In our Church School here at St. John of Damascus Church, our emphasis is on a comprehensive religious education for all students. There are three facets to our program - standard Orthodox doctrine, modern-day moral responsibility, and the importance of stewardship in daily living. We strive to meld these three components at all age levels.
Until age seven, our girls and boys have equivalent opportunities for religious experience and education in the Church. They attend Divine Liturgy with their parents, they receive the Eucharist, and then they attend church school each week for instruction in Orthodox Christianity.
Once in second grade, however, our sons realize the "role" that our Church has predefined for them. They become altar servers. This is an automatic transition - from silent observer of the Liturgy to active participant in it - just by virtue of the right combination of age and sex. This is an opportunity for boys alone.
It is at this juncture that the experiences of boys and girls in the Church disunite dramatically. While boys are expected to become integral participants in the Divine Liturgy, Matins, and other aspects of our worship, there are no similar expectations for girls. They remain as bystanders, catching only glimpses of mystical events that occur behind the iconostasis, events to which our boys are entitled to witness.
What does this mean for the religious education of our daughters? Plenty! While girls are told how the gifts are taken from the table of preparation and placed on the altar during the Great Entrance, boys actually watch it happen. While girls read about how Communion is made and transformed, boys get a close-up view of each step in this most holy sacrament. Ask any boy in our church school how the priest prepares the bread during the Service of Preparation, and he will eagerly grab the knife out of your hand and immediately begin to cut, laying out each piece with precision and with accurate commentary! It's one thing to be taught about a subject; it's quite another to actually "live" it!
In church school classes, therefore, boys have a distinct advantage over their female peers when it comes to many aspects of our curriculum. They are able to relate easily and enthusiastically to subjects concerning the Divine Liturgy, the priesthood, and the many symbolic celebrations unique to our Church, topics about which girls have no first hand experience. While boys who serve on the altar can apply concrete knowledge to a subject, girls can only accept what they are told.
The intent of this article is not to debate the whys and hows of this scenario, and or to analyze the traditions associated with Orthodoxy. The objective is, however, to reflect upon our responsiveness to the needs of our girls, and to share our attempts to fill this gap.
In our parish we endeavor to provide our girls with strong role models. We Orthodox Christian women certainly provide that type of modeling for them by our involvement and leadership. When our daughters see us participate in the Divine Liturgy by chanting, offering responses, singing, and reading, they will also. We urge girls to take an active role by example.
Through our popular overnight student retreats, we provide the opportunity for our girls to participate in the Divine Liturgy in a relaxed, camp-like atmosphere. They are taught to chant, to assist our priest, and to participate in an "interactive" Divine Liturgy. This type of event has done so much in terms of making our girls feel "at home" in Church and enriching their sense of Orthodoxy.
In addition, we examine the lives of women saints whose legacies are impressive. Many of these women's stories, full of struggle and conflict, can be inspiring to today's girls. Learning about these saints is eye-opening for girls and boys alike.
Our priest dedicates one sermon each month to our youth, and conducts an interactive dialogue with them. Both boys and girls have direct input into the subject matter, and this gives our girls the opportunity to bring up subjects that are important to them.
A particularly memorable event for our girls was the Sunday morning when our priest celebrated the proskomedia service outside of the sanctuary for everyone to witness. Our students arrived early and congregated around the prothesis table. While Father conducted the service, one young girl was chosen to read the deacon's part in the service book.
Our girls hold bread baskets during Holy Communion; they sing in our youth choir; they read the epistles; they lead our youth group. Little by little, our girls are getting more involved! It is our role as their religious educators to ensure that this list gets longer and longer, and that the opportunities for our girls in the Orthodox Church continue to evolve in meaningful, significant ways.
Nancy Close is Church School Director at St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church (Antiochian Archdiocese), Dedham, Mass.