Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Ortododox Eve and the Royal Priesthood

By the end of the second century, however, the situation had changed. The days of the more egalitarian church had ended. Reaction against women's freedom and equality succeeded in limiting the royal priesthood of Eve's Christian daughters. When the church adopted a policy of cultural accommodation to prevailing patriarchal societal patterns, it forbade women from prophesying,preaching, and teaching in the ekklesia. The unknown author of the two epistles to Timothy explicitly forbade women to speak and teach in the church (I Timothy 2:12). Since his prohibition evolved into a "divine law" it is worth noting his contemptuous characterization of women as "silly, loaded with sins, swayed by all kinds of desires, always trying to learn and never able to come to knowledge of the truth" (II Timothy 3:6-7).14

The total silence imposed on women effectively prevented them from again exercising leadership in the church. Christian women were thus reduced to the voicelessness and subservience experienced by their Greek and Jewish foremothers. There exists, however, an important difference between the pagan and Christian situations. Whereas the Greek philosophers had appealed to laws of nature in order to silence and oppress women, 15the Christian theologians transformed the same prejudiced views of women into divine laws, the eternal and immutable word of God.16

Ever since the second century this "divine law" has been strictly enforced. It takes a very self-confident and brave woman to challenge it. Brave women have not been lacking, as shown by the case of a fifth century nun named Theodosia. When St. Nilus, a stern abbot, heard that Theodosia was teaching and preaching, he ordered her to stop immediately. In a letter that has survived the good abbot reminded her of her proper role and "place." "It happens," he wrote, "that your body makes you a woman, whether you like it or not. So stop teaching in the church." Referring to the biblical authority17 for silencing women of the church, Nilus continued: "For the apostle made it clear that this is shameful, even though you may say ten thousand times that you have transcended the female condition and that you are more steadfast than men…" (PG 79, 249D).

Since the days of the unfortunate nun Theodosia the status and roles of women in the Orthodox Church have not changed or expanded significantly. The royal priesthood does indeed include women. But because of biology they are "less royal" than men. That biology is what matters most was made clear long before St. Nilus time. On this point Origen of Alexandria (185-255 A.D), the great theologian and teacher, could not have been more explicit. "It is not proper to a woman to speak in church, however admirable or holy what she says may be, merely because it comes from female lips."18 (The emphasis is mine.) Today theologians who defend the status quo speak more guardedly, although sometimes the voice of Origen and St. Nilus comes through distinctly. Nevertheless, as recently as the mid-1980's most Orthodox theologians insist on the same silence of women in the church, on the same restricted, gender defined, "special" roles for Orthodox Christians born with female bodies.

The lesser royal priesthood of Orthodox women begins early in life, forty days after birth, to be exact. When mother and child go to church for the traditional forty day blessing, the male infant is brought by the priest into the altar, the female only to the entrance of the altar. This overt discrimination between female and male violates two scriptural affirmations of equality of the sexes. Genesis 1:27 confirms that God created both female and male in the divine image and likeness. Likewise, the ancient baptismal formula quoted in Galatians 3:28 theologically proclaims the equality of men and women.19 Furthermore, it denies the need for religious and sexually designated subordinating status and roles among those baptized in Christ.

Although at forty days the baby girl is unaware of sexist discrimination, she begins to experience it soon enough. A school girl, she sees her brothers, male cousins and friends become altar boys, participating in the liturgical life of her church. When she asks why she can't share in this leitourgia, the answer is "You are a girl." Who can deny that at this impressionable age the Orthodox girl will suffer ego damage? In contrast to that of the girl, the image of the Orthodox boy becomes early on "more royal" and priestly. One sympathizes with little the Roman Catholic girl who said, "Please show me where the Bible says that girls can't be altar boys."

Access and service to God at the altar is off-limits and prohibited at all times to Orthodox women. This exclusion and subordinate status is experienced by women at various levels. But the experience lasts a lifetime. For example, a prominent Greek Orthodox woman has, for decades, brought flowers every week for the altar of her parish church. After arranging the flowers, she takes them to her church and hands them to the janitor to place on the altar. He is a Protestant; she is Orthodox. But he is male and thus has access to the altar, access denied her only because she is female, even though she belongs to the royal priesthood of her church.

In liturgy after liturgy Orthodox Eve is reminded of her lesser status in the royal priesthood. She attends a liturgy celebrated by an all male clergy, assisted by all male acolytes. In addition, our liturgical language is not inclusive. Whenever the congregation is greeted as "brethren" or "brothers in Christ," the feminine half of the ekklesia is excluded, women's presence and existence ignored. Each Divine Liturgy concludes with the prayer that begins "Through the prayers of our holy fathers." From this patriarchal prayer one would never know that the church has "mothers" as well as "fathers." The fact is, moreover, that our church has literally thousands of "mothers." They are the female saints, the ascetics, holy women, confessors and martyrs, and many more whose names grace our liturgical calendar.20