Since its founding in 1994, WOMEN has developed a grass roots membership of over fifteen-hundred women, men, and clergy worldwide who receive the St. Nina Quarterly, and who have set up a network via letters and e-mail to support each other and their ministries in their service to Christ and His Church. During that time, the WOMEN Board has discovered a fascinating diversity in women's experience in the Church. As a result, WOMEN's vision has evolved to recognize the distinct emphases in Orthodox women's needs in these different settings. Unfortunately, at times this diversity gives rise to suspicion and judgmentalness among Orthodox women from different backgrounds. But we have a common impetus for our commitment to lovingly listen, learn, and understand each other better - our shared love of Christ.
Women in the former Communist countries face some challenges and problems in common. Under Communism, Orthodox Christian women in Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia frequently were pressured to place their children in daycare or with relatives in order to work and often were routinely scheduled to work on Sundays and major Feast days. Although they were allowed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, no related social gatherings or meetings were permitted, and therefore, the traditional expressions of the Church as an active force in the social fabric of society were severely curtailed. When they could find a way to attend church services, women's participation as singers, readers, and chanters was considered to be the norm. Women in Russia even assisted as altar servers behind the iconostasis. But acts of charity and pastoral ministry could only be accomplished privately, by individuals or secret groups, and never publicly blessed or supported by the Church.
Today, the external challenges facing these women and their churches center on finding the resources to help them restore their families, churches, and community structures, and to prevent exploitation of the weak. They seek training and materials to begin religious education classes in their parishes: icons, books, bibles, and lesson plans, as well as resources to support social services and pastoral outreach to the community.
At the World Council of Churches sponsored conference on "Feminist and Orthodox Women" held several years ago in Switzerland, the Orthodox women from Eastern Europe and Russia looked on in amazement at the issues and concerns of their Western sisters. For instance, the question of whether or not a woman should be allowed to chant in church was far removed from the more pressing needs of women and men sharing the tasks of rebuilding the infrastructures of their countries.
Women in the United States and Western Europe, who have grown up in the Orthodox faith, are facing a different set of challenges. Of course, it is presupposed that they share with their sisters and brothers worldwide the ongoing internal spiritual struggle for personal renewal through Christ and the Church. But that struggle looks very different in a free economy, where persons are free to assemble for worship, and where religious education materials and support for social outreach are more plentiful.
Yet, too often, some women's offers to serve their church communities with their God-given talents for leadership, reading, chanting, and social and pastoral ministries have at times been marginalized, constrained, belittled, or even totally rejected. Significant strides forward in Orthodox social service work in America, and lay ministry in general, have even been condemned by some as efforts to "Protestantize" the Church at best, or as spiritually immature efforts, standing in as poor replacements for true zeal for Christ, at worst.
The rise of radical feminism in the West has frequently made the effort by women in the Church to soberly and respectfully lift up and celebrate women's authentic ministries to be treated with a caution that borders on suspicion. This suspicion usually arises among those Orthodox Christians whose lives and views are filtered through the lens of constant fear - specifically, fear of what they perceive to be the overwhelming influence of secular society's politically correct and "liberal" agendas. Such persons can only see the growing number of dedicated women, sometimes theologically trained, serving or seeking to serve the Church, as the first step leading to a threat to all things Orthodox. When such paranoia expresses itself as judgmental alarmism, it is usually shrouded under the guise of righteousness, rallying to protect the true faith from what they label as infiltration by a flood of "radical" feminists, who are determined to thrust all of the Orthodox down the slippery slope of syncretism.
Similar suspicions about active Orthodox women also arise among some who have converted to the Faith - persons who have made painful, loss-filled journeys to Orthodoxy precisely because of its role as a defender of the ancient dogmas of the Faith. These converts frequently have left Christian denominations that are changing their theologies to dismiss basic Christian dogma. For example, some denominations now claim that Christ is not necessarily the Son of God, or that belief in the Trinity is not essential to the Christian faith. For many converts, it seemed to be the feminists who had solidified this heinous work through male bashing, syncretism, and deconstruction and that had subsequently eroded the very foundations of their beliefs.
In some quarters of Orthodoxy, the term "modernist" is commonly understood to mean, specifically, a person who believes in and tries to promote dogmatic heresy in the Church. Thus, for such persons, women who are seeking contemporary expressions of the ancient Faith in their own lives are readily labeled as "feminists" and therefore, automatically also modernists in the most destructive sense of these words.
The unchanging rock of Orthodox theology offers a haven to many of those dissatisfied with the changes they see taking place in their own denominations. The wounded and the fearful come, seeking a place to recover from the shock and pain of what they have seen and experienced elsewhere - the destruction of the essentials of the faith at the hands, they believe, of angry, rebellious women. But spiritual honesty calls us to make a distinction between those running away from something and those running to Orthodoxy. Intellectual integrity also requires us to recognize the fact that many of those who have questioned the basic doctrines of Christianity in other faiths, e.g. Christ's virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, etc., have not been feminists, but rather have been the bishops and other male church leaders. Still, as Orthodox , we have a pastoral duty to allow these converts the time and space to heal spiritually, and to regain enough energy to begin a dialogue with open minds and peaceful hearts.
The spiritual relationship with Christ has been, and always will be, first for Orthodox Christians. However, this does not give us license to disparage social service, ministry training, active parish participation, and outreach programs, nor to excuse a "Sunday only" spiritual life. The issues are not so black and white as that. In fact, as Orthodox Christians, we are to encourage all such good things, as long as we remain clear that they are to be encouraged as natural byproducts and outgrowths of a person's love for Christ, and not a replacement for it.
The suspicion and fear of Orthodox women who are active and committed by those who are new to the faith has a parallel - the suspicion by those raised in the Orthodox Church of newcomers to the faith. Recent converts are sometimes suspected of bringing with them a fundamentalist mentality that has no place in the Church. The zeal of the convert often can be a code word meaning overly enamored, even fixated on the small-t traditions of the Church - prostrations, covering one's head, and following the letter of canon law at the expense of the spirit.
The beauty of such zeal is that it is not unusual for a convert to recover a lost tradition of the faith, and, through their own practice of it, to restore it to an amazed Orthodox who, through her convert friend's eyes, for the first time finds it just as new and inspiring as she does - as rich and meaningful as it was in its original beauty.
However, the either/or thinking that tries to reduce the goodness and love of Christ to a set of intractable rules or lifeless deductions has a difficult time adjusting to the paradoxical both/and world of Orthodoxy. There is a mercy and gentleness about the Orthodox faith, a giving of judgment to God, that can seem alien in a culture based on laws of jurisprudence. But if we look at the parable of the prodigal son, we see that the father offers reconciling justice to his wayward son, while the brother who measures everything by the worldly kingdom can only offer retributive justice. The Orthodox comfort with trusting in God's mystery and economy is a new way of thinking and being for many converts.
When deciding whether or not to adopt certain outward practices of piety, it is essential to take the time to learn how they have been used, and sometimes misused, in the past. Their meaning to the faithful can be enriching, their examination can be enlightening. But in all cases, learning to discern how the gift of the Holy Spirit is translated through the use or disuse of a pious action is the common challenge. The exchange of the rich traditions from different ethnic expressions of Orthodoxy can be a great gift to the Church. But it can be as great a gift, at times, to hasten the disuse of those small-t traditions that have been hurtful, divisive, and even contrary to the Orthodox ethos.
The WOMEN's network is dedicated to promoting understanding, love, and growth among persons of faith, in order to build up the Church, and thus to minimize suspicion, fear, stereotypes, and accusations that not only dehumanize, but also limit and separate us, tearing down both the Church and ourselves. The meaning of the Greek word for devil, "diavolos," means "to come between." Whether raised in the faith or a convert, spiritually alive or spiritually fearful, male or female, layperson or clergy member, living in a pluralistic country or an Orthodox country, conservative or progressive, we must find ways to discern evidence of the Holy Spirit in one another, wisely overlooking non-essential things, in order to welcome the movement of the Spirit that unites us. The alternative is that, by our mutual condemnations, we do violence to the Body of Christ, His Church.
May God grant that spiritually committed Orthodox women and men find and recognize one another, learning to speak kindly and truthfully, lifting up the Church together. Let us be taught by the Holy Spirit how to listen and when to discuss our differences, to overlook one another's weaknesses, to challenge one another's mistakes, to honor one another's needs, as well as gifts, and to offer one another our strengths and encouragement, in order to do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, under the guidance of His love.