September 6, 2013 Length: 49:01
After his last episode, Fr. Thomas got a thoughtful letter from a listener challenging his remarks on female readers of the Apostolic writings in the Divine Liturgy. In this episode he reads the letter and answers the concerns raised.
I received a letter from an Ancient Faith Radio listener about my podcast on the reading of the apostolic writings at the Divine Liturgy. In my podcast I mentioned that women are often doing this in many churches and that they are also chanting psalms, reading psalms, and singing. Sometimes they’re doing the chanting; sometimes they’re leading the singing as the chief cantor or the choir director. I mentioned that this is being done in the services, and I mentioned also that we have in our Orthodox tradition also the setting aside of women in the diaconate: there were women deacons that had a special blessing. My point on the podcast was that this is actually going. You have women doing these ministries liturgically of reading, chanting, singing, leading singing, and so on. And I mentioned that there is a prayer for blessing those who do this action and that it is sometimes has already been read over a woman, setting her aside as a reader in church, a chanter in church.
So I received a letter criticizing this, and I emailed back and said I’d like to read your letter on the radio, which I’m going to proceed to do right now, and I asked the person if I could use their name or should I do it anonymously. The person wrote back and said, “No, you may use my name. It’s fine with me.” In fact, this is what he responded:
I think that my reasoning was in line with apostolic tradition, so putting my name to it is fine with me, assuming that everyone knows that it’s not simply the Reader Thomas’s opinion; it’s the tradition of the Fathers. Asking your blessing with holy prayers, with love in Christ, Reader Thomas
So Reader Thomas sent me this email message, and Reader Thomas is Brantley Hobbs. That’s his name; in Church the Reader Thomas. And Brantley Hobbs does the reading, I assume, as a reader, in the church of St. Mary of Egypt in the Orthodox Church in America in Atlanta, Georgia. So this is from Reader Thomas at St. Mary of Egypt Church in Atlanta, Georgia. So I will read what he wrote, and then I will respond to it. This is what he wrote.
Father, bless! Fr. Thomas, I have learned much from you over the years on Ancient Faith Radio and via books about the Orthodox faith. Hopefully it won’t come across as odd or anything, but I’m a “fan” of much of your work. I must admit, though, that this recent podcast on the reading of the apostle at the Divine Liturgy has caused me no small amount of scandal, and that because of your position on female readers.
I cannot see how you can square your position of it being acceptable to bless women readers with the line in the blessing service which reads (going from memory), “My son, you have entered on the first step of the priesthood.” This is simply not possible for women.
Secondly, it is the received tradition of every Slavic parish I have ever seen to have the reader enter the altar (that’s the altar area) with the apostle book to receive a blessing to read during the Liturgy. And likewise, they should return for a blessing, just as other altar servers and even deacons do, after performing a liturgical act. Now, how can a woman do this, when they are not permitted in altars (the altar area) except under certain well-defined and well-known conditions?
Thirdly, you go to great lengths to justify your position by bringing up women deacons. It is well-known that there were women deacons in the early Church. It is likewise equally well-known that they have not been in the Orthodox tradition for many, many hundreds of years, which tradition is worth keeping. Can you decide? Can I decide for myself? For me, I prefer the one handed to me, which says that the place for women deacons is no longer necessary.
Even in bringing up women deacons, you say, rightly, that they did not serve the same liturgical functions as male deacons. As to this, you yourself, in your last podcast again said, rightly, that the prokeimena should be proclaimed with joy and emphasis because it is a liturgical proclamation. Invoking women deacons as an excuse for women readers is a non-starter, when one concludes that women did not serve liturgically even when they were endowed with holy orders.
That is, the order of the diaconate, because there never were any women presbyters or women bishops in Orthodox tradition.
And you know better than I do (he continues) St. Paul’s admonitions about women speaking in church. I must admit that this whole section of the podcast seemed to go out of its way to justify your position on women readers, which you must know to be controversial. It is certainly not in keeping with the Church traditions that I am familiar with. It seems to me that we should preserve the traditions which have been handed to us rather than inventing new ones.
I fear the slippery slope. If any tradition may be dispensed with because of “convenience” or “prudence” or “societal changes” or, God forbid, “restoration,” then eventually EVERY tradition will be up for grabs. I came to Orthodoxy because of its steadfast witness to the unchanging truth of Christ. Perhaps I might be labeled charitably as a “traditionalist,” and uncharitably as a misogynist (a hater of women), but I also, along with St. Paul, desire all things to be done decently and in order.
With all respect, love, and humility in Christ,
St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church in America
So let’s go through the letter, and I will make some response. He writes, “I admit that this recent podcast on the reading of the apostles at the Divine Liturgy has caused me no small amount of scandal, and that because of your position on female readers.” Well, I want to be forgiven for scandalizing anybody or putting an obstacle in anybody’s way or causing scandal. I had no intention to cause scandal. I do have intentions often to stir up discussion, though; that’s for sure, because we have controversial and disputed issues in the Church which need discussion. We need to hear each other’s positions, so I do hope that what I do on Ancient Faith Radio is stirring up people to think about things, and I always say that I may be wrong on any given issue, but I present what I believe to be the truth, the right thing, but I may be wrong, and that’s certainly true: I may be.
But here I want to say, right from the beginning, about this being considered my position: “your position on female readers.” He continues: “I cannot see how you can square your position of it being acceptable to bless women readers.” Then he uses the expression, as we’ll see, which I won’t comment on any more, “your position,” several times in the letter. Now, my reaction here, my response here is to say I really don’t believe that this is my position. Why? Because I’ve seen it done so many times, everywhere. In practically every jurisdiction that I’ve been in, in the United States and Canada, I have seen women chanting psalms, I have seen women singing, I have seen them leading the singing, and I have seen women reading the apostolic writings at Church services—at the Divine Liturgy and then at others where you have an apostolic writing as part of the service, for example, as part of a wedding or a baptism or a funeral or a prayer service, and other special services during Holy Week. There are epistle or apostle readings that I have seen women do. Also I know for a fact that some women who are doing this function in their churches have been officially blessed by the bishop to do so, and they have had the prayer setting aside a reader said over them, showing that they’re officially and formally installed as having the ministry, the charism, of doing this reading at Church services.
Now, it’s not an ordination. It’s not called an ordination. Ordination is cheirotonia, a laying-on of hands, and that’s done… There’s laying-on of hands at lots of services, but the word “ordination” in English, in Orthodox practice, is reserved for bishops, priests, and deacons. They’re the ones who are ordained. The others are set aside for a particular ministry. In these services, there can even be a tonsure. For example, there’s a tonsure at every baptism. Whenever anyone is baptized, he or she is tonsured. There’s a tonsure for monastic life. Tonsure means a cutting of the hair. And in this order of reader there is also a tonsure, because it sets the person apart to do a ministry in the Church.
What I want to say now, make it clear, I just know that there are women who have been blessed this way. They have been tonsured and prayed over in order to carry on this ministry in the Church, and that has been done by bishops. It’s bishops who have done it. So I think that the question here would be, what I was trying to do here, was not so much to say, “This is my position,” but to say that this is done, and that, since it is done and it has been done, would it not be a good practice—that would be my position—would it not be a good practice to train people to do it, including women if they’re going to do it, which they already are, to train them to do it, to test them to see if they can do it, and then actually to formally seal this ministry by a prayer in church? which can include a tonsuring and even a placing of the hand on the person’s head, which we do very often, like at confessions and so on—it’s not just for ordinations.
Why not make it more formal and less ad hoc, less just being done? If certain women are going to do this ministry because it’s judged that they can do it well and they’re needed to do it because they’re the best one in their community to do it, even though there may be men present, why not make it more formal? That is basically my point. I would like to stress that that would be my point. If it’s going to be done, why not do it more formally, more carefully, more responsibly, and then let it be known that it is being done, and even have a prayer and a ritual to set a person, including a woman, aside for this particular ministry?
I just want to say again: I don’t think this is my position. It’s my understanding of a practice that is already being very widely done. This is what I think is the case.
Since it’s widely done, but I know that it’s controversial—as the Reader Thomas says, “You must know that this is controversial—of course I know that it’s controversial! [Laughter] I’ve been a priest for 50 years; I’ve been all over the place. I know that it’s controversial in certain circles, but exactly because it’s controversial I wanted to point out that it is being done and that there were women in the diaconate through history, not only reading. But I would say now, in response, we don’t really know very much about how these liturgical services were being done in the early Church and even in many centuries of the Fathers. We may have cathedral rites and things like that, but we don’t know how the regular parishes, so to speak, the churches were doing these things.
For example, I believe that—I’m doing another series about Church structure and bishops in the Church—it’s amazing how little we know about the presbyters, by the way, in history. After the New Testament writings and the earliest Church, you hardly ever hear of them as being very activistic in the Church. There are very few who are ordained saints, for example. In the thousand-year history of Russia, Kievan Russia, St. Vladimir’s began in 988, from 988 till St. John of Kronstadt being canonized in later times of the 20th century, there’s not one man who was a saint in the Church in the presbyterial rank, actually in the Russian Church. Actually, I found three of them, but two as became monks and one as a fool-for-Christ. But as a good pastor, presbyter, priest in the Church, only John of Kronstadt is in Russia. After that there were a few more—in America we had some in missionaries, for example. Then there were some monks who were presbyters, I don’t know, like John of Damascus and so on.
But in any case, I just wanted to point out that there were women deacons through history, and I just mentioned that and I’ll pick it up here as I read through the letter. So we do have the evidence that these things were being done.
I’ll continue reading here. First about the setting aside service. He says—I’ll repeat; I read this—“I cannot see how you can square your position of it being acceptable to bless women readers with the line in the blessing service which reads”—he says going from his memory—” ‘My son, you have entered on the first step of the priesthood.’ This is simply not possible for women.” Well, the women that I know who have been set aside by bishops for this ministry—I could actually give you their names, but I won’t—that part of the service was not done. It simply wasn’t done, because it did not apply.
So what was done? Well, as I imagine and recall—I haven’t thought about this much, but I would say that here is the prayer. Here is the prayer that is said. It’s extremely short. It goes like this.
O Lord God Almighty, elect this thy servant (or if there is more than one being set aside, in plural: thy servants) and sanctify him (or them), and enable him (or them) with all wisdom and understanding to exercise the studying and reading of thy divine words, preserving him (or them) in blamelessness of life. Through the mercies and bounties and love for mankind of thine only-begotten Son with whom also thou art blest, together with thine all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Now, I think that that’s the prayer that would set aside anyone who’s going to read in church and especially if women are going to be doing this reading, perhaps it would be good for the Church leadership—the authority, the bishop—to make this more formal and responsible by reading that prayer over a woman, which I don’t think would be scandalous in any way or lead anyone into temptation.
It is true, however, that this particular service, when it’s done with boys or men… There’s also a prayer for taper-bearers, lighting the lamps in church and carrying the candles or the vigil-lamps, the oil lamps, during the service. There’s a short prayer for that as well. I will not read it, but it is there. It’s very interesting that in some Greek Orthodox churches I’ve seen where the altar boys, even the little altar boys, as a matter of course, are tonsured and they’re given a robe and this prayer is read over them to be taper-bearers and the other one having to do with reading—when they don’t even do it. I mean, sometimes I could say I was scandalized by being at services where you’d have 15 young boys playing around in the altar area, in the altar rooms during the service, and then at a certain point or at the end they’d all be carted out into the middle of the church, and the bishop would tonsure each one of them, put a sticharion on them, a robe on them, and do this prayer. I thought that that was really an abuse of the setting aside. You’re setting aside people who can’t do it, don’t do it, and will not do it by a:Church service, almost like as if it were a custom just to bless the altar boys in this way.
Now, this would not be done if you’re setting aside a woman to be a reader. You wouldn’t read about lighting the lamps or serving in the altar carrying candles or anything like that. It just would not be done—only the prayer about this reading that I just read would be done. Therefore there would be no putting on of a sticharion or anything like that.
In certain traditions—probably it was Byzantine tradition after Dionysius the Areopagite—and I think it’s only done nowadays in Russian Orthodox churches—it’s not done in any other church—when you have this service for boys or for men, there’s like a short phelonion—the priest’s phelonion, you know, the long one, the chasuble of the priest. T;they have like a short one: it just goes over the shoulders, and they put it on the boy when he does the reading, and then they take it off and put the robe on him. I believe that if this prayer would be said for a woman, they simply wouldn’t do that, because it does not apply at all, and in fact most churches don’t do it anyway for anybody. But I would think, if this is done in a Russian-tradition church that has that tradition, it simply would not be done if the person being set aside to read and to chant and to sing is a woman.
However, after the prayer is read, then you have this charge or exhortation to the one who has been set aside, who has been blessed, tonsured, and prayed over to be a reader. But this, technically, if you read it—I’m reading it from the Hapgood service book—it is not a prayer at all. It’s an exhortation; it’s an exhortation or a charge that is being given to the person, and this is what it says.
My son (or my sons, if it’s plural; if there are more than one), the first degree in the priesthood is that of reader. It behoveth thee, therefore, to peruse the divine scriptures daily to the end that the hearers regarding thee (or you, if there are more than one) may receive edification, that you, in nowise shaming your election may prepare yourself for a higher degree, for by a chaste, holy, and upright life, you shall gain the favor of the God of loving-kindness and shall render yourself worthy of a greater ministry, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory unto ages of ages. Amen.
That’s an exhortation to the boys, to the boy who has this done to them, that they may go up the ranks. And those were the days when the hierarchical ranks were very, very clear. In other words, in order to be ordained, for example, a deacon, you had to be made a reader first, a taper-bearer. Then you had to be a subdeacon; then you could be ordained a deacon. If you’re going to be ordained a priest, you had to go through those steps, and then you were ordained a priest or a presbyter. If you were consecrated a bishop, you have to go through all those steps, and then you’re consecrated a bishop. But this was not always the case.
This was not always the case. I think that’s a practice towards the end of first-millennium Christianity. For example, when St. Ambrose of Milan was chosen to be bishop of Milan when he was not even baptized yet and they had to baptize him, and then they consecrated him as the bishop of Milan, I doubt very, very much if he went through these various orders. I think that they just laid their hands on him to be the bishop. They didn’t first make him a reader, a subdeacon, a deacon, a presbyter—because he wasn’t going to serve in those ranks anyway. It’s almost a little bit like sacrilege—I hope that’s not too strong of a term—to go through a Church service, ordaining a man a deacon, when the very next day he’s going to be ordained a priest and will never really even serve in that order. If the intention is that he will ultimately be ordained a priest, why not just ordain him a priest? Why put him through these orders?
However, it is pretty clear also that normally people serve in the Church in functions like singing and reading and serving in the altar and carrying candles and carrying liturgical fans. That’s how they begin, and then they do in fact go up in the ranks, but it’s a real thing. It’s not just pro forma; it’s a real thing. It’s a real ministry at that particular time.
But what I do want to say now as far as my friend’s letter here is concerned, when he says, “The line in the blessing service which reads, ‘My son, you have entered on the first step of the priesthood,’ ” first of all, it’s not a prayer, and secondly it could easily be simply omitted if the person being set aside is a woman. You just don’t do it, that’s all. There would be no scandal, in my opinion, whatsoever.
Now we get to the point about the women walking in the altar area. He says:
Secondly, it is received tradition of every Slavic parish I have ever seen to have the reader enter the altar with the apostle book to receive a blessing to read during the Liturgy. And likewise, they should return for a blessing, just as other altar servers and even deacons do after a liturgical act. How can a woman do this when women are not permitted in altars (altar areas) except under certain well-defined and well-known conditions?
Okay, now in response to that I would say the following. First of all, it’s far from every Slavic parish that has the practice of the reader to go into the altar during the service to be blessed to do the reading. In fact, I think it’s only a great Russian tradition, actually. I don’t think any of the other churches have this tradition. Now, they do have the tradition of the person who is going to read or sing or chant to be blessed by the priest for that ministry, usually before the service even begins. They receive a blessing. I know in many churches the chanters or the choir leaders, or certainly the altar boys, will come for a blessing to carry out their ministry.
Specifically about the apostolic writing being read in church, the one who’s going to do that reading does often come up to the royal doors to receive a blessing. They don’t go into the altar area. They come to the door, and then the presbyter who is serving, or a bishop if he’s there, will come and bless them. Sometimes the bishop won’t even come; he’ll just stay behind the altar and bless them from afar so they’ll sort of bow and receive a blessing. Then after they finish the reading, yes, it is true, the celebrant will say to them, “Blessed is he”—or if it’s a she, “she”—“who reads,” or “Blessed are you who have read. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” And they say, “With your spirit. Alleluia.”
So, yes, there is a particular blessing at that point. That’s absolutely correct, totally right. Of course, the altar servers, and the deacons even, are getting blessed very often during the liturgical service at particular points. So it would be fitting and proper for the person reading the apostolic writing at a Church service [to] come and have a blessing before doing so, even during the service, but they don’t have to go into the altar area to have that happen.
Now, here’s another response I would like to make, however. It says, “How can a woman do so when they are not permitted in altars (altar areas) except under certain well-defined and well-known conditions?” Well, I think the certain “well-defined and well-known” would be if they’re elderly and the church needs a server, like under the time of Communism women were carrying the candles, or if it’s a nun—who’s a woman—who could just be the altar server at a liturgy. At the monastery where I serve, the altar server is a woman all the time, every single service. [She] just serves, doing everything that the altar server would do, and she’s a woman. Well, that’s well-defined. She’s a nun, she’s in there, and that’s one of her jobs. So it is conditional.
However, I have to say that there is, technically speaking, if you want to split hairs… The canons of the Church do not say anything about women entering the altar area, not a word. We do have evidence that in the earlier Church, for example already still in the fourth century, women did go into the altar area. For example, in the Life of St. Macrina, St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s sister, it said she died clinging to the altar table. It must mean that they were going into the sanctuary part of the church for that to happen. Of course, in those days, they didn’t have icon screens. They had icons, but not necessarily the screen the way that we have it today. That’s a development through history.
But what is in the canon law is that laypeople are not to go into the altar area unless they are particularly blessed to do so for some particular work, for some particular ministry. So it’s an exclusion of laypeople from the altar area, unless there’s some particular reason for them to go there. That includes all the men, too. And this practice in our church today, of men just strolling around the altar areas, coming into the altar, going in there and talking, sitting down in chairs, just because they’re male, is really not acceptable. Also I would say you have another type of problem. I’ve seen in churches where they bring a group of children to church to explain things to them, and they would take the boys into the altar area to show them the frescoes behind the altar, and the girls were not allowed to come. Sometimes the girls would stand outside, peeking through the doors, in order to hear what is said about the paintings in the altar area or the things that are on the altar table when they are being educated this way.
It seems to me, if it’s simply a practical, pragmatic point of explaining things to children and you want to have them have a good, close-up look at a fresco that’s in the altar area, I personally here would say that it would be my position—I’ll say it clearly again: it would be my position—if you’re going to do that, you can’t just do it for the boys and not do it for the girls. This leads also to the question of: at churching services, taking the boy baby around the altar table through the doors, and the girl baby just up to the royal doors. In most churches today, that is the practice because of the thought that girls can’t go into the altar area, even little girl babies who are certainly not menstruating or anything else at that point. I would say it is my position that we should rethink that whole thing and say: Is that really a good practice, to carry a little baby boy into the altar around, but not a little baby girl? Again, it’s something we should discuss, and it’s something that is being discussed all over the place, as a matter of fact, right now. I just know that it is.
So there are these issues to be discussed. This question of: “How can a woman do this when they (women) are not permitted in altars except under certain well-defined and well-known conditions?” Well, my response would be that the women can come to get blessed if they’re going to do the apostle, apostolic reading. They should be blessed before the service if they’re going to read and chant anyway, but they can come up during the service and receive a blessing before and after doing the reading. That would be fine, and there’s no need for anybody—men or women—to enter into the altar area to get that particular blessing, it seems to me. I think the male going in for that blessing is only in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
Thirdly, my friend, Reader Thomas, writes:
You go to great lengths to justify your position…
Again I want to say it ain’t my position and I’m not trying to justify.
...by bringing up women deacons. It is well known that there were women deacons in the early Church. It is likewise equally well known that they have not been in the Orthodox tradition for many, many hundreds of years, which tradition is worth keeping. Can you decide? Can I decide for myself? For me, I prefer the one handed to me, which says that the place for women deacons is no longer necessary.
Well, just quickly to respond to that, I would say this. As a matter of fact, there were women deacons through practically every century in Church history, right up to the present time. St. Nectarios of Aegina set up women as deacons or subdeacons serving in the altar. Of course, they were nuns again, so that’s another issue, but we know that that was done. And we know that in later Byzantium there were women in the diaconate.
The main reason for that office disappearing, it seems to me, is because women were primarily dealing with being the bishop’s hands when ministering to catechumens to be baptized, because they had to go into the water just naked, practically, with a white robe, and then the chrism had to be placed on their bodies, so you had to touch their body. So the women deacons were doing that for the adult women at baptisms, and also going into sickrooms, bedrooms, anointing with oil, reading prayers for women who were sick. It was just customary of the times and even should be today that men should not be doing those kind of things. It should be very discreet about touching women’s bodies and all that. Nowadays especially we know that that’s a huge issue in our Church in the 20th and 21st centuries, about touching people and so on. I mean, I know myself, we used to put our hand on a person for confession and so on. We’re told not to do that any more, because people might make a case against you for some type of misconduct.
But here is what I would say. It isn’t an issue of which tradition is worth keeping; it’s an issue, rather, of what is needed in the Church. Now, I can’t decide that. I can’t decide it for myself, but I would say this. I would respond when my friend here says, “I prefer the one handed to me which says that the place for women deacons is no longer necessary.” I would put that differently. I would say as long as our leaders, our bishops, don’t think that we need this ministry in the Church today, since it went out of practice at some point in history with very few exceptions, but still there were exceptions in practically the entire Orthodox Church history of this—I think the Coptic Church of Egypt still has women deacons, or they call them deacons, which just means ministers, actually—but in any case, I don’t think we should say, “You’ve got a tradition, and the issue is whether you should keep it or not keep it.” The issue is whether you need it or not.
Suppose the need would again arise in our Church that we need women in a diaconal ministry, to go to hospitals, nursing homes, to care for elderly people, especially elderly women, to pray over them, to anoint their bodies, and so on. It might return. There was a rather powerful movement in the Russian Orthodox Church under Communism to restore the women diaconate because it was so difficult for men to be able to be allowed to serve in church because of the persecutions. Grand Duchess Elizabeth, St. Elizabeth the Grand Duchess, made a huge program and proposal for how to reinstate the diaconal ministry for women. Of course, that diaconal ministry at all times was for celibate women, or women who were married, but were no longer taking care of households or raising children, and so on, like Gregory the Theologian’s mother, St. Nonna. She was a deacon later in life. As I said, the canons say about women deacons, they should be 40 or 60—one says 40; one says 60.
So I think that the way of looking at it would be quite different. The way of looking at it would be to say, “What do you need? Do you need someone to read? Do you need someone to sing? Do you need someone to minister to ill people, especially women, especially elderly women, especially in difficult situations when they’re in hospitals, half-clad, and so on?” The women diaconate may return, so it’s not a case of who decides, just going back. Here I would agree with Reader Thomas. If this is done just pro forma just to restore something when there’s not a real need, it would be very bad.
So usually when I am asked a question personally about my position, my opinion, “What do you think about the restoration of the women diaconate?” my answer has always been: If the leadership of the Church decides that it’s a needed ministry that we really must have, let’s restore it, but if we don’t really need it, then why restore it? If there’s not a need and a ministry actually there to do, now, that’s a debated issue also. But I don’t think that I brought up the women deacons to reinforce my position about women readers; that’s certainly not what I had in mind myself. I just wanted to inform our listeners about what actually happens in the Orthodox Church or has happened or could happen or did happen—that’s what I’d like to do—and how we might understand it. That’s how I understand my task.
Invoking women deacons as an excuse for women readers is a non-starter when one concludes that women did not serve liturgically even when they were endowed with holy orders. So read that part of the letter again. My friend says:
Even in bringing up women deacons, you say rightly that they did not serve the same liturgical functions as male deacons.
No, they did not. That’s true.
As to this, you yourself in your last podcast [said] again, quite rightly (Reader Thomas says to me, Fr. Thomas) that the prokeimena should be proclaimed with joy and emphasis because it is a liturgical proclamation.
Well, I think that women can proclaim prokeimena joyfully and with great emphasis; I don’t see why they can’t if they are blessed to do this ministry.
And then invoking women deacons as an excuse for women readers is a non-starter.
Well, I wasn’t trying to start anything. I was just trying to describe the situation as I understand it, and comment on it, and to get nice reactions like Reader Thomas has reacted. But now we get to one more part where he writes in the letter:
And you know better than I do St. Paul’s admonitions about women speaking in church.
Well, I do. I don’t know if I know better, but I certainly know St. Paul’s admonitions. There are two of them, one in the first Corinthian letter which has to do with speaking, and then the other has to do—it’s in the letter to Timothy, but it’s not so much about being in church; it’s just about the headship of the husband in the family and wife of the family is to be led by her husband and so on. I think that’s a different admonition entirely. But I’d like to read what is said in 1 Corinthians, because this is what the Reader Thomas—I’m pretty sure—has in mind. This is what he’s talking about. I’ll start pretty early before getting to the exact point. He says, “What, then, brethren?” And “brethren” means “brothers and sisters.” I’m reading the RSV.
When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret.
It seems to me there were women who were prophesying and speaking in the gift of tongues in the Corinthian community. I think that’s the case. But then St. Paul continues:
But if there is no one to interpret, let each one keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God.
So whether it’s a man or a woman, if there’s no interpreter, there should be no public prophesying and glossolalia (speaking in tongues). Then it says:
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
Now, about prophesying: the book of the Acts of the Apostles does say that four daughters of Philip were prophetesses; they were prophesying at Church services. It also says that one of them, at least, Hermione—there’s Hermione, Zenais, and Philonilla, Philip’s daughters—they were also considered to be unmercenary healers, physicians, like doctors, people who did healing. So you had women doing that, we know from the New Testament. It says:
If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first one be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets, for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.
Apparently a lot of confusion and disorder was going on with that Corinthian church, with those converted Gentiles. There’s a lot of stuff there, and probably brought in from their paganism and all that stuff that St. Paul is writing against. You see, he says in the Christian Church you have order, you have decency, you do things, and we don’t want confusion, whether it’s by men or by women or whatever. Then he continues, however, about women:
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says (meaning the law of Moses). If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. What, did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not to be recognized (or he is not recognized).
So, my brothers and sisters (brethren), earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues, but all things should be done decently and in order.
That’s also quoted in the letter, as you know. That’s how Reader Thomas finishes. He says, “But I also, along with St. Paul, desire all things to be done decently and in order.” And don’t we all! And there’s a lot of disorder and a lot of undecent things or indecent things that often go on which we don’t want to happen.
But here is my position, though; my opinion would be: St. Paul had a very particular problem on his hands in that Corinthian community. Someone once said that the Corinthians made it into the biblical canon like Pontius Pilate made it into the Nicene Creed. Practically the whole 1 Corinthians is about all the bad, wrong things that were being done in that community. It begins by that there were divisions among the people, then it goes on to say there was sexual immorality, then it goes on to say there were people who thought they were holier than other people by their glossolalia and their gifts. Then there were some people who were really disrupting the Eucharistic service in the Corinthian community. They were getting drunk. I mean, it was a pretty bad scene. Probably there were a lot of women there, and you can imagine, given the setting and who they were, some of it could have been pretty hysterical. I mean, it could have gotten really out of control. It seems to me that that is what the Apostle is speaking about here primarily.
Now, is he speaking about reading a Scripture reading at a Divine Liturgy that’s done decently and in order? Well, I don’t think he is. Is he speaking about chanting a psalm at a service? I don’t think he is. Is he speaking about singing in the choir or singing as a chanter, singing the hymn of the Church, decently and in order, in a beautiful liturgical way with great competence and great clarity? I don’t think he is. So I think it’s hard to take that text and simply apply it to women generally as not being able to read the epistle reading at a Divine Liturgy or any reading of a psalm or an apostolic writing at any Church service. If they can do it, if they can do it decently and in order, if they do it properly, if they speak clearly, if they have a good strong voice—why would they be forbidden to do it? It seems to me it just doesn’t make sense.
I will end by saying, as a matter of fact, I don’t need to advocate that it begin to be done, because it’s already being done all over the place. In all of our Orthodox churches today practically, we have women who are doing these ministries. My only point of the podcast would be: If they are doing these ministries, then they should be trained, tested, and blessed. And they may even be blessed by a formal service, without an exhortation about rising to become a priest or a bishop. That exhortation doesn’t need to be there. But that the prayer would be there, the prayer which says:
O Lord God Almighty, elect this your servant and sanctify him, and enable him (or her, if it’s going to be done) with all wisdom and understanding to exercise the study and reading of thy divine words, preserving them in blamelessness of life. Through the mercies and bounties and love for mankind of your only-begotten Son with whom you also are blest, together with your all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
So if women are going to do these ministries anyway, particularly reading in church, apostolic writings, psalms, hymns, whatever needs to be read, and singing them, if they’re going to be doing it anyway, why not read this little prayer over them and make it official, make it formal, make it recognized? But also make it to be something real, good, requiring testing and learning, and not done just as a matter of course for the fun of it, but being done because the ministry needs to be done and needs to be done properly, and only those who can do it properly should do it.
So the question still remains: Can women do this ministry properly or not? Well, they’re already doing the ministry, so let’s hope that they can do it properly. And if they are doing it properly, they really should probably be formally blessed to do that ministry and to do it right.
So that would be my response, thanking the Reader Thomas, who, with all respect, love, and humility in Christ, has written this email to me and blessed me to share it with you.