Wanderings and Wonderings About Women and Walls

By Demetra Velisarios Jaquet

The common purpose of the Eucharistic community is to listen and respond with gratitude, love and obedience to God’s call to holiness.

God created the first human community, Adam and Eve, who through disobedience separated themselves from God and ushered in an era of fallen human nature, where discord and blame cause men and women to seek domination over each other. When one person dominates, the other loses identity. The call to holiness is a call back to full relationship with God, and with others, thereby fulfilling our potential for full human personhood and sacred community.

Our theological anthropology of harmonious complementarity between male and female somehow has not played out successfully in our parishes. The cathedral of theology which we paint so well conceptually so often looks more like a shanty when we view it through the lens of actual praxis.

It is true that the rich diversity of women’s informal ministries has adorned the Church for centuries – building family life, educating youth, helping and visiting the needy. Women have become saints, martyrs, confessors, witnesses, teachers, prophets, evangelists, and monastics, just as men have.

In recent times, women in many parishes have been welcomed by their parish priests onto parish councils and into leadership roles in the life and ministry of the laity within the community. Their participation in diocesan and archdiocesan committees, in International Orthodox Christian Charities and in the Orthodox Christian Mission Center has grown, and for decades women have enjoyed access to theological education at many Orthodox seminaries.

Nevertheless, many women today report that affirmation and blessing of their own and other women’s service within the Church is highly uneven, depending variously on pressure placed by influential parish members, sinful incursions into Church communities of sexual stereotyping or discrimination, ethnic and cultural tensions within the parish, reaction against more radical forms of feminism, or occasionally the arbitrary inclinations of local clergy or the arbitrary fiat of a local bishop. The age-old sins of sexism and hardness of heart continue to infiltrate our Church communities.

After fifteen years chairing the international group Women’s Orthodox Ministries and Education Network, I have heard dozens of stories from women who offered their gifts and talents within the Church, but who too often were met with the tacit message, “We really don’t need you after all.”

Few women have been tonsured as readers, or allowed to hold the cloth at the distribution of communion, to carry a fan in a procession, or assist liturgically in any way. Most parishes still carry infant boys into the altar area at the forty-day churching, but not infant girls. Little examination and no renewal of liturgical language and prayers demeaning to women has been accomplished.

Even worse, it is appalling to hear from women that they are still having to deal with myths and demeaning local practices with regard to issues of the “uncleanness of women,” barring them from communion at certain times of the month, and barring them from reading the Epistle or chanting.

Many women in today’s Church are feeling the call to explore emerging ministries to meet the needs of our time, and they are eager for the Church to welcome, support and encourage them in these ministries. Women are volunteering and engaging in training for formal ministry as hospice and hospital chaplains, pastoral counselors, parish nurses, pastoral care-givers, social workers, prison and nursing home chaplains, as well as studying and teaching theology and religious studies, and engaging in ecumenical work and dialogue. Sadly, all seems threatening to some our fellow Orthodox Christians.

Women are also deeply serious about their sense of being called to offer both pastoral and liturgical assistance in the parish. A welcome sign of the times is that the restoration of the ancient order of Deaconess is being discussed more and more by Orthodox laity and being studied by Orthodox bishops.

At a conference at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania in 2004, Orthodox women from all jurisdictions in America were polled. Over 63 percent of the women believed that defining and reinstating the Order of the Deaconess was “very important” while an additional 12 percent thought it “important.”

These women expressed a longing for more support from the Church for their ministries, but in a number of cases reported problems in acceptance of their ministries in local parishes. Yet they also revealed that, while they are distressed about these problems, in many cases they were not discussing them with their priests and bishops. Often they share their difficult experiences within the Church only with other women. The question arises: why keep these problems confidential?

Silence when it is time to speak: Few women have dared to speak up or make any effort at dialogue on these issues within Orthodoxy. Many are silenced by being told that to do such-and-such “is not the Orthodox way.” Some find it difficult to pursue spiritual growth within a community that avoids addressing their concerns as women. Others experience the chronic discouragement they encounter as just too much, causing them to minimize community engagement or even leave the Church.

One cannot absolve women themselves of the burden of their complicity in bad outcomes in the parishes by putting all the responsibility on those in leadership positions. Sometimes choosing to avoid the tensions of lay leadership allows the layperson to evade the baptismal demand to live in witness and mission for Christ.

Speaking out about the anti-feminine biases which so often creep into the Church is too daunting a task for many women. Not wanting to cause conflict or to risk being regarded as trouble-makers, they often opt for silence. Or they don’t want to lose the unacknowledged benefits of acquiescing to the status quo, choosing to preserve responsibilities assigned to them without the accompaniment of due authority, even at the expense of their own integrity.

There are women who shy away from developing a more active role in parish life because they fear they will be seen as less female. Women are often expected to maintain a certain “innocence” and trustfulness, at least pretending to leave it to the men to know “the ways of the world.” If they let it be known that they are just as aware as men about how to navigate in the real world, they are frequently told that they have let their intellect undermine their faith.

There is a difference between being child-like and childish.

“Childish” means never to grow up, never to be fully aware of the reality of one’s own surroundings, to remain ignorant or unaware of difficult subjects, and to avoid coming to terms as responsible persons with the world around one.

On the other hand, the Gospel quality of being “child-like” means innocence with wisdom, acceptance of the honor and the burden of perpetuating hope, joy and faith by wading into the deep water of life with all its complexities, and doing so with openness and love.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for many women is to acknowledge – to confess – that many of our wounds are self-inflicted by our own unwillingness to state our case squarely, with honesty and love. We women must assume our share of responsibility for tolerating cultural norms of competition and dominance which beget the evils of sexual discrimination. We can and must act courageously and speak openly, regardless of rebuffs or attacks, and we must do so with trust, precisely because the body of Christ is dedicated to a transfigured life. To invite transformation, we must identify within ourselves and our communities the obstacles that make a mockery of Saint Paul’s words that, in Christ’s body, there is “neither male nor female.”

Obstacles to dialogue: Too often, we handle flawed customs in the Church by denying they exist; instead we attempt to focus on what we all are grateful for. We try to avoid all conflict. This is a time-tested strategy for salvation, but does little to help average folks in a parish resolve disagreement or conflict in a healthy way, let alone fulfill their potential for living as one sacred community.

Again and again we fail to address the difficult tensions that come with diversity and to experience conflict within the Church in a transformational way. While we acknowledge the unique distinctions between men and women, we fail to move on to the obvious conclusion that therefore some distinct ministries by women may be appropriate today, as they were in the early Church, and that the uniqueness of women’s insights might be necessary for the Church’s fullness. In parishes that are shrinking or simply not growing, we avoid discussing some of the possible reasons for our lack of growth as a community. By our silence, we make an idol of the status quo.

There are areas in which welcome change is obvious. In recent years Orthodox jurisdictions have paid serious attention to the need for accountability regarding sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy. Few priests any longer counsel women to “go home where they belong” when women reveal in confession that they are being violently abused by their husbands. But instances of more subtle abuse are often met with less sensitivity and less concern for victims of abuse.

Dialogue stoppers: There are many tools for avoiding subjects that are too risky or scary to talk about. Among these are dialogue stoppers. The most popular way to silence a Christian woman who finds the courage to speak is to say something like, “Let’s not talk about women’s concerns. Let’s talk about human concerns instead. There are already too many things that divide us. Rather than focus on the ways in which we’re different, let’s focus on the ways we’re alike.”

Unfortunately, the only persons who can really afford the comfort these sentiments intend are those who have power over others, who do not need to explore differences because they run the system.

When women are deprived of the freedom of exploring what it means to grow up female in a male-dominated Church, they are robbed of their experiences and a part of themselves. Our theology reminds us that our differences are part of what gives us our unique identity. Once we are dissuaded from embracing the uniqueness of our differences by backing off from our own issues and focusing on “common” concerns, we restore the status quo and relegate women to playing a subservient role in a male-dominated system. This does nothing to help anyone become more Christ-like.

Another way to stop dialogue is for men to shake their heads and say patronizingly, “You women are so mysterious – we men can never understand you!” The implication in this statement is, “So why try?” It sounds like flattery, but actually it’s dismissal.

Women are often silenced in the presence of a man who considers himself a champion of women’s equality and a trailblazer in supporting it. He bridles if he is informed of a sexist attitude or behavior on his part. How can he be so misunderstood? Doesn’t he say all the right things? Doesn’t the fact that he tries so hard mean anything? After all, he is one of the few men who really tries to understand and support women. The message is: if what we are saying or doing upsets or threatens him, we ought to stop.

Another time-tested method of preventing dialogue is to accuse those women who are seen as asking questions that ought not to be asked of “not being a true Orthodox Christian.” This is effective whether used against a cradle Orthodox, who ought to know better, or against a convert, who clearly is still under the pernicious influence of a “non-Orthodox upbringing.” A variation is to accuse Orthodox women active in ecumenical settings of being “polluted by the Protestants.”

But being a true Orthodox does not mean never having a differing opinion or never having a conflict. Even the Church Fathers had their disagreements! When you back off from your own perceptions and convictions, the Church loses the uniqueness of your contribution.

What all dialogue stoppers have in common is that they open the cavern of fear and insecurity, and abort the process of dialogue. These techniques of distraction, discounting, and avoidance are commonly used when the stress and anxiety of staying in real dialogue is getting too high and someone needs a way out. Usually people will try several times to stop dialogue and then either give up and leave the room for some “emergency,” or lose control, get angry, and begin shouting.

Dialogue stoppers by definition inhibit growth and change, and maintain a closed system at the expense of the people within it. Dialogue stoppers are key tools for building and stabilizing walls between people. However, once named and calmly faced, they lose their power.

Recognizing dialogue stoppers is just the first step toward letting down walls within parishes. Our memories of past hurts, and our expectations of being hurt again, tend to drive us apart and keep us apart. Refusing to sink hopelessly into the status quo, we must forgive those responsible for past hurts and stay calmly present in the dialogue. This takes preparation by drinking deeply of the waters of contemplative prayer and opening ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.

Sanctified opposition: To dismantle the walls, we must encourage what I call “sanctified opposition” within our church. This means we must explore our differences and admit to the specks we discern in the other’s eyes while humbly remembering the forest of logs in our own. We need not dwell on evil, but neither do we dare to ignore it. Choosing dialogue with continued prayer in an engaged atmosphere of encouragement, openness and trust sanctifies conflict.

Sanctified opposition doesn’t just bless conflict as a tool for use in healing. It is more than healthy conflict utilization. Sanctified opposition is a prayerful engagement wherein both parties invite the presence of the Holy Spirit Who helps us, emptied of ego, to interact with the other deeply, entering into the other’s sacredness and being changed by it. Sanctified opposition within the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit’s presence and action within us is the mysterious process by which God’s grace transforms the very nature of our differences into a sacred shared communion of being with God.

The effort to be lovingly honest in continuing dialogue even when that means loving our way through disagreement could pull down walls. Sanctified opposition, when conscientiously practiced under the umbrella of prayer, can become a sacrament of healing for both persons and communities.

Walls of dear: The walls which most need to be pointed out between men and women are primarily the walls of fear, defensiveness and ego which we have built around ourselves, causing us to harm others on a sliding scale from occasional minor offenses to extreme and chronic paralyzing abuse. From behind those walls emanate arrows of accusation, domination and forced submission which are an affront to God and to God’s spirit and action within us.

Dr. Demetra Velisarios Jaquet, D.Min., M.Div., is a retired pastoral counselor and spiritual director in Denver, Colorado, USA. She teaches religious studies at Regis University, Denver, and trains chaplains and chaplain supervisors at the Rocky Mountain Center for Education and Training. She is chair of the Women’s Orthodox Ministries and Education Network (www.OrthodoxWomensNetwork.org) and President of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion (www.ocampr.org). She can be contacted at deejaquet@aol.com. Portions of this paper have been published previously in “Women in Orthodox Christian Traditions” in The Encyclopedia of Women in Religion in North America, Indiana University Press, 2005.

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48