With the blessing of His Beatitude, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, Petros VII, a group of eighty individuals gathered at the Makarios III Seminary in Nairobi, Kenya from June 1-4, 1998 to participate in a conference entitled, "Women in the Life of the Church." This conference, sponsored by the Holy Archbishopric of Kenya, SYNDESMOS, and the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), was hosted by His Eminence, Archbishop Seraphim of Kenya and Irinoupolis.
The participants, eighty men and women, came from throughout Africa: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. Speakers and observers traveled from Albania, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, and the United States. There was a tremendous amount of anticipation and excitement, since this conference is the first of its kind for the Orthodox Church in Africa where the issues and concerns of women were discussed.
Archbishop Seraphim opened the conference by reading the message of His Beatitude, Petros VII, who called woman "the vessel of life for all mankind." Along with outlining the many skills of women, he referred to the Theotokos, calling her "the unique role model for all women and for all generations." The Patriarch addressed the important role women have in the life of the Church and society at large. Whether as "a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, a wife, or as a mother, she is called to be defender of the Church," as many of the saints have in the past, and "to proclaim loudly the true faith in God."
The participants were challenged to study Orthodoxy deeply, to "fill yourselves with knowledge of our Orthodox Faith based on Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition," and encouraged to practice Christian teachings. All were reminded of the important responsibility of passing down the Orthodox Faith to the next generation and those who will follow.
Throughout the four days, the participants heard several lectures, took part in small group and panel discussions, and worshipped together. Of the lectures, the first was given by Penny Panagyiota Deligiannis, who is currently working as a missionary in Albania, on "Experiences of Orthodox Women Today." Rev. Vassilios Tsimouns, from Pireus, Greece, offered the lecture on "Women in the Bible." The third lecture, "Women in the History of the Church," which addressed the lives of women saints, was given by Aino Nenola, a graduate theological student from Finland. Archbishop Seraphim and Professor Clement Cabutu, a faculty member from the Makarios III Seminary, addressed the topic of Orthodox Christian anthropology. The last lecture was given by Despina Prassas, who reported on the two international World Council of Churches meetings for Orthodox women, one of which was held in Damascus, Syria in 1996 and the other which was held in Istanbul, Turkey in May 1997.
The conference was also attended by His Eminence, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Kition, who took part in the panel discussions. Two special seminars were given by Rev. Peter Matovu, a professor of Pastoral Psychology at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. The seminars were entitled, "The Psychology of the Human Being" and "Issues of Dating and Marriage."
Along with the daily worship services, in which the female participants played a significant part by reading the Epistle, all rejoiced in fellowship with one another through the singing and dancing of many groups. From the local Nairobi youth, to the mamas from the local Kikuyu villages, to the papadeias from West Kenya and the Orthodox from Kampala, every lecture and discussion session began with song and dance.
On the final day of the conference, the entire group visited two Orthodox parishes to observe the programs and activities of the local women. At the first community, the Virgin Mary Parish in Ngecha, after being greeted by the priest and papadeia, the group was welcomed with song and dance by the Orthodox children, youth, and women's groups. There was also a tour of the medical dispensary, located adjacent to the church.
At the second parish, St. Nicholas and Anastasios in Riruta, the visitors were met by children lining the roadway, lifting their voices to the Lord. This was followed by greetings from the priest and papadeia, and performances by the children, youth, school girls, and the women's and men's groups. Afterwards, the visitors toured the girl's school located on the church grounds and met the students.
Gifts were distributed to the participants and included icons which were donated by the OCMC. Each participant received the book entitled, Women of God, by Frieda Upson, which was donated by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox community from Westfield, New Jersey.
The final statement emerged from the numerous recommendations put forth by the discussion groups and plenary sessions. The decisions of the group included supporting the development of monasticism in Africa; the ministry of the female diaconate, blessings and instruction for papadeias, and help for the widows. There is a need for the Church to address the cultural practices and tribal taboos which hinder the development of women's ministries. Equally as important was the belief that theological and religious education should be made available to all, and for important teaching materials to be translated into local languages.
Along with questions and concerns about the relevance of certain canons of the Church, recommendations were made to encourage women to take a more participatory role in the liturgical life.
Other recommendations were related to health practices, specifically the use of contraceptives and sexual education in general. Also of concern is the practice of female circumcision which, though on the decline, still exists. The participants are also concerned about the many Orthodox Christians who are marrying outside of the Church.
Lastly, it was recommended that relationships be strengthened with SYNDESMOS and Pan-African ecumenical organizations.
It is hoped that this conference will become a yearly event, and that there will be more workshops for women to provide instruction in Orthodox practices.