Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Saint Febronia: Equal or Second Class?

By fulfilling their "special" role in the confined private sphere of the home, they freed their male relatives for significant public activities in the church and state. When Chrysostom made such statements he maligned the sex of saints and of his best friends, the women who like Olympias, deacon of Hagia Sophia, never deserted him. None of the fathers ever doubted that their own sex was superior to the other.

No church father hesitated to pronounce all women physically, morally, and intellectually inferior to men. Their presumably innate inferiority necessitated women's submission to the superior sex, in all spheres barring none. In the church she was sentenced to silence, forbidden to teach and to serve God at the altar. When the nun named Theodosia was caught preaching and teaching, she was told, "It happens that your body makes you a woman, whether you like it or not. So stop teaching men in the church. For the Apostle (Paul) made it clear that this is shameful …"

These brief remarks suffice to suggest what obstacles confront the Orthodox woman or man who wishes change in the status of women in my church. Of all Christian churches it is the Orthodox Church that most tenaciously clings to ancient traditions. Yet, if women are to acquire equal dignity in the church this two-thousand-year-old tradition of discrimination against women must be examined and reassessed.

Above all, woman's traditional second-class status needs to be reconsidered in the light of Christ's own affirmation of women. The Gospels all record how he broke the customs, laws, and taboos of His time and culture in order to confirm woman's divine image. Nowhere is this proved more dramatically than by his healing of the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage; his conversation with the Samaritan woman by the well; by his choice of a woman, Mary Magdalene, to be the first apostle of the Resurrection. It is worth noting that Orthodox tradition acknowledges Mary Magdalene to be the "first apostle," and "the apostle to the apostles," and the "first evangelist."

Surely the church ought to follow the example of her founder rather than to continue the tradition of patriarchal prejudice against women. For too long it has prevented women from taking their rightful place beside their brothers in the new creation.

Furthermore, it should also be recalled that in the apostolic church there was no discrimination between male and female. Evidence from the Book of Acts and the genuine epistles of St. Paul indicates that indeed women participated fully in the liturgical life of the primitive church and that they held positions of leadership.

To return again to St. Febronia, our meditation on Febronia the Holy Martyr would have been neither complete nor honest without a reflection on the status of her sisters in the church, yesterday and today.

Words of praise and honor to women saints will remain hollow and meaningless until women are restored to equal dignity in Christ's church on earth.

Given at the Common Council meeting of Church Women United,
June 25, 1983, Stony Point, New York.

St Febronia

Saint Febronia