As part of the various programs offered during the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, the World Council of Churches is sponsoring two conferences for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox women, the first having taken place last October 4-10 in Damascus, Syria. This conference, which brought together Orthodox women from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, was entitled "Discerning the Signs of the Times" and focused on the ministries and concerns of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox women.

Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch (center) and all dignitaries and participants

Among the forty-eight participants were representatives from the following Churches: the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Included in the group were twelve resource persons and speakers coming from as far as California and as close as Lebanon and Greece.

His Beatitude, Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch and All the East gave the introductory address for the conference. He emphasized that any discussion of masculine and feminine must take place within the context of the family and within the context of community. While at times, political and individual concerns have colored the discussion, as Christians we are called upon to approach the issue from a different perspective using criteria established by our Church. However, it is the responsibility of the Church to distinguish between "things essential" for instance, doctrines, and "things of more ancient times", cultural customs. This is necessary, he said, if the Church hopes to discern "the place and contributions of women in the contemporary Church."

Each day, a new theme was presented for discussion by the participants. The themes ranged from "Women in the Life of the Contemporary Orthodox Church" to "The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church" to "Discerning the Tradition Today." There were two panel discussion groups, one of which focused on what it means to grow up Orthodox and female and the other which addressed the issue of "Orthodox Women and Daily Pastoral Praxis." The panel discussions were followed by small group work whereby participants reflected on how to discern one's vocation and respond to the will of God in daily life.

A list of recommendations emerged from the discussions of the small groups. This list was sent to the participating Patriarchates and Churches and included requests for scholarships for women's education, both secular and theological; admission for women to theological schools or the opportunity of an alternative method of theological education; the establishment of telephone "hot-lines" offering counseling and referral services for women; an increase in the number of Bible study groups in the local churches to instill in members the confidence to witness to the Orthodox faith; the formation of support groups for clergy wives and Orthodox women in general; urging Church leaders to become more involved in solving contemporary issues; and encouraging Church leaders to discern prayerfully and courageously the presence of the Holy Spirit in any place where the ministry of deaconesses, as well as all forms of lay ministry, may be needed.

His Holiness, Ignatius Zakka, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East closed the conference with a message of reconciliation. Indeed, all realized the importance of overcoming difficulties and the blessing of "discovering each other, learning from the experiences of one another and feeling that we are one." Having come from different countries and different cultures, "we were gathered together in a warm sisterhood," to worship, act and "change the words to works."

Resource people and speakers from the United States included Bishop Al Zahloui Joseph, Fr. Nicholas Apostola, Deborah Belonik, Dr. Kyriaki FitzGerald, Fr. Thomas FitzGerald, Dr. Maria Mossaides, Despina Prassas, Christina Shaheen Reimann, and Valerie Zahirsky.

The second meeting of Orthodox women, sponsored by the World Council of Churches, will take place in Istanbul, Turkey in May of this year. The May conference will include women from North America, Europe and Russia.