It was good to read your articles on the Church and women. Your recent writings related to birthgiving, menstrual cycles, and uncleanliness were excellent.
Since seminary and continuing to the present with some clergy, I have argued that there is nothing unclean about women and the functions of their body, and that the aforementioned are natural and truly part of the miracle of birth, which God grants us, even the birth of saints.
I hope articles such as yours and advocacy by the St. Nina Quarterly will advance consideration by our Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, to re-examine these issues.
In Christ's love,
Fr. William DuBovik
I finished reading Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald's article "Orthodox Women and Pastoral Praxis" in the St. Nina Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 and thought it important to add a few comments.
First, concerning the "uncleanness" of women during menstruation, Ms. FitzGerald only briefly mentioned "involuntary nocturnal emissions." If the Orthodox Church will not refute the Old Covenant notion of the uncleanliness of women's menstruation (Lev. 12:2, 15:19-24) then the Church should also be concerned with the ritual impurity of men if they have an emission of semen (Lev. 15: 16-18). The texts do not specifically state a nocturnal emission of semen, but rather they refer to any emission of semen, including that which occurs during sexual intercourse (Lev. 15:18). Think of the implications for our married deacons and presbyters!
Second, concerning the issue of women and the "sanctuary," many in the Orthodox Church fail to recognize that the entire church is the "Holy of Holies" not just the area behind the iconostasis. In the earliest churches there was no such thing as an iconostasis. As the Church began to grow rapidly, railings appeared around the altars as a form of crowd control; even later the Church added icons. Not until around the fourteenth century did the importance of the iconostasis gain momentum and eventually evolved into the "wall" of icons it is now. Only after this fact did an erroneous "theology" develop that the area behind the iconostasis is somehow analogous to the Jewish temple's Holy of Holies and thus more "sacred" than the nave of the church.
One should note that in the consecration of a church, the bishop anoints the entire church with chrism, not just the altar area behind the iconostasis, thus the entire church is the "Holy of Holies." The Royal Doors used to refer not to the doors of the iconostasis, but rather to the doors into the church itself (Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, Crestwood, NY, SVS Press, 1988, pp. 21-22). Thus all Orthodox Christians - men and women - stand within the "sanctuary" by virtue of our baptism and chrismation which makes us all ". . .a royal priesthood, a holy nation. . ." (1 Peter 2:9) and ". . .priests to [Jesus'] God and Father. . ." (Rev. 1:6). It is perplexing that women allegedly are not allowed behind the iconostasis to serve God during the Church's worship, but are allowed back there when it comes time to vacuum, dust, and remove candle wax from the carpet.
It is my own personal theologumenon that very much like the early Church at the time of St. Paul, the Orthodox Church today is plagued with certain "Judaizing" tendencies that must be identified and purged. Unfortunately, like any "purification ritual" this will involve much blood, fire, and sacrifice.
Steven C. Salaris, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Purchase College-SUNY
Seminarian, St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary
A Response to the issue of uncleanness from Fr. Hopko:
Many misunderstandings exist about ritual uncleanness and ritual purification in Christian teaching and practice. In seeking a proper understanding of this complex subject, one basic fact must be clearly understood.
Contact with the Holy
Like peoples of all cultures, the Hebrew people knew that life and death, and everything directly connected with them, such as reproduction and childbirth, sickness and suffering, and all things having to do with sex and food and blood, were strange and mysterious elements in human being and life to be treated with awesome respect and fearful care. Thus the Jews, like all peoples, developed elaborate rituals around the fearful and awesome aspects of human experience.
Unlike other peoples, however, the Hebrews believed that the Lord who brought them out of Egypt and constituted them as His People was the one true God, the creator of heaven and earth. They believed that this God was directly and intimately involved in all aspects of human existence, especially birth and conception, sickness and suffering, disease and death. It was the Lord who gave and took life. He cast down and raised up. He sent sickness and disease. He provided food in due season, or shut up the heavens and cursed the earth. He killed and He made alive. Thus God's people believed that when sinful creatures were directly involved in the awesome and fearful aspects of human being and life, they were thereby necessarily in direct and immediate contact with the Holy God. And it was understood that this contact with the Holy rendered sinful creatures ritually unclean in God's sight, and thus in need of ritual purification.
Not Sin or Guilt
The point to be clearly understood here is that sexual intercourse, or menstruation, or the emission of semen, or the contraction of disease, or being in the presence of disease, or bleeding, or being in the presence of blood, or giving birth, or being in contact with death, had nothing to do with sin or guilt, except to the degree that all humans are always in some way sinful and guilty. The ritual uncleanness resulting from these dreadful activities had nothing to do with ethics or morality. There was no idea that these acts were in any way sinful or evil in themselves, though, of course, wickedness might be present in many instances. And it clearly had nothing to do only with women, since ritual purification applied equally, and perhaps even primarily, to men.
It is also important to note that it was not only contact with sex and sickness and blood and death which rendered human beings ritually unclean in the biblical codes (e.g. Deuteronomy and Leviticus). Other things involving direct and immediate contact with the sacred did so as well. So, for example, there were ritually clean and unclean foods. And there were ritual washings before and after participation in meals and prayers and festal celebrations. The priests had to undergo ritual purification before and after serving in the sanctuary, or before and after touching the sacred scrolls. In later Judaism, as an apt illustration of this point, a debate about whether the Song of Songs was to be considered a divinely inspired, canonical writing of the Bible was cast in terms of whether touching the text required a ritual purification of the hands of the reader. (Cf. Jacob Neusner, Israel's Love Affair with God: Song of Songs, 1993)
Christians and Ritual Purification
Christians believe that Jesus Christ fulfilled all the requirements of the Mosaic law when He died on the cross. The apostolic scriptures of the New Testament make this abundantly clear, especially the book of Acts and the writings attributed to the apostle Paul. All believers, both Jews and Gentiles, are saved by faith in Christ through God's grace, and not by ritual works of the law, such as circumcision, which was done only to men. All foods are declared clean; only the eating of blood is forbidden. Faithful Jews and Gentiles take meals together. Marriage and childbearing are blessed. Monogamy is demanded. To the pure who are purified by the blood of Christ, apostolic scripture declares, all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure because their minds and consciences are corrupted. (See e.g., Titus 1:15, and St John Chrysostom's commentary on the text.)
While the forbidding of menstruating women to partake of holy communion may be necessary for practical reasons in some places, such a canon cannot be considered by Christians as generally and universally applicable, and it surely cannot be defended for any theological, ethical, or mystical reasons. So also married couples may abstain from sexual love during lenten seasons or while keeping vigil before receiving holy communion, but such an ascetical practice also cannot be defended on the grounds that sexual activity in marriage is inherently sinful and ungodly. (See I Corinthians 7 and the canons of the council of Gangra)
Mary's Purification and the rite of Churching
The one ritual practice that Christians have traditionally retained from the Mosaic purification rites, and which we Orthodox still keep, is the churching of mothers after childbirth. It seems to me that this is so simply because the Virgin Mary fulfilled the rite of ritual purification after giving birth to Jesus. Whatever the reasons for Christians preserving this rite in the New Testament Church, the crucial point to be understood is that the ritual has nothing to do with sin or guilt, and is certainly not a degradation or humiliation of the mother, or of women generally, in any way. The truth, in fact, is just the contrary. Rightly understood, the custom of "churching" a new mother is an act declaring childbirth (and only the mother gives birth) a glorious and splendid event in which God is directly involved, especially since His own divine Son was born as a human child from the Virgin Mary.
Mary's sacrificial offering as a mother whose womb was opened by a firstborn son proves conclusively that the act of ritual purification after childbirth has nothing to do with humiliation, degradation, sin, or guilt. The incarnation in human flesh of God's Son is the most holy act of direct divine intervention that has ever happened in human history. The churching of Christian women in imitation of Christ's most holy mother Mary recalls this most holy act and celebrates its splendor and glory. In a sense one might even say that the purification of the Virgin Mother of God's only Son was the most fitting act of ritual purification ever enacted on earth. But be that as it may, the significance of the act as having absolutely nothing to do with sin, guilt, or the degradation of women must be clearly understood and firmly acknowledged. Like all acts involving ritual uncleanness and ritual purification, it was done simply because a human being had been personally and directly involved in a sacred action of God.
Fr. Thomas Hopko is Dean and Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, New York.
I want to tell you how much I enjoy the St. Nina Quarterly. I look forward to each new issue and as soon as I am finished with my copy I try to pass it on to a new reader. I thought your last issue, with the Kyriaki FitzGerald interview, was especially powerful. I can't wait to read her new book!. . .
Thanks for a wonderful publication.
Editors' note : Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church may be ordered from Holy Cross Orthodox Bookstore, (617) 850-1230. Don't forget - when you have finished reading the Quarterly, please show it to a friend.
I am responding to the article of criticism of the "churching" of women forty days after they have given birth in your latest issue. In my book Icon of Spring, I describe how the immigrants from Eastern Europe viewed it in my childhood. This time was probably the only time when the mother of her first or tenth child would be given so much attention by her family and friends. Gifts were crocheted or knitted for the baby, and special foods prepared for the mother. It was viewed more as the time every woman needs to absorb into her psyche the tremendous event of having brought another life into the world.
I wonder if the "purification" of the woman in ancient times was more a spiritual renewal type of thing? Certainly I never heard of any mother back then suffering "post partum depression" which is so common today. I hope that this practice is reviewed by the powers that be but do not want the baby thrown out with the bath water in an overly zealous "reform."
I also view having women deaconesses with considerable reserve. Not because some of us are not capable, but that it does carry some dangers. What I see as the Church needing more than anything else is priests and deacons who do what Jesus told they were assigned to do, which is to go forth and "preach, teach, and heal." Do you see many of them doing so? I don't. Because of this lukewarm method of performing the rituals, often with little feeling or faith it seems, the entire Christian faith is faltering and the real power of the Church to transform lives of people remains buried to a great extent. Let's take care of the basics first, then study the other issues.
Woodland Hills, Ca.
I hope and pray your publication is a success. I don't mean this as a negative statement, but for women participating in a male dominated Church, it will be refreshing to receive the Quarterly and read issues pertaining to the role of women in the Church and the gifts we have to offer other than Sunday School teachers. I especially like the article about women and menstruation.
. . .I am an iconographer for the Orthodox Church, blessed by our Bishop, His Grace JOB of the OCA Midwest and accepted and listed with the Antiochian Archdiocese. . . May God bless the efforts and publication of the St. Nina Quarterly so it may be used for His glorification.
In His Service,
I am happy to contribute to the St. Nina Quarterly and appreciate your mission and care in preparing the publication, which I enthusiastically pass along to church friends. Bringing the theological research to us in relevant language is vitally needed.
Among the topics of your inquiry, I long to understand why our priests and bishops, with a perfectly pious demeanor, refer to the abstract being of our "mother church?" How can there be a "mother" church in such a blatantly patriarchal hierarchy that is the Eastern Orthodox Church? Would the "mother" image somehow subconsciously excuse patriarchal domination of our female status, specifically, the loathsome exclusion of innocent baby girls from the altar during her forty day blessing when the equally innocent baby boys are paraded around the altar?
The epithet "mother" church certainly does not refer to the specific "holy mothers" Eva Topping has written about so eloquently. The meaning for "mother church" is intended to create a loving image we all respect, an image beyond reproach. But it seems to me very hypocritical. If a parent must be used for an image, would it not be honest to call it the "father" church, at least until some basic changes can be made in women's status?
With agape to all,
Villa Liacouras Chantiles
Editors' note: We have received many more letters than space allows. They will appear in subsequent issues of the Quarterly.