participation in God becomes a place of painful rejection of the gifts of God.
As it turns out, I misspoke when I ceded that holding the altar cloth is not a matter of salvation for the holder. Holding the altar cloth is indeed a matter of salvation for all involved.