When you asked me to outline the Orthodox reaction to the idea
of women's ordination to the priesthood, I thought at first that
to do so would not be too difficult. It is not difficult, indeed,
simply to state that the Orthodox Church is against women's priesthood
and to enumerate as fully as possible the dogmatical, canonical,
and spiritual reasons for that opposition.
On second thought, however, I became convinced that such an answer
would be not only useless, but even harmful. Useless, because
all such "formal reasons" - scriptural, traditional,
canonical - are well known to the advocates of women's ordination,
as is also well known our general ecclesiological stand which,
depending on their mood and current priorities, our Western Brothers
either hail as Orthodoxy's "main" ecumenical contribution
or dismiss as archaic, narrow-minded, and irrelevant. Harmful,
because true formally, this answer would still vitiate the real
Orthodox position by reducing it to a theological context and
perspective, alien to the Orthodox mind. For the Orthodox Church
has never faced this question, it is for us totally extrinsic,
a casus irrealis for which we find no basis, no terms of reference
in our Tradition, in the very experience of the Church, and for
the discussion of which we are therefore simply not prepared.
Such is then my difficulty. I cannot discuss the problem itself
because to do so would necessitate the elucidation of our approach
- not to women and to priesthood only - but, above all to God
in his Triune Life, to Creation, Fall and Redemption, to the
Church and the mystery of her life, to the deification of man
and the consummation of all things in Christ. Short of all this
it would remain incomprehensible, I am sure, why the ordination
of women to priesthood is tantamount for us to a radical and
irreparable mutilation of the entire faith, the rejection of
the whole Scripture, and, needless to say, the end of all "dialogues"
. Short of all this my answer will sound like another "conservative"
and "traditional" defense of the status quo, of precisely
that which many Christians today, having heard it too many times,
reject as hypocrisy, lack of openness to God's will, blindness
to the world, etc. Obviously enough those who reject Tradition
would not listen once more to an argumentex traditione....
But to what will they listen? Our amazement - and the Orthodox
reaction is above all that of amazement - is precisely about
the change and, to us, incomprehensible hastiness with which
the question of women's ordination was, first, accepted as an
issue, then quickly reduced to the level of a disciplinary "matter"
and finally identified as an issue of policy to be dealt with
by a vote! In this strange situation all I can do is to try to
convey to you this amazement by briefly enumerating its main
"components" as I see and understand them.
The first dimension of our amazement can be termed "ecumenical."
The debate on women's ordination reveals something which we have
suspected for a long time but which now is confirmed beyond any
doubt: the total truly built-in indifference of the Christian
West to anything beyond the sphere of its own problematics, of
its own experience. I can only repeat here what I have said before:
even the so-called "ecumenical movement," notwithstanding
its claims to the contrary, has always been, and still is, a
purely Western phenomenon, based on Western presuppositions and
determined by a specifically Western agenda. This is not "pride"
or "arrogance." On the contrary, the Christian West
is almost obsessed with a guilt complex and enjoys nothing better
than self-criticism and self condemnation. It is rather a total
inability to transcend itself, to accept the simple idea that
its own experience, problems, thought forms and priorities may
not be universal, that they themselves may need to be evaluated
and judged in the light of a truly universal, truly "Catholic"
experience. Western Christians would almost enthusiastically
judge and condemn themselves, but on their own terms, within
their own hopelessly "Western" perspective. Thus when
they decide -- on the basis of their own possibly limited and
fragmented, specifically Western, "cultural situation"
-- that they must "repair" injustices made to women,
they plan to do it immediately without even asking what the "others"
may think about it, and are sincerely amazed and even saddened
by lack, on the part of these "others" of ecumenical
spirit, sympathy and comprehension.
Personally, I have often enough criticized the historical limitations
of the Orthodox mentality not to have the right to say in all
sincerity that to me the debate on women's ordination seems to
be provincial, deeply marked, and even determined by Western
selfcenteredness and self-sufficiency, by a naive, almost childish,
conviction that every "trend" in the Western culture
justifies a radical rethinking of the entire Christian tradition.
How many such "trends" we have witnessed during the
last decades of our troubled century! How many corresponding
"theologies"! The difference this time, however, is
that one deals in this particular debate not with a passing intellectual
and academic "fad" like "death of God," "secular
city," "celebration of life" etc.-- which, after
it has produced a couple of ephemeral best-sellers, simply disappears,
but with the threat of an irreversible and irreparable act which,
if it becomes reality, will produce a new, and this time, I am
convinced, final division among Christians, and will signify,
at least for the Orthodox, the end of all dialogues.
It is well known that the advocates of women's ordination explain
the Scriptural and the traditional exclusion of women from ministry
by "cultural conditioning." If Christ did not include
women into the Twelve, if the Church for centuries did not include
them into priesthood, it is because of "culture" which
would have made it impossible and unthinkable then. It is not
my purpose to discuss here the theological and exegetical implications
of this view as well as its purely historical basis, which incidentally
seems to me extremely weak and shaky; what is truly amazing is
that while absolutely convinced that they understand past "cultures,"
the advocates of women's ordination seem to be totally unaware
of their own cultural "conditioning" of their own surrender
How else can one explain their readiness to accept what may prove
to be a passing phenomenon and what, at any rate, is a phenomenon
barely at its beginning (not to speak of the women's liberation
movement, which at present is nothing but search and experimentation)
as a sufficient justification for a radical change in the very
structure of the Church? How else, furthermore, are we to explain
that this movement is accepted on its own terms, within the perspective
of "rights", "justice," "equality,"
Etc. -- all categories whose ability adequately to express the
Christian faith and to be applied as such within the Church is,
to say the least, questionable?
The sad truth is that the very idea of women's ordination, as
it is presented and discussed today, is the result of too many
confusions and reductions. If its root is surrender to "culture",
its pattern of development is shaped by a surrender to "clericalism."
It is indeed almost entirely dominated by the old "clerical"
view of the Church and the double "reduction" interest
in it. The reduction on the one hand, of the Church to a "power
structure," the reduction on the other hand, of that power
structure to clergy. To the alleged "inferiority" of
women within the secular power structure, corresponds their "inferiority,"
i.e., their exclusion from clergy, within the ecclesiastical
power structure. To their "liberation" in the secular
society must therefore correspond their "liberation"
i.e., ordination, in the Church.
But the Church simply cannot be reduced to these categories.
As long as we try to measure the ineffable mystery of her life
by concepts and ideas a priori alien to her very essence,
we entirely mutilate her, and her real power, her glory and beauty,
and her transcendent truth simply escape us.
That is why in conclusion of this letter I can only confess,
without explaining and justifying this confession by my "proofs."
I can confess that the non-ordination of women to priesthood
has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with whatever "inferiority"
we can invent or imagine. In the essential reality which alone
constitutes the content of our faith and shapes the entire life
of the Church, in the reality of the Kingdom of God which is
perfect communion, perfect knowledge, perfect love and ultimately
the "deification" of man, there is truly "neither
male nor female." More than that, in this reality, of which
we are made partakers here and now, we all, men and women, without
any distinction, are "Kings and priests," for it is
the essential priesthood of the human nature and vocation that
Christ has restored to us.
It is of this priestly life, it is of this ultimate reality,
that the Church is both gift and acceptance. And that she may
be this, that she may always and everywhere be the gift of the
Spirit without any measure or limitations, the Son of God offered
himself in a unique sacrifice, and made this unique sacrifice
and this unique priesthood the very foundation, indeed the very
"form" of the Church.
This priesthood is Christ's, not ours. None of us, man or woman,
has any "right" to it; it is emphatically not one of
human vocations, analogous, even if superior, to all others.
The priest in the Church is not "another" priest, and
the sacrifice he offers is not "another" sacrifice.
It is forever and only Christ's priesthood and Christ's sacrifice
-- for, in the words of our Prayers of Offertory, it is "Thou
who offerest and Thou who art offered, it is Thou who receivest
and Thou who distributest..." And thus the "institutional"
priest in the Church has no "ontology" of his own.
It exists only to make Christ himself present, to make this unique
Priesthood and this unique Sacrifice the source of the Church's
life and the "acquisition" by men of the Holy Spirit.
And if the bearer, the icon and the fulfiller of that unique
priesthood, is man and not woman, it is because Christ is man
and not woman.....
Why? This of course is the only important, the only relevant
question. The one precisely that no "culture," no "sociology,"
no "history" and even no "exegesis" can answer.
For it can be answered only by theology in the primordial and
essential meaning of that word in the Church; as the contemplation
and vision of the Truth itself, as communion with the uncreated
Divine Light. It is only here, in this purified and restored
vision that we might begin to understand why the ineffable mystery
of the relationship between God and His Creation, between God
and His chosen people, between God and His Church, are "essentially"
revealed to us as a nuptial mystery, as fulfillment of a mystical
marriage. Why in other terms, Creation itself, the Church herself,
man and the world themselves, when contemplated in their ultimate
truth and destiny, are revealed to us as Bride, as Woman clothed
in sun; why in the very depth of her love and knowledge, of her
joy and communion, the Church identifies herself with one Woman,
whom she exalts as "more honorable than the Cherubim, and
beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim."
Is it this mystery that has to be "understood" by means
of our broken and fallen world, which knows and experiences itself
only in its brokenness and fragmentation, its tensions and dichotomies
and which, as such, is incapable of the ultimate vision? Or is
it this vision and this unique experience that must again become
to us the "means" of our understanding of the world,
the starting point and the very possibility of a truly Divine
victory over all that in this world is but human, historical
About the Author: The late Rt. Rev. Dr. Schmemann, S.T.D.,
LL.D, D.D., was Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary
in Crestweed, N.Y., where he also occupied the chair of Liturgical
and Pastoral Theology.
Born in Estonia, he received his education in Paris. After completing
his Baccalaureate in Philosophy, he graduated from the St. Sergius
Theological Institute in 1945 and in the same year was appointed
to the Institute's Faculty as Lecturer in Church History.
In 1951 he joined St. Vladimir's Theological Seminary as Professor
of Liturgical Theology. In 1962 he was appointed Dean of the
Seminary. In 1959 he was granted the degree of Doctor of Theology.
Since 1958 he has been Adjunct Professor at the Graduate Faculty
of Columbia University and was Lecturer in Eastern Orthodoxy
at Union Theological Seminary.
He was a former member of the Faith and Order Commission of the
World Council of Churches and attended the assemblies of Amsterdam,
Lune, Evanston, Oberlin and Montreal. He was a member of the
Study and Planning Committee of the Standing Conference of the
Orthodox Bishops in America, of the Metropolitan Council of the
Orthodox Church in America, and of the American Theological Society.
His publications in English included: The Historical Road of
Eastern Orthodoxy (1963), Sacraments and Orthodoxy (1965), The
Ultimate Questions (1965), Introduction to Liturgical Theology
(1966), and Great Lent (1969).
He was also a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of
Ecumenical Studies and Worship.
Because of his learning, wit, and personal warmth, he had been
a very popular lecturer at the General Theological Seminary,
which awarded him an honorary degree.