Nearly two hundred and fifty women gathered this past 17 an 18 November at St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church in Dedham, Mass. to participate in a conference for Orthodox Christian women entitled, "Gifts of the Spirit." Sponsored by the St. Nina Quarterly and the Council of Eastern Orthodox Churches of Central Massachusetts, and with the help of a dedicated local planning committee, this was the first time that Orthodox Christian women in the New England area gathered as one to explore the ministry of women in the Church. The event 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 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.
The conference began on Friday evening with registration, music rehearsal, and a light supper followed by Daily Vespers. Each participant received a workbook, with a cover icon of the Myrrhbearing Women by iconographer Diane Lee, containing descriptions of the numerous breakout sessions scheduled for Saturday, questions for consideration, and resource information. We also included copies of recommendations from a number of past international Orthodox conferences for women (1976-Agapia, Romania; 1988-Rhodes, Greece; 1996-Damascus, Syria; 1997-Istanbul, Turkey; and 1998-Nairobi, Kenya); a ministry worksheet; and the conference evaluation. In addition, each conferencee received a bookmark with the quotations from the scroll given to St. Nina, a conference pencil, and a print of one of nine different icons by a number of women iconographers. (These icons were later used to designate the respective discussion group to which each conferencee was assigned during the closing plenary.)
After Vespers, Susan Arida, a member of the conference planning committee, introduced the ministry worksheet that was included in each participant's packet. She explained that the worksheet was offered as a starting point for our discussions for the weekend and as a resource for helping us work through the many ideas that were presented at the conference. The questions on the worksheet focused on the purpose of ministry and our understanding of the various gifts of the Spirit.
Susan Ashbrook Harvey, professor of religious studies at Brown University, immediate past president of the North American Patristics Society, and a representative of the Antiochian Archdiocese on the North American Eastern Orthodox-Roman Catholic Bilateral Theological Consultation was the opening keynote speaker. In her talk, "Gifts We Have Been Given: Women in Orthodox History," Dr. Ashbrook Harvey presented the stories of various women from the past (in situations not unlike our own today), who, in spite of societal circumstances, distinguished themselves as disciples of Christ. She drew on biblical and patristic sources, as well as ancient writings to show the many ways in which women have offered their gifts to God in the past.
After a lively question and answer session, everyone enjoyed the hospitality at the opening reception. With live piano music in the background, conferencees browsed through the conference bookstore as well as the many displays and videos featuring the various ministries of women in the Church including: Holy Trinity and Hellenic Nursing Home and Rehabilitation centers; St. Herman Food Pantry; International Orthodox Christian Charities; Project Mexico; Orthodox People Together; Orthodox Peace Fellowship; Theophany School; the St. Macrina study group; Circle of Healing care ministry; Philoptochos Society; Antiochian Women; Women's Orthodox Ministries and Education Network; and the St. Nina Quarterly.
Saturday began with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. The service was conducted as a teaching liturgy with the altar table and table of preparation in front of the iconostasis. The main celebrant, Fr. Nicholas Apostola, explained the various parts of the liturgy and those in attendance were able to watch and gain a deeper understanding of the service. The participants were also given a service booklet prepared especially for the conference including the prayers, petitions, and musical responses so that everyone could actively join in worship. We were further inspired by the homily given by Susan Arida, M. Div., who reflected on the readings of the day and, in particular, what it means to follow Christ. It was uplifting to hear everyone offering their gifts to God-singing, praying, and exchanging the Kiss of Peace together. We are truly one in Christ.
Following a continental breakfast, participants attended the morning breakout session of their choice. The topics included: Educating our Children and Ourselves in the Faith: In Our Homes; Pastoral Ministry-A Lay Ministries Panel that included women representatives of the various pastoral care ministries in the area; Language and Imagery in Worship: Iconography and Sacred Space; Saints and Sisterhood: Women in the Church Past and Present; and Women and the Church Canons. Each session provided a chance for participants to explore a particular area of interest and to engage in a question and answer session. For those who wanted either to continue or participate in the various discussions, a number of tables at lunch were designated as theme tables.
The luncheon featured a delicious lenten middle eastern buffet. The International Orthodox Christian Charities generously donated prayer cards that were placed at each place setting featuring the before and after meal prayers so everyone could lift up their voices together. It was also at this time that the editorial board of the St. Nina Quarterly paid special tribute to Ms. Clara Nickolson, a member of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, by presenting the first St. Nina Award - an engraved wooden cross (According to the Life of St. Nina, she was presented with a vine-covered wooden cross from the Theotokos as a sign of special protection during her ministry.) - in recognition of all her years of work in support of the ministry of women in the Orthodox Church.
Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald gave the second keynote address, "Offering Our Gifts: Our Faith and Praxis." Dr. FitzGerald is an Orthodox theologian, educator, pastoral counselor, and licensed psychologist, as well as author of several books including Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church: Called to Holiness and Ministry. She began her talk by outlining some of the mistaken notions about Church service, explaining our life of discipleship that begins with our baptism and chrismation, the necessity of placing God first, love of our neighbor, and our place in the Christian community. She then focused on the ministries of women, pointing out the many ways that women had served the Lord in the past as apostles, prophets, deacons, nuns, ascetics, etc. and highlighting some of the ways that women may be called to serve in the present.
In addition, she presented a number of concerns from the past international conferences for Orthodox women to illustrate the global consensus regarding a number of vital issues that are important to all Orthodox women. As the Orthodox theological coordinator for both the Istanbul and Damascus conferences, Dr. FitzGerald related some of the concerns of the delegates at these conferences: "even regarding ministries which we know are appropriate to the laity, there appears to be an issue of inequity regarding the ministry of laywomen." As examples, she cited the dissimilar ways in which infants are churched, the welcoming of only male acolytes (altar servers) and tonsured chanters. She concluded by emphasizing that when we speak of women's public service to the Church, we must be "careful to differentiate between the cultural norms of the time and our life-giving theology." During the question and answer session, many conferencees shared some of their own experiences in the Church.
Many of these topics were further developed during the afternoon breakout sessions. Topics included: Educating Our Children and Ourselves in the Faith: In our Parishes; the Female Diaconate; Language and Imagery in Worship: Translations and Hymnography; Saints of Our Day-An Oral History Project; and Women and the Writings of the Fathers/Mothers of the Church. Once again, participants attended the session of their choice.
In the late afternoon the conferencees gathered once again for the closing plenary. First, everyone was divided into small discussion groups (determined by the icon print they had received during registration) during which they had the opportunity to refer back to the ministry worksheet that had been introduced at the beginning of the conference and to reflect on their understanding of the questions. In addition, everyone had the opportunity to evaluate the conference and to begin to address the question, "where do we go from here?" One universal answer was to have more conferences for Orthodox women. (We have already received several inquiries about replicating this past conference in other major metropolitan areas in the United States including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Berkeley and the Seattle/Portland area.)
Valerie Zahirsky, M. Div., who led the education breakout sessions, gave a closing mediation on the conference. She highlighted the events of the conference and set the mood for returning to our home parishes. As a final serenade, Bonnie Michal, musical coordinator for the conference, assembled a quartet to bid the conferencees a peaceful farewell by singing the French Orthodox setting of, "I leave you my peace."
With the glow of the conference still with us, we turn our attention back to publishing the issues of the St. Nina Quarterly with a renewed spirit and common purpose. Our experience and our understanding of our Church continues to grow. Our celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the conference was, as one participant said,
the most beautiful, peaceful, prayerful, uplifting Liturgy that I had ever attended. It was wonderful to pray where so many women were using their gifts for the glory of God-iconographers, chanters, readers, homilists. . . .
Truly, as we proclaim in the motto of the Quarterly, "To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the Common good." [1 Corinthians 12:7]