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!