Women leaders, theologians in Eastern Orthodoxy see gains, setbacks

Women in Eastern Orthodoxy are making slow but steady gains in church leadership, thanks to their involvement on the Internet and social media, although this development is uneven across Orthodox churches worldwide and still not receiving an official stamp of approval. That was the conclusion of scholars, women religious, and activists at an October conference on women in Orthodoxy in New York. The conference, which was sponsored by the Center for Orthodox Studies at Fordham University, demonstrated how the gains of women in church leadership are quite varied according to ethnic and church traditions. Donna Rizk Asdourian, a fellow at the Fordham center, a Coptic activist, and one of the first Coptic women to attend an Orthodox seminary, said that new priorities of survival amidst persecution in Egypt and of preserving ethnic traditions have meant a step backward for women trying to gain access to theological training in Coptic Orthodoxy. While one woman has been ordained as a deacon in the Coptic church, the practice is not officially accepted. Some parts of the church are also resisting the use of altar girls, and while women are allowed to sing in choirs in the Armenian and Syrian churches, they are prohibited from joining Coptic church choirs, according to Asdourian.

The other Orthodox churches, including the Russian and Greek traditions, are experiencing more change. Ann Bezzerides of Hellenic College reported that in Greek Orthodox churches the trend of women’s involvement in ministry is clear. As priests find it more difficult to handle spiritual and religious needs in parishes, they are calling for more lay involvement, including from women. The most significant development of women in leadership roles may be due to the growth of Orthodox women bloggers and podcasters. Sister Vassa Larin, an Orthodox nun who runs a popular podcast, said there has been a “rapid change in vocations” and resulting ministries through the Internet, which has allowed women to gain new access to Orthodox theology and to teach online. Women are now teaching theology and that often includes serving in “pastoral capacities,” even if church leaders state that women should not be doing pastoral work. “It’s impossible not to be pastoral in teaching theology.” But Larin added that the situation for women wanting to teach theology in Orthodox seminaries is not bright. While there are more Orthodox women studying theology today, they should be prepared not to able to use their educations professionally. She said that even the move to ordain women deacons in some Orthodox churches lacks the support to ensure its regular practice. “It should not depend on the character of every priest. It should be in the structure beyond the whims of priests and bishops.” Citing a recent study of the Russian Orthodox Church, Larin said, “When women are tolerated in one parish but not in another, competition starts over these positions.”