Being and Becoming Church
Being and Becoming Church
The St. Nina Quarterly
As Orthodox Christians we believe that human beings, men and women, are created in the image of God and called to grow into God's likeness. But who is God? We believe that God, as Trinity, is a community of Persons in love. It is because of this love that God created the world out of nothingness and continues to act in history, through the Holy Spirit, recreating our world. We believe that union with God is what real life is. It is participation in this Life that is the goal of our lives as Christians.In order to become who we were meant to be, we must enter into this relationship of love, becoming God-like (theosis in Greek). As Christians we do this through the person of Jesus Christ. Christ, as both God and human, is the unity of the uncreated with the created, the bridge from God to the created world. He is the archetype of the true human person. As St. Athanasius says in his work On the Incarnation, "God became a human person so that we may become gods."1 God has given us the invitation, we must respond. It is a dynamic process. We are both human and in the process of becoming truly human, in an intimate relationship with God.
In order to be truly human, however, we must be in community. As Sister Nonna Harrison writes in her article, The Holy Trinity as a Model for Human Community,
...to be made in the image of God is to be made in the image of the Holy Trinity; like the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, human beings are persons. This means that we are free and are able to know and love others, but it also means that our belonging to the community of humankind, our relatedness to other people, is at the very root of who we are.2
It is within community that we discover ourselves and grow into full maturity, becoming who we really are meant to be. It is also through these relationships that we have the opportunity to know God and others, not only in the cognitive sense, but through an encounter of the heart. The Holy Trinity provides a model for the ideal community in which "people are united by mutual love, they work together in harmonious consensus, and the equality and dignity of each person is respected."3 We are not yet this perfect community. But it is in Church that we are simultaneously being and becoming this community. Reflexively, it is in community that we are simultaneously being and becoming Church.
In Orthodox ecclesiology the Church is known as the "Body of Christ." We believe that because of Christ's resurrection, the Kingdom of God is already accessible to us through Christ. The Church is called to proclaim and prefigure this reign of God. We also understand the Church to be the "Temple of the Holy Spirit" as well as "a therapeutic, healing community."4
Throughout the history of the Church many women have played an important role in helping to build and sustain the Christian community, including the Virgin Mary who gave birth to Jesus the Christ. She is considered a model not only for women, but for all humankind. As Bishop Kallistos Ware, one of the most respected contemporary theologians in the Orthodox world, writes,
As our supreme human offering, the Mother of God is a model, next to Christ Himself, and through God's grace, of what it means to be a person. She is the mirror in which we see reflected our own true human face. And what she expresses, as our pattern and example is above all human freedom.5
In Orthodox ecclesiology, Mary is also considered the "prototype of the Church." She is related to both the Source of the Church, Jesus Christ, not only by her physical motherhood, but also on a spiritual plane. Likewise, she is also related to the Holy Spirit that "gives God's divine life of Jesus Christ to both her and the Church."6 It is participation in this Life that is the goal of our lives as Christians.
Both Orthodox Christian women and men are given the gift of initiation into the life of Christ from infancy through Baptism and Chrismation. However, as with any relationship, we must nurture it in order for it to grow. We have the opportunity to do so throughout our lives within the community of the Church. The Church can be a "worshipping, teaching, and practicing community in which spiritual formation is nurtured in a variety of ways."7 It is in the Church that we should be free to grow into our potential as human beings in relation with God.
When we gather as a community, especially in the Liturgy, we are in the company of the Lord. We become the Church. We are given the opportunity to continually re-actualize our baptism and enter into the dimension of God at every Eucharistic celebration through the person of the risen Christ. Through the risen Christ, we can move beyond our divisions within society, whether based on ethnicity, race, gender, or culture, and assume a Christian identity. Though our differences still remain, they are transcended in the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church. As Vladimir Lossky writes,
The fullness of nature demands the perfect unity of humanity, one body which is realized in the Church.... Within the unity of the common nature the persons are not parts, but each a whole, finding accomplishment of its fullness in union with God.8
Just like our own body needs constant nourishment to sustain itself and grow, the Holy Spirit renews, animates, and revitalizes our unity with the risen Christ. We are continually building up the Body of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. As it says in 1 Cor. 12:7, our motto for the St. Nina Quarterly, "To each one has been given the manifestation of the Spirit for the Common good." All persons are endowed with these gifts of the Holy Spirit in ways that uniquely express the fullness of their own humanity as well as contribute to the fullness of the entire community of believers. We have been given our gifts. It is up to us to share and nurture them.
When we offer our gifts, we enter into the Church more fully. Still, our participation may be hindered due to our own sin, our laziness or hardness of heart. It may also be limited due to the level of our maturity. We begin as children in the faith, and hopefully, grow into adulthood. Along the way we find ourselves and discover those gifts that express the fullness of our humanity. Sadly, however, our gifts may not be recognized by the community and this may hinder our ability to participate in the event of the assembly. This is most acutely felt and experienced by many laypersons, especially women. For some, the Church can be a rigid institution, steeped in "traditionalism," especially in regard to the participation of women. Instead of a conduit to God, it can become a barrier. As one of the readers of the Quarterly wrote,
I am writing to request that you add a friend of mine to your subscription list. Since I have known her, she has told me she has "issues" with the way the Orthodox Church treats women...I think with enough information she could get over this vague feeling of ill will that she has for the Church. I hope that putting the St. Nina Quarterly into her hands will help her put these issues to rest so that she can embrace the Church with her whole heart again.9
Of course we worship the Trinitarian God in the Divine Liturgy, but the God of "inter-relationship and shared love"10 is sometimes hidden by practices that are more reflective of cultural biases and outdated understandings of women's participation in that shared love, than of the genuine theology of the Church. As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, a well-known French Orthodox theologian, has written about the reality of the Church today,
Here is juxtaposed and joined the liberating message of the Gospel and archaic taboos, a theological anthropology both spiritual and personal, and the misogynistic stereotypes inherited from patriarchal societies.11
The St. Nina Quarterly
The Orthodox Church traces its origins to Christ and the apostles and it takes this inheritance seriously. The Tradition of the Church represents the continuum of knowledge and experience passed down and enlarged from one generation to the next and reinterpreted for each. But how do we discern the Truth of God embedded within the various cultural manifestations of the Church from the human limitations of that culture in place and time? How can the community uphold Tradition and be what Jaroslav Pelikan, a well-respected Church historian, describes as the "living faith of the dead" without slipping into traditionalism, which he describes as the "dead faith of the living."12 How can the church become the Church, a vehicle for all to enter into the life of Christ? It was in trying to address these questions honestly and prayerfully, especially in regards to the ministry of women in the Church today, that the St. Nina Quarterly was conceived, striving to be an example of the Church as a therapeutic, healing community. As one reader wrote,
I greatly enjoy your publication and find it a wonderful antidote to the current glut of reactionary, fundamentalist literature that sees feminism, change, and the modern world as incompatible with Orthodoxy.13
The St. Nina Quarterly is a publication dedicated to exploring the ministry of women in the Orthodox Church and to cultivating a deeper understanding of ministry in the lives of all Orthodox Christian women and men. Our mission is the discovery and cultivation of these gifts for the nurturance of the entire Body of Christ. To this end, we will strive to educate, inform, and provide space for an ongoing, creative dialogue aimed at reaching across all boundaries to support and encourage the growth and vitality of the God-given ministries of all of our sisters and brothers in Christ.14 [For more information about the St. Nina Quarterly, see my article in the Ecumenical Review, Volume 53, Number 1, January 2001.]
We build each issue around a theme and focus on ideas and subjects specifically of interest to Orthodox women as well as to the Church at large. Some of the themes of past issues have been: Women in the Church, Past, Present, and Future; Women in the Early Church; Women in the Church as a Reflection of Society; Mary as an Icon for all Humanity; Women and the Creation Stories; Language and Imagery in the Church; A Tribute to Our Foremothers; Our Faith and Body and Mind; and Our Faith and Our Praxis; and Our Faith and Community. In each issue we have attempted to increase our awareness of our roles as persons made in the image and likeness of God, within the entire community of believers.
Within the issues we have carefully examined our theology and scripture, especially the creation stories and the writings of St. Paul. We have also examined the history of women's participation in the life of the Church, including the early Church roles of Prophetesses, the orders of virgins and widows, and ordained female deacons. We have looked at women's participation in the Church in various cultural traditions, including the ancient Byzantine and Syriac traditions, as well as more modern manifestations. We have highlighted the lives of saints and other notable women as models for us to emulate, both in the early Church, including Macrina the Younger, sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa (4th c), Nina, Evangelizer to the people of Georgia (3rd c), and Catherine of Alexandria, Christian apologist schooled in the Classics (2nd c) as well as those of more recent times including Gerontissa [Elder] Gabriela, a Greek woman missionary to India and Africa, Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian-French woman, defender of the poor and the persecuted (especially the Jews in France during WWII), and Mother Alexandra, the former princess of Romania and founder of one of the first women's monasteries in the United States. Moreover, we collected a number of stories and interviews of the senior women among us in honor of their lives, accomplishments, and service to the Church. Their stories represent a written record of an oral history that might otherwise have been lost.
In addition to examining the past, we have also focused on our lives in the Church in the present, examining liturgical practices regarding women and the sanctuary (including the ritual churching of infants and mothers and participation of girls as altar servers) as well as the female diaconate. For instance, the churching of the child is founded on the practice of offering the first born (male) child to God based on Mosaic Law (Ex. 13:2, 12, 15), and on Jesus' presentation to God in the temple in Luke 2:22ff. Although in the early Church, all baptized infants were taken into the altar area at this time, today only the male child is routinely taken into the altar area while the female child is taken only so far as the entrance. We are happy to say that this policy is slowly changing to treat male and female infants equally.
We have also tried to spotlight and uplift the ministry that women are already doing in the Church, as chaplains, missionaries, and educators and, in its liturgical life, as readers, chanters, choir directors, homilists, hymnographers, and iconographers. We have tried to inform our readership of conferences and retreats concerning women, including the proceedings of various conferences sponsored by the World Council of Churches for Orthodox Christian women, Agapia, Romania (1976), Damascus, Syria (1996), and Istanbul, Turkey (1997) and other international gatherings in Sophia, Bulgaria (1987), Rhodes, Greece (1988), and Crete (1990), as well as local conferences and retreats. We have published interviews with respected Orthodox theologians and reflected on various issues of our day, including spiritual life, monasticism, language in the Church, feminism, anthropology, peace and justice, and Christian dialogue and unity.
Due in part to the expense of publishing a printed journal and mailing it around the world, we have decided to focus more on developing our presence on the internet, especially the World Wide Web. Still a work in progress, our web page will contain [contains] all of the back issues of the printed journal, as well as an online journal of presentations, articles, sermons, interviews, reflections, poems, book reviews, and event summaries. We plan to include a forum for online discussion, as well as a Speakers' Bureau to publicize the qualifications and areas of interest of Orthodox women retreat leaders and conference speakers.
Although discussion lists are not yet available on our web site, we have used e-mail to inform and encourage Orthodox women and men to respond to pastoral issues that arise in the Church. Ideally, true governance within the Orthodox Church is based on conciliarity between clergy and laity, albeit within a hierarchical structure. They each express their opinions so that together they may discern the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Recently, in response to the practice of including girls in altar service, some of the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) put out a statement forbidding the practice. Many of us were disappointed by this reaction and felt that the decision was overly broad and did not allow for the work of the Holy Spirit within communities that have already or may, in the future, accept this practice.
For many women and girls the practice of allowing only males to serve within the altar area is particularly painful. Although many bishops, priests, and lay theologians admit that there is no good theological reason for such a practice (women have served in the past as female deacons, and as altar servers in Russia, women's monasteries as well as a small number of parishes), the practice persists. The editorial staff of St. Nina Quarterly collected a number of responses to the policy and sent them to the bishops for review. It is too early to say if our efforts have had any effect in changing the hearts and minds of those we look to guide us but by doing so, we have found solidarity with one another.
Indeed, many of our readers, women and men, have begun to find a sense of community with one another through the Quarterly. Although our readership is based in North America, we have readers in countries throughout the world. Women living in the traditionally Orthodox countries of the former Soviet bloc can now study their faith more freely and read about their Orthodox Christian sisters in the west. By learning about women in our history and by looking at our theology, especially at it relates to our practice, we hope that those who have felt isolated from the community of believers can reconnect, that those who are physically isolated by distance have found kindred spirits with whom they can correspond, and that all of us, learning from one another, have found a community of interrelationship and shared love.
Bringing Together a Community of Orthodox Women
In the fall of 2000, the St. Nina Quarterly (with support from the Council of Eastern Orthodox Churches of Central Massachusetts) sponsored our first conference entitled, "Gifts of the Spirit." This was the first time that Orthodox Christian women (and some men) gathered in the New England region to explore the ministry of women in the Church. The gathering offered an opportunity to meet other Orthodox Christian women, exchange our experiences and ideas of ministry within the Church, grow in our understanding of ministry, and further explore the various ministries of women in the Church.
It was a tremendous success! Although originally envisioned as a regional event, the conference attracted women from all over the United States. They came from many different ethnic jurisdictions and parishes, and ranged in age from teenagers to women in their eighties (we had quite a few mother-daughter pairs). Some had graduate degrees in theology, some were faithful women in their parishes who had never studied theology formally. We were a diverse group, but we all gathered as one in Christ. We formed new friendships and renewed old ones. We shared experiences and feelings. We discussed and debated theology. We lived, shared, and exalted in the gifts and ministries of women in the Church. It was an exhilarating experience for many of the participants.
In May 2003, we sponsored our second conference entitled, "Discerning the Signs of the Times" with the French Orthodox theologian and "grand dame" of Orthodox feminism, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel. It was opportunity to meet some one whom many have called, a true "mother of the Church." We had the opportunity to hear of her formative ecumenical experiences during World War II in France where she first encountered the Orthodox Church, as well as her experiences as a keynote speaker at the first international consultation for Orthodox women at Agapia Monastery, Romania, in 1976, and as a participant at subsequent conferences sponsored by the World Council of Churches. We also had the opportunity to discuss the future of the "role of women" in the Church, including the reestablishment and rejuvenation of the ordained female diaconate, an office that is in the history and tradition of the Orthodox Church.
In September 2004, members of our editorial board assisted our parent organization, the Women's Orthodox Ministries and Education Network, and our board member Demetra Jaquet in a conference focusing on lay ministry in the Church. This included highlighting the many ways in which women are already serving the Church, as chaplains, pastoral counselors, in crisis ministries, parish nursing, parish pastoral care, and in the liturgical sphere as chanters, choir directors, readers, and preachers. We also explored the history of the female diaconate and what it might look like in the 21st century.
At each conference we strive to be "Church", a community of interrelationship and shared love. We gather at the Liturgy as the "Body of Christ," worshipping God and experiencing a taste of His future reign while still in history. We gather as community to read Scripture, live the Tradition of those who have gone before us, and receive the Eucharist of the risen Christ. We use our gifts to minister to one another, building up that Body, as the "Temple of the Holy Spirit." And we provide the space to be the "therapeutic, healing community" that is the Church. It is only in such a community that we can experience the love of God in this world more fully as in the next.
I conclude by paraphrasing the thoughts of one participant at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at our 2000 "Gifts of the Spirit" conference,
[It was] the most beautiful, peaceful, prayerful, uplifting Liturgy that I had ever attended. I felt connected to Christ as never before, praying in a community with so many women using their gifts for the glory of God, iconographers, hymnographers, chanters, readers, homilists. . . .
Our model of Church is the Holy Trinity. It is a beautiful and life-giving understanding of our goal as a human community. It is our hope that our experience and our understanding of Church continue to grow towards this goal so that we can participate in the Life that is union with God.
2. Sister Nonna Harrison, "The Holy Trinity as a Model for Human Community," The St. Nina Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 3, 1999, p. 1.
5. Bishop Kallistos Ware, "An Icon of Human Freedom," The St. Nina Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 3, 1997. Adapted from the University Sermon for Lady Day (Annunciation), Oriel College, Oxford, 10 March 1991.
7. "Report: Come, Holy Spirit, Renew the Whole Creation: An Orthodox Approach" in Gennadios Limouris, ed., Come, Holy Spirit Renew the Whole Creation (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Press, 1991), p. 52.
9. "Letters," The St. Nina Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 3., p. 18.
11. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, "Women in the Orthodox Church," The St. Nina Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 2, 1998, p. 1.
13. "Letters," The St. Nina Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 3, p. 4.