Eastern Orthodox churches facing their own culture wars?

Eastern Orthodoxy is often said to be resistant to the cultural and theological battles that have marked other denominations, but the familiar scenario of conflict between “traditionalists” and “progressives” on matters of sexuality, gender, and politics is increasingly evident in this tradition. In the conservative ecumenical magazine Touchstone (May/June), Orthodox writer and priest Alexander F. C. Webster identifies an “Orthodox left” that is mounting a “Trojan horse” strategy seeking to effect change in these conservative churches. He charges that an Orthodox “elite” are dismissing more traditional believers as “fundamentalists”—a term that has been making the rounds in Orthodox theological conferences and journals and particularly propagated by prominent Fordham University theologian Aristotle Papanikolaou [see July 2016 RW]. Other theologians, such as Fordham’s George Demaopoulos and St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Peter Bouteneff, as well as Archbishop Chrysostomous of Cyprus, have targeted such “fundamentalists” as being responsible for the lack of unity evident at last year Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete (several Orthodox bodies did not participate in the council for various reasons).

Webster cites Bouteneff’s report on the council in the mainline Protestant Christian Century magazine, where the latter concludes that Orthodoxy is “lagging in its responsiveness to modern demographic realities and to modernity in general,” as an example of this attitude. Webster’s article itself—and its publication in a well-known conservative magazine—suggests that both sides in these conflicts are positioning themselves in the two-party system of American religion marked by “liberals” and “conservatives.” While some Orthodox theologians have long been open to arguments about restoring women to the diaconate and even ordaining women to the priesthood, Webster sees support for such causes as stemming from Orthodox clergy and theologians’ increasing sympathy with gender and sexual liberation ideologies, leading up to “a soft-sell of the ancient proscriptions against abortions to the latest trend, ‘transgenderism.’” On LGBTQ issues, Webster sees a growing mood of tolerance and downplaying of church teaching on homosexuality among these elite theologians. But they are not far ahead of Orthodox laity; surveys have shown that American Orthodox laypeople are close to mainline Protestants and Catholics in their support of same-sex marriage (54 percent).

Webster writes the deaconesses have been “obsolete” in Orthodoxy, but there have been several attempts to renew this office in recent decades, according to Commonweal magazine (June 3). The most recent effort took place this year when the Synod of Alexandria decided to revive the female diaconate in Africa and then proceeded to consecrate five women as deaconesses this past February. These moves by the synod caught American Orthodox by surprise; they did not know the female diaconate was even under consideration in Africa, even as they have created organizations advocating for deaconesses in the last two decades. The Synod of Alexandria has not yet published an official description of these deaconesses’ duties, but it has been informally reported that these women will assist in missionary work, catechism, and baptism, as well as leading services in mission parishes that have no regular priest. This development comes at a time when deacons in general have received a more prominent place in Orthodox churches after a period when they mainly had an administrative role. Today, Orthodox seminaries have established diaconal training programs, and the diaconate is generally seen as a boon to parish life and a ministry unto itself, such as assisting with liturgies and catechesis. The elevated role envisioned for deaconesses is likely to concern church conservatives, who fear it may be seen as a stepping stone for women’s ordination into the priesthood. But without an international mechanism for churches to communicate with each other, and due to the self-governing nature of Orthodox jurisdictions, there is unlikely to be uniform movement on the deaconess question.
(Touchstone, http://touchstonemag.com/; Commonweal, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/)