At a Clergy-Laity Congress several years ago, Archbishop Iakovos urged members of Philoptochos organizations to find their "missing sisters." This means that some Orthodox women are "lost to the church." This is discussed by Sonja Jason in her article "Orthodox Women in Crisis" (Hellenic Chronicle, Sept. 20, 1984). She refers to the "flight" of Orthodox women. Like Ms. Jason, I have received long distance calls from Orthodox women in distress, most recently one from a woman I have never met. At the beginning of our hour-long conversation (which cost her a pretty penny), she wept as she described her isolation and spiritual needs. A Philoptochos president and Sunday school teacher for 15 years, she nevertheless feels that women are denied opportunities for spiritual growth and for greater service to God and to God's people. Obviously a serious crisis exists that is just now beginning to be articulated.
Obviously, the crisis presents challenges for the church as a whole. It also presents special challenges and opportunities to which Orthodox women of faith must respond with all the courage and wisdom which we possess. To do this will not be easy. But the time has come for us to speak, to knock on closed doors and to open them, not only for ourselves, but even more for our daughters and granddaughters. Although no one can alter the past, Orthodox women, who constitute at least half of the church, can help shape the future, the "new earth" which Christ came to inaugurate.
We women can begin by voicing our concerns freely and honestly. Our retreats, meetings and organizations should become our own. Our panels and discussions should be organized by us. We should define our needs and goals as dictated by our experience. To do this, we need to create a grassroots network and to establish communications with our sisters scattered over our vast country. For this, a publication by women and for women seems essential. Furthermore, Philoptochos members should elect all their officers and boards on the local, diocesan and national levels.
Secondly, women need to discover and to know our history in the church. In the very beginnings of the Christian movement, women were there, active and faithful. Christ numbered women among his closest disciples and apostles. The first churches met in houses headed by women. Women were the first to proclaim the Resurrection, the first to say "Christos Anesti." We can learn much from the glorious lives of our female saints. These sacred heroines of Orthodoxy include apostles, prophets, deacons, preachers, founders of churches, ascetics and healers, to say nothing of the hundreds of female martyrs from the first century to the modern period. Our female saints provide incredibly rich and diverse role models to guide and inspire Orthodox women today. However, unless we know the true history of women in the church, we cannot claim it, and a noble tradition lies wasted.
What a pity it will be if Orthodox women do not accept the challenges and opportunities before us. By expansion of our spiritual horizons, by expanded participation in the liturgical and ministerial life of the church, by obedience to the commandment of love that is supremely inclusive, we will end the "flight" of our sisters. At the same time, we will become true followers or disciples of Christ, like Saints Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, Photeine the Samaritan Woman, Thekla the first woman martyr, Katherine of Alexandria, and many more of our foremothers and sisters.
Many hands and hearts are needed to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. The gifts and talents of women should no longer be wasted, circumscribed by customs based on prejudice. The doors that have been closed to women must be opened. Otherwise, the list of our "missing sisters" will grow longer, the "flight" of Orthodox women greater.