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In Pursuit Of Truth: Gender, Privilege, And The Orthodox Church

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Since I was a young, I have always identified as an Orthodox Christian. Despite my unawareness at the time, I didn’t realize the ‘power’ that my maleness had within the Church. Being that I identify as a cisgender male, opened a vast amount of opportunity within the Church. My maleness allows me to pursue the priesthood, grants access to our inner most sanctums (our altars) and approves me in taking journeys setting foot in our holiest grounds; i. e. places like Mount Athos and every site in Jerusalem, Russia, and Greece. Due to this inherited (albeit unearned) privilege of gender, and the naïveté of my youth, I never really perceived that women were not given the same advantages as I. For example, women are forbidden from pursuing the priesthood, the diaconate, and other clerical offices. They are not allowed to step foot in the altars of our churches, and finally are (in most jurisdictions but not all) demanded to cover their heads all in the name of piety. They are even strictly forbidden to enter our holiest places of pilgrimages; the peninsula of Mouth Athos. My moment of true clarity of this reality came to me when I started studying more carefully and deeply the theology of the Orthodox Church at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

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Firstly, I noticed that most people at the school studying theology were only men. Of the few women who were there, undoubtably there studying a subject that they loved and were more deeply passionate about than most of the seminarian men there, were often completely shut down by the faculty or the male students of each class. In fact, I remember one being shut down so harshly about her ideas that she even left the school entirely, completely disenfranchised by toxic masculine identity that she felt the school, and in fact, the church itself seemed to be. When this event happened, I was shocked to the core. I realized then that the issue of what it means to be a man versus a woman in the church are completely different; that power and privilege of men and the abuse against women in this way is rampant no just in our greater society, but in the church itself. After receiving my own Master of Theological Study from Holy Cross, I realized further that truer hermeneutic lens in the theological foundations of my faith would never condone such power dynamics. It became evident to me that the gender gap I perceived in the Church was the product of historically supported patriarchal systems and cultures, which opened the door for systemic change not in the theology of the church, but within its interpretation of the institution of the church itself.

Critical-Based Analysis

It should seem obvious here that there are deeply implicit biases in place within the institution of the church. It is perhaps even more obvious to see these inequalities and oppression of women within greater institutions of society, especially within the United States. It is both here and within the church that they seem to have, at least historically, clung to notions of established gender roles, gender stereotypes, and gender essentialism. According to Darakchi (2018) these ideas of what it means to be a men and woman in society have stemmed from a long historical line of ideas and methodologies. Being that history has been historically patriarchal in nature, our given social institutions, culture(s), and tradition(s) have been the main judges and juries within our societies and even the churches theological underpinnings of what is to be defined as what is to be considered normal within gender. In American society, many of the gender specific realities of our culture has made sure to define strict socializations of what its appropriate for boys and girls. This has included but is not limited to the type of games we play, or the toys we choose. The type of clothes we were, and activities we should and should not participate in. Our society has even gone so far, at least historically, to define femininity as those who are irrational and overly emotional. This is underpinned by the long withstanding notion femininity is emotional instability and ‘madness’, while masculinity is defined as ‘controlled’. Essentially, womanhood and femininity are defined as being inferior and unworthy.

When we take a mesoscopic lens in this topic on southern American culture, we can see what this stereotype looks like in closer form. According to Barnet, Martin, and Mulugin (2018), when one has lived within a southern culture there is a sinister yet altogether powerful emphasis that true masculinity is defined and determined by those who commit themselves to military service. Southern communities have often tracked these elements and will then in turn criticizes the men who fail to fulfill them by using admonishments and defaming names and nicknames. Oftentimes, there are clear-cut comparisons to women. This is perhaps one of the the most common devices used by southern communities to put pressure on men. On the other hand, the social construction of female identity within the church and in southern culture is focused on the core value of “virginity prestige”. Though Darakchi (2018) was defining this in terms of Bulgarian Muslims, this reality is still very indicative of the expectations that both society (particularly southern culture) and the church institution have imposed upon females. Virginity in these realms is considered a sign of a girl’s chastity and a precondition and requirement for a successful and blessed marriage. It is often determined than that woman only goal in life, a determinate to qualifying her as having a successful life, is one defined as being married (particularly to a rich individual), having healthy children, and attending to the duties of husband and house. It is this patriarchal ‘emotional manipulation’, that has often continued the normative stereotypes and oppression of women within our society.

Such examples of male dominances and patriarchal attitudes show that these take place when, whether overt or note, control over women happens by enforcing gender roles that restrict women’s access to societal advantages and power statues which often exclude them from positions of power, especially within the institution of the church; i. e. pursuing theological degrees, complete restrictions on ordination, etc. When viewed through this lens of different roles for men and women seem appropriate because men and women allegedly possess distinct characteristics. Gender stereotypes add wood to the fires of sexism and discriminatory responses toward women across systems. Often when female theologians speak up about these disparities within the church they are met with hostility and violence, oftentimes finding themselves close to excommunication and condemnation from member of the church. There voices are met with forced silencing. It has been seen that, most times, any challenge to men’s assumed superiority both within society (e. g. , the suffrage movement), or within the church (movements towards reestablishing the woman’s diaconate) elicits a backlash from men in power because, as Virginia Woolf writes, “when one is challenged, even by a few women in black bonnets, one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively”. Glick and Fiske (1996) concluded that it precisely this male dominance through history that often brings about male hostility towards women that we often see within our society; i. e. systemic hostile sexism. Hostile sexism intonates that women desire complete control over society and church (old beliefs and traditions), and they will, by any means (current movement in feminism) domineer themselves over men in all aspects.

Action Plan

  1. I will read The Ministry of Women in the Church by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (2001), which will give better insight into the historical progression of women’s ministry in the early church. I will read the first chapters beginning on Monday, October 15, 2018. I will then try to reach one chapter a day until the completion of the book. Ideally the book will be read in completion by the end of this month.
  2. I will attend the conference “Women of the Church: Faith, Service, and Leadership, ” hosted by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University. The conference will be held Monday, October 8th-9th and I will be present for the full allotted time. I will have one-on-one discussion with my former professor Dr. Ann Bezzerides, Director of the Office of Vocation & Ministry, who will also be a panelist, about how I can continue the discussion of the role of women, particularly within the church.
  3. I will also read, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church by Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald (2008) for a micro look into the role of women in the Church has been hotly debated by all Christian Churches, especially as it relates to ordained ministry. I plan to start reading this the 1st of November, and plan to read at least one chapter per day until completion.

In the Orthodox Church, there seems to have always been a focus on the existence of women’s ordination to the diaconate. By furthering examining scriptural, patristic, and liturgical evidence, as well as the lives of the women saints identified as deacons, and how the influence of a biased society has infused itself into the mind of the church, there is a hope that one day, at the very least, women will again be ordained as deacons within dynamic and evangelical ministries of prayer, teaching, pastoral care and social concerns.

18 May 2020

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