Oh, strange Orthodox Church, Church of contrasts: at the same time so traditional yet so free, so ritualistic, yet so alive. Church where the gem of a prize, the Gospel, is preciously preserved, sometimes under a layer of dust, but who knows how to sing like no other the joy of Easter.
—Father Lev Gillet

Of these contrasts recalled by a great spiritual Orthodox contemporary, Archimandrite Lev Gillet (better known by his literary pseudonym "a Monk of the Eastern Church"), the status of Orthodox women provides a particularly astonishing example. 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. A femininity both serious and tender radiates from the omnipresent icons of the Mother of God, but access to the altar is forbidden to women. The myrrhbearing women of Easter morning, the first ones to announce the resurrection of Christ, are honored in the Orthodox Churches with the title "Apostles to the Apostles." However, the reading of the Gospel during public worship remains reserved for male ministers. The list goes on and on. Beneath the shell of opaque customs and rituals nevertheless run spring-like waters. In different forms, today as in times past, women are participating in the life of the Orthodox Church. In contact with the modern world, an awareness takes shape. The call to discernment, the position of women found somewhere between the living Tradition and rigid traditionalism, is a sign of the times. Will it be discerned? Will it be followed?

The common vocation of all the baptized, both women and men, is proclaimed prophetically in the sacraments of Christian initiation. They are given to all in the Orthodox Church, without gender distinction, through a profound and symbolic ritual. Baptism by immersion signifies a passage, a birth into the new life in communion with the death and the resurrection of Christ. Chrismation, the affixing of the seal of the Holy Spirit on different parts of the body, makes each of us one of the Lord's anointed. As Father Gillet explained, through baptism we become another Christ, joined through the Spirit with the Anointed One, Jesus Christ.1 As the choir sings, "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ,"2 the newly baptized female (just like the newly baptized male), dressed in her baptismal gown, is introduced to the eucharistic assembly, the visible Body of Christ of which she has become a member. However, at the same time that all separation appears to be abolished by virtue of our baptism, a ritual usually follows that seems to contradict that notion. The baptized male is led into the sanctuary behind the iconostasis, while its doors remain closed for the female. Today, a growing number of Orthodox women feel that this ritual is discriminatory and wish for it to change.

What is the teaching concerning women of those called the Fathers of the Church, whose authority is great in the Orthodox Church?

The accusation of misogyny comes from, above all, Western feminists referring to the Latin traditions from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. Some Orthodox voices have joined this choir, like those of the Greek-American Byzantine hymnography specialist Eva Catafygiotou-Topping3 and the Romanian theologian Anka Manolache.4 Verna Nonna Harrison provides an in-depth study of gender themes in the anthropology of the Greek Fathers in her article, "Femininity and Masculinity in the Theology of the Cappadocian Fathers."5 The veritable founders of Orthodox theological anthropology, the Cappadocian Fathers - Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, and after them Maximos the Confessor - vigorously affirm the ontological unity that exists within the distinction of persons in the humanity of both man and woman. This is according to the order of creation, an order that has been distorted by the sin that is essentially separation, but that has been restored in Christ according to the order of redemption. Genesis 1:27-28 and Galatians 3:27-28 are found at the heart of the Fathers' anthropological meditation: "The woman possesses, just as the man, the privilege of having been created in the image of God. Both their natures are equally honorable," is Basil's reply to a woman whose own doubts led her to question him on this topic.6 In his commentary on the baptismal hymn from the Epistle to the Galatians, he evokes the image of Christ that is present in all who are baptized. Baptism eclipses the differences of race, social status, and gender: "Like in the portrait of the emperor, the beauty of the face transfigures the material used by the artist, be it wood or gold, rendering it insignificant."7 Summarizing the theological anthropology of the Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus proclaims, "The same creator for man and for woman, for both the same clay, the same image, the same death, the same resurrection."8

Behind this discourse are the images of the real women who inspired it: the martyr Julitta, whose example Basil urges Christian men and women to follow;9 Macrina the Elder, confessor of the faith and grandmother of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa; Nonna, mother of Gregory of Nazianzus, who brought her husband to the Orthodox faith; Gorgonia, her sister, described as a woman instructed in Scripture, assiduous in prayer, and generous to the poor. The most significant figure symbolizing the understanding of Christian women in the Cappadocian milieu is Macrina the Younger,10 the elder sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Her brothers speak about her as their teacher. Gregory composed the "Dialogue on the Soul and on the Resurrection," a conversation that he had with his dying sister: a text sometimes compared to Plato's Phaedon. For the Fathers, woman, far from being just a sexual object, is the "opposite," the "other," with whom they must dialogue; their companion, at times their teacher, in spiritual combat. The Fathers' egalitarianism is situated in the eschatological perspective of the completeness of the end of time, when genital sexuality will be transcended. Monasticism anticipates this completeness. It is in this context of an alternative society that the fundamental equality of women and men proclaimed in their anthropology is the most easily, but not exclusively, realized.

It is important to add that the patristic age coincided with the development of the female diaconate: a ministry directed to the service of women, corresponding to precise needs in the heart of a patriarchal society. At the same time this ministry was theologically founded, complete, liturgical, catechistic, philanthropic, and conferred by a veritable ordination, as is shown in the investigations of professor Evangelos Theodorou.11

The feminine face of Eastern Christianity, still relatively unknown, remains open to further exploration. We know little about the lives of Christian women during the dark centuries following the Hellenistic age up to the time of the splendor of Byzantium.

In the patriarchal agricultural societies that became the terrestrial home of Orthodoxy (at the end of the missionary expansion of Byzantine Christianity, and above all after the fall of Byzantium, around the Mediterranean and in the eastern part of Europe), the luminous anthropology of the Gospel and of the Fathers lives in the depths of the ecclesial conscience. But, similar to the "treasure hidden in a field" of the Gospel parable, it finds itself buried under the slags of ancient taboos: such as the idea of the periodic ritualistic impurity of women taken from a misogynistic reading of Leviticus, and traditional prejudices concerning woman's weakness and inferiority. Nevertheless, the evangelical seed never stopped bearing fruit. The flame of feminine holiness has never been extinguished. The Church has canonized new martyrs, great monastics, and princesses like Olga of Kiev, venerated with her grandson Vladimir as "equal to the Apostles." She has also canonized ordinary laywomen like Juliana Lazarevskaia in Russia, who lived at the dawn of modern time, whose Life, composed by her own son, exalts her heroic charity.12

Closer to us, there are the images of women believers - simple peasants and aristocrats, virtuous women and prostitutes - in the great Russian literature of the nineteenth century: the princess Maria of War and Peace, Sonia in Crime and Punishment, and the pathetic mothers looking for consolation with the starets (elder) Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov.

What about today? What is the position of women in the heart of an Orthodox Church that in the twentieth century has ceased to be monolithically "Eastern," either geographically or culturally? Diverse emigrations have established (and enculturated) Orthodox communities in Western Europe, America, and even Australia. Western modernity invades the traditionally Orthodox countries: Greece, Romania, and Russia. In what ways has this marriage of different cultures modified the life and the status of Orthodox Christians? I will limit myself to a few comments, as an exhaustive response would go beyond the scope of this article.

During the recent, and often dramatic, history of the Orthodox churches, women have assumed important responsibilities. This was notably the case in Russia under the Soviet regime. It is very well known that it was women - often older women, the well-known "babushkii" or grandmothers - who saved the parish structures of the Russian Orthodox Church from total destruction by the atheistic state. Grandmothers had their grandchildren secretly baptized. They also put themselves up as volunteers to be part of the "twenty," the group of women believers, according to the legislation instituted under Krushchev, to whose demands for a place of worship they would concede. It was frequently also a woman who accepted the title and responsibility of starosta (a layperson responsible for the day-to-day running of the parish), as well as serving as intermediary or buffer between the civil authorities and the priest, whom she strove to protect from their harassment. The survival of a parish depended on the tenacity and cleverness of these old women.

At the same time other Christian Russian women found themselves among those named as dissidents: editors of samizdats, and organizers of clandestine religious seminars, they were condemned to the heavy punishments of prison and the gulag. What happened to them? One no longer hears too much about them.

Of the Christian women dissidents in the Soviet Union, it is possible to pick out an Orthodox nun who exercised her ministry - a "diaconal" ministry writes her biographer - in the heart of the Russian emigration in France, first in the period between the wars, then under the German occupation. A former socialist revolutionary who returned to the Church, a friend of the great Russian religious thinkers Sergius Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdaev, Mother Maria Skobtsova is one of the emblematic figures, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of the Christian resistance to the Nazi barbarians. Deported to the camp in Ravensbruck for having organized a network of escape for the Jews in Paris, she died there, undoubtedly in the gas chamber, on the eve of Easter in 1945. The process leading to her canonization by the Orthodox Church is currently in progress.13 [See related article in this issue.]

Today, after the fall of communism, some younger women - often neophytes - have taken over for the grandmothers of the Soviet era. Often enough, endowed with a good university education, these new Christian women fly to the aid of overworked priests; filling in as social assistants, but also as economists, accountants, and architects, animating the rebirth of parish life. It is women who take on the essential ministry of the Church to victims of brutal and chaotic economic changes: senior citizens, the homeless, children, large families, and the handicapped.

Among these deaconesses without the title, do some of them aspire to recognition by the Church through a blessing, or even a genuine ordination? The aspiration does exist here and there. One finds it mostly among cultivated women who have a theological education. This aspiration has old roots in Russia. A project to restore the ancient order of deaconess, an order fallen into disuse but never officially abolished in the Orthodox Church, was launched in the middle of the nineteenth century - possibly under Protestant influence - by women of the high aristocracy. They were encouraged by some enlightened bishops like the famous Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow. The idea, revisited at the beginning of the twentieth century by the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, it could not succeed during the dramatic circumstances of the time. Elizabeth Feodorovna, assassinated at the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, was recently canonized. But her audacious project lies dormant in the archives of the Patriarchate of Moscow. For the Russian Church, (now heartily influenced by fundamentalism and anti-Western sentiment), at the end of a long period of glaciation, it is not the order of the day. Only a small minority of women know of the project and are interested in it. For many reasons that would be interesting to analyze, feminism as developed in the West remains altogether strange to Christian Russian women. They maintain that they do not need it. The principle of obeying the spiritual father who is a priest or a monk (there are also spiritual mothers!) inherited from monastic spirituality, far from being contested finds fervent followers among the newly converted women. Paradoxically, these "submissive" women often represent, in the heart of the new parishes and fraternities as they are created in Russia, the most dynamic and even dominating element, at the same time moved by an immense devotion. The Church, like Russian society, notes Veronica Lossky who knows them well, "is antinomically at the same time patriarchal and matriarchal."14

In addition, in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East where Orthodoxy constitutes the traditional form of Christianity, and in the diaspora where, during the twentieth century Orthodox communities were formed and inculturated in the West, Orthodox women today continue to take an active role in the life of the Church. Their role in the transmission of the faith in the heart of the family, as mothers and educators, has always been essential. But today it largely extends beyond this familial framework. Women, either alone or in equal partnership with male catechists, work in religious education. They sing in the choir, a role so important in Orthodox worship, and sometimes even direct it. They are members (at least in the Church which originated with the Russian emigration), of the parish and diocesan councils, like the diocesan assembly that elects the bishop. They participate in various aspects of community life. An important step was taken when, during the second half of the twentieth century, women were first admitted as students to the schools of theology in different local Orthodox Churches, notably in Greece and in the diaspora in France and the United States. Now they are beginning to teach in these schools of theology. Women as Orthodox theologians participate in ecumenical dialogue at all levels, notably in the heart of the ecumenical World Council of Churches. This has led to an enlightening paradox: an Orthodox Christian woman who has the training and the competence could teach the New Testament in a prestigious theology department like that of the University of Thessalonika, but she would not be able to read the Gospel in the assembly of people of God. An Orthodox theological conference unanimously proclaimed that, "all acts denying the dignity of the human person, all discrimination between men and women based on gender, is a sin,"15 but access to the altar remains forbidden to women.

Today the question concerning the access of women to the sacramental ministry is addressed to the Orthodox Church more from the outside, in the context of ecumenical dialogues. But it has also become an internal problem for serious theologians - men and women - in light of the contradictions posed by the changing roles of women in the Church.16 From the first international conferences of Orthodox women at the monastery of Agapia in Romania (1976), and later at the Orthodox Academy of Crete (1989), the issue of the ordination of women has been examined seriously and calmly. At the inter-Orthodox consultation of Rhodes (1988) on the ordination of women and the place of women in the Church, a consultation convoked and organized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the decision to restore the diaconate for women was unanimously adopted. More recently, this same wish was energetically revisited by the Orthodox Christian women who met at Damascus (October 1996) and in Istanbul (May 1997) for conferences organized around the Gospel saying "interpret the signs of the times" (Matthew 16:3).

"One of the essential problems facing theologians today is to know how to distinguish between the Holy Tradition of the Church, the adequate expression of Revelation, and the human traditions which express themselves only imperfectly and very often are in opposition to Holy Tradition and obscure it,"17 wrote Father John Meyendorff of blessed memory, in a book published thirty-five years ago but still current and recently reedited. We are growing in numbers, men and women Orthodox theologians who call for an end to certain "traditional" practices of our historical churches regarding women: practices marked, as stated in the conclusions of the Consultation of Rhodes, "owing to human weakness and sinfulness, Christian communities have not always and in all places been able to express effectively ideas, manners, and customs, historical developments and social conditions which have resulted in practical discrimination against women."18

Finally, it is the supreme will of God that the Church becomes that which she is: a community in faith, hope, and love, of men and of women, of the mystery of individuals, ineffably equal yet different, in the image and radiance of the divine Trinity. Such is the grand ecclesiological vision of the Orthodox Church. What remains is to translate it into our historical, empirical existence: a difficult task, seemingly impossible, to which we sometimes feel called, confident in the promise of Christ to send us the Spirit from above who will introduce the disciples to the entire Truth (John 16:13).


1. A Monk of the Eastern Church, Orthodox Spirituality, (London, 1945 ), pp. 64-65.

2. Galatians 3:27.

3. Eva Catafygiotu-Topping, Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy, (Minneapolis, Minn.: Light and Life Publishing, 1987).

4. Anka Manolache, "Orthodoxy and Women," in Women, Religion and Sexuality, edited by Jeanne Becher (WCC 1991).

5. Verna N. Harrison, "Male and Female in Cappadocian Theology," Journal of Theological Studies, 1990:8. See also Contacts no. 179, 1997:2.

6. "On the Origin of Man," Homily 1:18.

7. "Treatise on Baptism." Cited by Harrison.

8. Discourse 37:6.

9. In his eulogy of her, Basil puts in her mouth an exegesis of Genesis 2:21-22 that today would qualify as feminist.

10. Concerning Macrina the Younger, see Ruth Albrecht, Das Leben der Heiligen Makrina auf dem Hintergrund der Thekla-Traditionen, (Göttingen, 1986).

11. Evangelos Theodorou, "L'institution des diaconesses dans l'Eglise Orthodoxe," Contacts, no. 146, 1989:2.

12. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Prière et Sainteté dans l'Eglise russe, Bellefontaine, pp. 109-113.

13. Véronique Lossky, "La Femme et le Sacerdoce," Contacts, no. 174, 1996:2.

14. Lossky, "La place de la femme dans l'Eglise orthodoxe et la question de l'ordination des femmes," Contacts, no. 146, 1989:2, p. 102.

15. "The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women," (Istanbul, Turkey: The Ecumenical Patriarchate, 1988); Contacts, no. 146, 1989:2, p. 102.

16. For more on this issue see my articles, "L'ordination des femmes; une question posée aussi aux Eglises orthodoxes," and "L'ordination des femmes: un problème ?√ñ"cuménique," Contacts no. 150, 1990:2. English translations in Sobornost 13/1 1991 and Theology 1994:2 (SPCK).

17. John Meyendorff, L'Eglise Orthodoxe hier et aujourd'hui, (Paris: Sevil, 1995), p. 9.

18. Contacts, no. 146, 1989:2, p.102.