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We Have a Priest! Axios!

It was a Sunday morning years ago, on Aegina island, Greece, when I strolled down to the harbour front for a morning coffee (my hostess was still asleep). I took a table outside but the din from inside the kafenion was impossible to ignore. The t.v. was on full volume – audibly a church service – and a group of men sat transfixed in front of it, following the proceedings that came from, I assumed, a cathedal in Athens. They twirled worry beads and shouted commentary until, in one, great outburst, they yelled “Axios!”

This seemed to signal the end of the Divine Liturgy (Mass) and I thought no more about this moment until August 6, 2017, at my church in Edmonton, St Elia Ukrainian Orthodox Church, when I too shouted “Axios!”

This time I knew what was going on – not an ordinary Liturgy but the Holy Sacrament of Ordination to the Priesthood. St Elia parish had not ordained a new priest in 27 years so this was momentous: our Deacon, who had been assisting our priest at Liturgy for a number of years, was that day going to become a priest

According to Orthodox teaching, the process of ordination begins with the local congregation, which is why the church was full. But only a bishop may ordain (that gesture of “the laying on of hands” familiar in all of Christendom, passing on succession to the priesthood from the first apostles). There is an entire ceremony unto itself in welcoming the Bishop to a church so here is His Grace Bishop Ilarion being greeted in the church vestible by  our still-Deacon Roman with the traditional bread and salt on an embroidered cloth.

I had printed out the English-language version of the service so I could appreciate what I was seeing and hearing. Orthodox Liturgies famously engage all the senses – the puffs of incense, sputter of beeswax candles, glitter of vestments and mitres, the tones of ancient hymns, the taste of blessed bread – and I am always moved spiritually to some degree by the ritual theatricality and pile-up of symbols as the Liturgy unfolds.

Added to these, at Fr Roman’s ordination, were the special gestures that intensified the drama we were witnessing. “…two priests exit and bring the deacon before the bishop, who stands in the Royal Doors [of the icon screen].” “Afterwards, the deacon is brought into the sanctuary and, led by the priests, circles the altar three times while the clergy sing.” “They bring the candidate to the bishop, who makes the sign of the cross three times over his head. The deacon kneels before the altar placing his hands on the altar and his head upon his hands.” “…the bishop places his hand on the head of the deacon and recites the prayer, ‘The Divine Grace.'” “While the Senior Priest intones the Litanies, the bishop reads a prayer with his hand still on the new presbyter’s/priest’s head.”

Finally, we all stood up. Deacon Roman, now Father Roman, emerged, momentarily but visibly stunned, from the altar area to stand before us in his new vestments. “Axios!” Bishop Ilarion proclaimed. “Axios!!!!” we shouted our response. “Worthy he is!” We were, in other words, affirming his worthiness to “stand in innocence  before [God’s] altar, to proclaim the Gospel of [His] kingdom,…to receive the reward of good stewardship.” Axios!

And this, precisely, was what those men of Aegina were shouting all those years ago, before I understood anything.

It was, now, for me, a bittersweet moment. The “sweetness” lay in the deep and sustained emotion/mindfulness I felt and witnessed – especially that of the new priest and his wife and daughter – as we welcomed (into a diminishing number of Ukrainian Orthodox clergy) a new priest, in direct and unbroken succession from Apostolic times, in a ceremony I can only describe as literally Byzantine, when celebrants “were clad in a moving wall of embroidered images.” [The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium by Warren T. Woodfin]

But there is a “bitterness” too – or, less harshly, a melancholy – for me in the visible and complete absence of women in this Holy Sacrament. In the photo you can see a Reader, a Subdeacon, two Deacons, three Senior Priests, a Bishop and the new Priest, Fr. Roman. These are all categories of clergy, major and minor, and they are all closed to women, no matter how pious, faithful, charitable or, indeed, educated, we may be.

In the ordinary course of my church life, this does not bother me (much), for I feel absolutely no vocation to the priesthood even if the path were open. But I do know women who serve as our cantors (chanters who lead us in congregational singing) as robustly, fervently and expertly as the male cantors but who will never be “elevated” as the men may hope to be, even to the minor rank of Reader. (Cantors are laypeople, period.) And I know women who do receive a “call” to teach and preach but who must leave their  Catholic or Orthodox Church to do so. It is for them that my heart aches for I have been privy to their pain.

My melancholy consists in reflecting ruefully on the steadfastness with which Orthodox theologians refute the case for female ordination even into the Diaconate (an argument that has been simmering since the 1960s). I am a great admirer of the late Orthodox scholar and priest, Rt. Rev. Dr. Alexander Schmemann – he is a beautiful writer, passionate, exigent and devout – and so I turned to something he had written, “On Women’s Ordination,” where I hoped to read a statement that would cheer me up. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/SchmemannOrdination.php

He admits that the Orthodox Church has never faced this question: “It is for us totally extrinsic,” meaning he finds no basis, no terms of reference to female ordination “in our Tradition, in the very experience of the Church”, and therefore is simply not prepared for it. He then references, consolingly I think, the famous passage from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians, in which Paul reminds us baptized Christians that among us, at least, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” A radical democracy of the spirit, then, in the very earliest Christian communities?

I shall have a lot more to say about this as I go along (and about St Paul, for whom I have a lot of time) but let me end this post by saying that truly it has been a joy to participate in the Divine Liturgy [“the work we do together”] with Fr Roman, who gets more quietly priestly by the week. Axios!

14 Comments

  1. Eugenia Sojka
    Posted October 14, 2017 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks for these insightful observations, Myrna. In Poland, in a Catholic Church, even today you can’t be an altar girl. When I was a child in mid-1960s I pined to be one. I would wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go with my brother to a local Convent where he served at the 6 o’clock Mass, and even at this early Mass, in the room full of nuns, me, and two men (my brother and the priest), I was not allowed to be close to the altar. I could not understand why they treated me like this. I was begging the priest to allow me to be an altar girl but much to my sadness, which turned into anger later, not only this request was considered to be bizarre, but my mother was criticized for raising a daughter with rebellious ideas.

  2. admin
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 3:28 am | Permalink

    Hi, Genia. And thank you for your own insightful observation about growing up Roman Catholic in Poland. (It’s our secular world’s gain and the Polish church’s loss that you kept on being a rebellious female.)I know what you mean about the feeling of being unwelcome at the altar – or, in my case, the Sanctuary. I vividly remember the Sunday morning when, having passed around the collection plate (I think it was a basket, actually) for the Children’s Collection, I took the offerings to the side door off the Sanctuary and was practically hissed at by an old man at the door who brusquely shooed me away as though I was the carrier of a contagious disease. Perhaps it was my parents who then explained that girls and women aren’t allowed in that space, so much so that the only image of a female permitted on the Sanctuary walls is that of the Mother of God. I took the prohibition so much to heart that even when I have been absolutely alone and far from any person who could see me, as in the tiny nave of a village church in Greece, I haven’t dared to step inside the Sanctuary, just to see.

  3. David Holm
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    I had lunch a month ago with one of my former history students who still holds evangelical views. She is now a curate (assistant pastor) in a liberal/broad Anglican church, working especially with the half of the congregation which is LGBTQ+ (many of whom have fled from the evangelical churches with which I associate). When I asked her how she reconciles her current theological position with traditional interpretations of scripture, she replied that both Jesus and Paul worked to include people, not build barriers. By and large I agree with her, but there wasn’t time to see how she deals with specific “barrier” verses in the Old and New Testaments. Removing barriers/fences usually complicates life for most of the people concerned and typically inserts an additional level of politics into relationships — but if barriers lack a justifiable raison d’etre, they should, in my opinion, be removed.

  4. admin
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    Hi David – I couldn’t agree more with your former student when she says that scripture and theology can be reconciled by reference to the teachings of Jesus and preachings of Paul (see other Comments on this subject). Specific “barriers” in the Old and New Testaments have also been rigorously reviewed by scholars of all stripes – archaeological, anthropoligcal, linguistic, literary, what have you – and certain denominations and confessions have adjusted their practices accordingly. At least, that’s how I understand the process. Is your former student perhaps a Biblical scholar and reviewing these “barriers” in her scholarship? If you havea chance tobring the subject up again with her, let us know what she says.

  5. John-Paul Himka
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Our church was formed in a largely agrarian society in which there were strict divisions of labor and hierarchies between men and women, which in turn stemmed from an, at least perceived, need to reproduce as much as possible to keep the human race going. In these circumstances heterosexuality, strong families, and sex for reproduction became the norm, at least in theory and in theology. But we live now in an overpopulated world. Both the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople emphasize the environmental threat as a symptom of deficient stewardship of the earth. Limiting the population is the most important key to arriving at a balance between humankind and the rest of nature. Circumstances have dramatically changed since our church was formed. Women have gone into all branches of human endeavor, much to the benefit of all. There is a need to rethink traditional theology and traditional practices. Isn’t it a fetish to hold on to the vestiges of historical circumstances when life demands that we adjust? The church has changed many things since 33 AD, 800, 1500, and 1950. It should change its patriarchal practices and thinking too. Is our church about the love of God and neighbor or about the love of certain select traditions?

  6. admin
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks, JP, for the long view. However, I’m not sure which church you mean by “our” church. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church founded in Kyivan-Rus, or the one we established as settlers in western Canada, or the one tolerated by Constantine back in the day, or the one in full-throttled Byzantium…But I take your point about the theology around heterosexuality and gendered roles – as being antithetical to any ecological mission the Church has undertaken. Patriarch Bartholomew has been consistently and persistently teaching us that “creation is an intricate web of life, and the actions of human beings can either develop or destroy it.” (He said this most recently in a Keynote Adress to the Arctic Circle Assembly in Rejkjavik, October 13.) But I wonder if he’s ever named population control as even a partial “solution”? In any event, you ask the important questions about whether Orthodoxy can change once again, under pressure of planetary crisis. As for the role of women, in spite of all the societal advances and women’s contributions, I am in despair that our Church feels absolutely no need to respond. It’s as if our Hierarchs would rather go down with the ship (and, brothers, it’s listing rather badly) than bring women on board: “All hands on deck!”

  7. Alice Major
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    How vivid and interesting, Myrna. And how complicated an issue — not that I think it should be complicated to include women in the roles of clergy. But so many people have so much invested in the status quo, and when a ritual goes back to “Apostolic Times”, the investment becomes that much more entrenched.

  8. admin
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    Hi Alice. Yes, Apostolic Times, traditionally the Age of the Apostles, who knew Christ but whose Gospels were written, of course, ages later. so to speak. This puts us back to Paul, who wrote much earlier and who seems, by his own accounts, to have had lots of women in his house-churches. I wonder what “rituals” they may have had for the women and men who preached and taught and blessed the bread and wine? Why don’t our Churches go back to that Age when Paul, in Letter to the Romans (a genuine Pauline Epistle) thanks those women who “labour for the Lord’s work” and he didn’t mean in the kitchen!

  9. Posted October 15, 2017 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Myrna. Your description of lack of women in the high places of the church brings to mind an old friend of mine, Mary Schaefer, brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, who studied with the hope of becoming a priest. She worked for a time in northern Alberta, composing talks for priests in small communities, later wrote books about the church, but sadly was never able to realize her dream. Time for churches to acknowledge such talent. Better still do something about it!

  10. admin
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Heather, for weighing in, and letting us know something about Mary Schaefer. I wonder where she got her chutzpah in even hoping for elevation to the priesthood in the RC Church? As for doing something about it in our times, there are many churches that do ordain women – most recently the Anglicans in Canada in 1976 and in England in 1994 and some Evangelical Lutherans since 1970 in the USA -and therefore are able to expand their spiritual resources compared to the churches failing demographically. For Catholic and Orthodox women, of course, who have a call, this means having to leave their church. Such a one is my friend Marie-Louise Gomers, about-to-be-ordained an Anglican priest but in whom still beats a “Catholic heart.” She blogs at https://graceatsixty.wordpress.com/

  11. Helen Ible
    Posted October 17, 2017 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    As always a very interesting read, Myrna. Ah, Patriarchy! I shall look forward to your thoughts on Paul.

  12. admin
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    Hi Helen, as you can see from my response to Ruth, I am actually a fan of St Paul – which doesn’t mean that I am comfortable or enthusiastic about everything he says but that, as a flailing-about Christian, I find him endlessly interesting, and human. If I were a lot younger, I would enrol in Pauline Studies somewhere. And if I were alive when he was preaching, I’d join his followers, women like Thecla….What are your own thoughts on the man?

  13. Ruth McMonagle
    Posted October 17, 2017 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    I am very much looking forward to your thoughts about Paul. A thinker, writer and innovator in the early church. I sometimes feel defensive for him because feminist thinkers have found his pronouncement about female participation in church worship to be sexist. I think that he had contributions to make in many areas and shouldn’t be relegated to the dust bin of progressive thought entirely.
    I think that in the O.T., menstrual flow made women “unclean” and this prohibited them from certain activities in community life. Is that one of the sources of church thinking about women as leaders?

  14. admin
    Posted October 25, 2017 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    Hi Ruth, thanks for checking in. I’ll take my time to get to Paul because there’s a new book about him I’ve discovered in the library of the Benedictine Abbey where I am currently installed on a short retreat. (The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, by Calvin Roetzel, a professor of Religious Studies in St Paul, Minn.) But you’ve anticipated some of what I want to say – about being defensive in response to feminist critiques, and about his context. The first reading I did which prompted my post-feminist revisionist views was about the authenticity of the Epistles -only some of which are genuinely his(the good ones:-) – and I’ve read quite widely since, e.g. Garry Wills’ What Paul Meant. As for the menstrual flow business. I know the Orthodox Church gives this as a reason why women are not admitted into the Sanctuary, and this is based on Judaic Ritual Purity, I believe. Here’s Wiki on the subject: “Any object she sits on or lies upon during this period is becomes a ‘carrier of tumah’ (midras uncleanness). One who comes into contact with her midras, or her, during this period becomes tamei (ritually impure) (Leviticus 15:19-23)” I’m not aware of Paul having ever invoked Leviticus on this subject, are you? He did re homosexuality…Anyway, I find the (Christian) Orthodox prohibition unpersuasive: what about the non-menstruating or post-menopausal woman? Ifeel another blog post coming on….

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