Word Magazine May 1981 Page 14
“WHAT WOMEN CAN DO FOR THE CHURCH”
Some fifty men and women of all Orthodox jurisdictions met recently at St. Vladimir’s Seminary for a conference on “Women in the Life of the Orthodox Church.” According to Sophie Koloumzin, the Orthodox religious educator who gave a summary talk, “If there is any problem which was addressed in all the workshops and all the speeches of the conference, it is the problem of what women can do for the church.”
The theme was introduced by Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh, whose keynote address, “The Orthodox Concept of Personhood and the Particular Charismata that Women Bring to the Church,” introduced the Orthodox definition of “personhood” as the human being created by God in the image of God. There is only one image of God, which each person in his or her call to holiness strives to imitate. Yet each person is unique, offering unique gifts to the church, which is the society of persons under God. Bishop Maximos itemized the special gifts that women have to offer the church. These gifts fall under the category of a great spiritual sensitivity or “Spiritual Motherhood,” with the highest expression of this gift being love, and the characteristics being a propensity to perfect, protect, and nurture all things.
Vickie Trbuhovich spoke on “Orthodox Women in American Society.” She listed the challenges facing “not just women, but men also” as challenges of morality, lifestyle, commitment, security. “The highest-value that secularism has to offer is relativity, in which there is no place for a total commitment to anything.” Her proposed response to the challenge of secularism is “to be aggressive and tireless in seeking the kingdom of God, to make Christ the center of one’s life, to spend time in church, and not to be blown away by the quest for financial and emotional stability.’’
Vasiliki Eckley, in her discussion of “New Possibilities of Leadership for Women in the Orthodox Church,” gave an Orthodox definition of the leader, both female and male, as “one whose acts through submission and service to God become examples for others.” The new possibility that comes to humanity through Christ’s incarnation is an invitation by God to act with God through willful submission. This new possibility is especially significant in our present-day “post modern” period, a time characterized by organized struggles to liberate people in various situations, because of the tremendous need for people to willingly become instruments of grace in a world “which seems to be coming apart at the seams.” “If we hope to offer our lives humbly to God, we must face the challenge of relating to each other in true humility, true service.”
The abstract discussion of the speakers was put into more practical terms by the workshops. Participants attended one of five workshops and presented position papers on each of the topics during the last day of the conference.
The Purification workshop, led by Jean Sam and Father Paul Tarazi, discussed the Orthodox rite of “churching” a woman forty days after she has given birth, studied the Old Testament view and laws of purification in their relation to the natural flow of blood, and in this light tried to understand the New Testament continuity and transformation of the meaning of this purification rite for both the woman and the child. The workshop reported, “We find that a lack of education in the teachings of the Church is pervasive among Orthodox men and women. This leads to a misunderstanding and incorrect practice of the liturgical rites of the Church. We recommend that people be educated in the essential meaning of the rite of churching a woman, which seems to be especially misunderstood.”
The workshop on Church Service and the Diaconate, led by Kyriaki FitzGerald and Deacon Michael Roshak, discussed the resurgence of lay leadership in the Church, and recommended exploring the possibility of reinstituting the Diaconate for women and revitalizing the role of male deacons, in light of the tremendous need for certain work to be done in the church, specifically teaching, social work, and spiritual counseling.
Women’s participation in the ecumenical movement was lauded in the workshop on Ecumenism, because of the special message that women who are educated in their own Orthodox faith can bring to the movement. This workshop, led by Father Thomas Hopko and Vivian Hampers, concluded that ecumenism is an area in which women should even more actively serve the Church.
“Monasticism is the Christian life in its purest form; it is a clarification of the Christian life.” The workshop on Monasticism, led by Sister Natalie Garland of the Monastery of the Veil of our Lady in Bussy-En-Othe, France, Archimandrite Nicholas Smisko, and Father Gregory Gula, named the qualities of the monastic life as sacrifice, obedience, and trust in God. Monasticism is a basic, ancient life, but it is new in North America. The workshop reported, “Although the quest for spiritual life is not necessarily a call to monasticism, at this time in North America we need not only monastics who are called by God to a life of prayer, but also lay people who understand monasticism.”
The fact that there is no part of the church body that suffers as much as the family suffers today was stressed by the workshop on Orthodox Women in the Family, led by Father Joseph Allen and Elizabeth Vinogradov. “Parents take a load on their shoulders that they do not have the strength to bear. They don’t know what to do with the children.” The workshop suggested that women, with their special gift of “spiritual motherhood,” could counsel and advise families and family members, thus fulfilling the need for motherhood in the church body.
In all the workshops and lectures, participants and leaders found that the question of what women can do for the church could not be isolated from the broader context of how lay people can find a place in the Church where they can serve the Church body with increased spiritual
vitality. Because the conference was the first of its kind in the U.S., discussion of topics related specifically to women’s participation and influence in Church life was preliminary and inconclusive, except in isolating issues for further discussion. The conference mandated that similar conferences be organized on a local level, for the purpose of incorporating more Orthodox lay people and broaching issues that were introduced by the national conference.