I was raised in a world and in a church where it would have been unthinkable for women to serve at the altar; I came of age in a world where women demanded to fill the same roles as men and where barriers to that goal seemed unfair and senseless. In those more radical days, it seemed that men had exercised their power to keep women from this ultimate authority.
As I left my childhood church behind and found another where women were beginning to gain a foothold as pastors, I found the idea of women priests to be both comfortable and intriguing and unsettling at the same time. I saw no logical reason why women shouldn’t be priests. Yet clergy that I respected were opposed to it so I expended some effort in trying to think through the issue.
One Catholic monk that I met was helpful. In response to my statement that I thought women were certainly capable of being pastors, he replied that it wasn’t a matter of women not being capable but of understanding what Christ intended. He didn’t pick women as apostles. I was not fully convinced – was true, but wasn’t He influenced by his culture? The answer was certainly that if Christ is not God, He probably was influenced by His upbringing. But if Christ isn’t God, why was I trying to be a Christian anyway? And if Christ is God, He had the freedom to break the cultural practices in which He was raised. He spoke with women, even Samaritan women, He travelled with them, but He didn’t ordain them.
I had been coming closer to Orthodoxy but the question of women priests was still in the way. Over lunch, my friend brought some other arguments to bear. Some pertained to the specific ministry of women deacons to other women in the early church, but one line of reasoning struck me more than others. Don’t think of it as an irresistible logical argument, but more like something that struck me as reasonable based on the strengths of men and women. Her argument went something like this: in every healthy parish, there was a need for both discipline and compassion. Within a congregation, compassion can be raised up from within, but having discipline administered by people besides the one in authority seemed like a recipe for dysfunction. It seemed that by temperament, women are generally better than men at being compassionate, but may have difficulty exercising discipline; men, although they can be compassionate, are generally more at ease than women in exercising discipline. I found this line of thought to be convincing. It would not apply to every man and every woman, but in general, it seemed true.
Although that lunch-time discussion was probably what helped me to let go of my preoccupation with women priests, something more fundamental to Orthodoxy guides my thinking now. In our theology, each human being’s personhood is an intrinsic and explicit gift of God, to be honored and nurtured. Our worth is not dependent on our job, be it trash collector or president. Because we were created from God’s love, each of us is worthy of honor, respect, and love. I am respected and loved as a member of my community, even if my task is cleaning the bathrooms, and that is much more valuable than what I would have by insisting that I must have the right to stand at the Holy Altar in the place of the priest.