At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.
I attended the workshop “Women in Worship” with high hopes. The topic was women in worship. Not women outside of worship, not women in ministry in general, but in worship. When Orthodox say “worship,” we mean “liturgy.” This was the only session on the issue of the liturgical participation of women in ministry. It should have been quite good, given that women are participating in liturgy with increasing frequency (though still with painful slowness). What an opportunity to hear reflections on this change, the struggles which remain, and encouragement to creatively persist.
The vast majority of the opening presentation however, said nothing about women in worship. Instead, the work of women outside the church was affirmed as itself a ministry (yes, working in the public school-system of NY is indeed a service to world, no argument here).
Then, we were reminded of the danger of over-emphasizing the importance of worship, of forgetting Alexander Schmemann’s beautiful theology of gathering of the family (usually by women the night before liturgy), ascent throughout the liturgy, and the all-important return to the world. Liturgy should not be our obsession, especially if it is, as it is too often, to the detriment of the ‘liturgy after the liturgy.’ I could hardly agree more (I have a dissertation chapter based on this!).
Then, we were told of the many men who approach priests asking to be deacons, and yet these men rarely attend vespers. If they do not love worship enough to simply come and pray, why do they want to be deacons if no out of a desire to perform in front of the people? Because of the prestige and recognition in the office? Sometimes, “the desire to be a part of worship is a seduction of wanting to be on show.” Again, I too have seen too many people seek positions of leadership for the recognition, only to be horrified and sometimes undone by the amount of service then expected. We should indeed be careful of these motivations (which frankly even the best of leaders have a bit of).
Then, we were reminded that only those with a purpose and function should be in the altar. How many of us have seen males stand in the altar with nothing to do, seen more altar boys than candles for them to hold, or watched chanters traipse through the altar to get to the chanters stand even though they could go around. I know that I have actually had to walk all the way around the back of the church, through a side door, and then back across the front because confession was happening in the small room that directly connects the sacristy (where I get a robe) to the chanters area. The men just cut through the altar. It is is all well and good to talk about function and being in the altar, but we refuse to allow women to function. The status quo is NOT neutral. While it might reduce the sense of hypocrisy to enforce the ‘no function, no purpose’ rule for men and boys who really don’t need to be in the altar, this does not change the reality that women are simply not given a function to begin with.
All of these are important cautions. But so much time was spend cautioning us, laying the groundwork, that minimal space was used by the presenter to address the actual topic: women in worship. The presentation entirely failed to give attention to the legitimate desire of females to stand alongside males, and actually came close to implying such a desire sprang from poor motivation. There was no hint towards the pain of parents who must respond to the desire of their daughters to serve in the altar, or their all-too frequent boredom in church when they realize there really isn’t much for them to do (though there brothers seem to be doing something). At one point in the discussion, when it was brought up by a participant, it was actually denied that the liturgical participation of boys or girls has any bearing on their adult faith. Really? Not only do I wonder how this is known, I also wonder if this accounts for the relatively recent phenomena of parents choosing not be Orthodox at all because of the sexism they experience. There was no thoughtful consideration of the questions which might need to be addressed in order to encourage greater participation of women. Instead, primarily what was offered were cautions.
All of the real examples and questions came, again, from the participants. Among these examples are the following:
- Parishes in Beirut, Damascus and London, and a few parishes in the U.S. in which girls serve with boys in the altar. Yes, they exist.
- A parish in which girls hold all the communion cloths.
- Another parish in which the cloths are held by a mix of men and women, none of whom are altar servers.
- The many parishes in which girls carry the shroud on Holy Friday. In some, they even come into the altar to get the shroud rather than have it taken out to them. Usually done by young girls, the presenter was recently approached by an aged baba of the church. Worried that she would be upset, he was astonished to hear her ask that she be allowed to do so next year, since she “hadn’t realized it was allowed.”
- ROCOR parishes where girls bring up prosphora, read and sing.
- Almost every woman in the room attends churches where women are permitted to read the epistle (though not all), but only a few of us knew of tonsured female readers (I know of two), though we all know male tonsured readers (the only tonsured woman in the room was Sr. Cece, a nun).
Things are happening. We need leadership which openly affirms and encourages such creative responses to a changing world.