by Gabrielle Thomas and Elena Narinskaya (eds.)
Published by Cascade Books on July 10, 2020
Language: English
ISBN: 978-1-5326-9578-0
Pages: 210

The question of women’s ordination to the priesthood has often been qualified by Orthodox officials as being forced on the Orthodox Church from outside, especially from the ecumenical movement. From the 1970s onward, the issue was on the agenda of Orthodox meetings, with clear statements—as for example at an inter-Orthodox consultation in Rhodes in 1988, organized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate—declaring that the ordination of women would be a violation of the apostolic faith and the order of the Church. Nevertheless, the revival of the order of deaconesses was recommended, especially on the grounds of the research by the late Greek Orthodox theologian Evangelos Theodorou from Athens. Rhodes seemed to be the last word on the issue from a more or less official side, while at the same time Orthodox scholars such as Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware started to question this position. In 1999 the American Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko observed a change in this debate, in the sense that a growing number of Orthodox scholars would now understand the issue as an open question. Especially during the last years, the issue was taken up anew, for instance by a conference in 2016, organized by Petros Vassiliadis in Thessaloniki on “Deaconesses, the Ordination of Women and Orthodox Theology,” with a special focus on the ordination of women to the diaconate. The question of the ordination of women to the priesthood was in the center of a conference on “Women and Ordination in the Orthodox Church” in September 2018, organized by the Women’s Ministries Initiative (WMI), a forum under the auspices of the Orthodox Fellowship of Saint John the Baptist in the UK. In the book reviewed here, the papers given at this conference together with some further articles by experts are made accessible to a wider audience.

The contributions are ordered in three sections. The first one collects articles which explore some basic questions on “theological anthropology,” a precondition for the discussion of arguments for or against female ordination. John Behr, professor of humanity at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland), establishes the framework for theology to understand what it is to be human and what it means to be a sexual being. Human existence is “between Adam and Christ,” meaning between the human existence as sexual and sexed creatures and the existence in the fullness of being human. This tension is manifested in the life characterized by sin, which again and again needs repentance, independently from being man or woman. The next contribution is related to the issue of gender, especially Christ’s gender, which is often given as an argument against the ordination of women: Elizabeth Theokritoff, lecturer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge (UK), presents the work of the late Greek theologian Konstantinos N. Yokarinis on “The Gender or Genderlessness of the Incarnate Christ” and makes his findings accessible to the non-Greek-speaking world. Yokarinis argues that the essence of the image of Christ which the priest represents, is not Christ’s male form, but Christ’s person. Therefore, the question of women’s ordination cannot be definitely denied. The third contribution is an article by Elena Narinskaya, the founding director of WMI, dealing with Eve’s curse in Genesis 3:16. She shows that this story is to be understood as a reflection on the reality of the world afflicted by sin. But since Christ broke the curse of the fall, she proposes to understand stepping away from patriarchal structures and into social equality between the sexes as a return to Christ and his restoration of ontological freedom and equality. The most original contribution comes from Luis Josué Salés, assistant professor at Scripps College in Claremont (California, USA), who examines a text of Epiphanios of Salamis (second half of the fourth century), which hints that a Christian community in Phrygia ordained women to every ecclesiastical rank. The author shows that this community “could well have been preserving a Pauline apostolic custom” and comes therefore to the conclusion that “women’s ecclesiastical leadership is apostolic tradition” (73).

The second section deals with the theological issues related to the “Diaconate and Priesthood” of women. Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia (Ware) explains some shortcomings he found in his earlier main arguments against women’s ordination: The reference to tradition is weak insofar as tradition is understood as immutable, while in fact tradition is something dynamic. The argument that the priest represents an icon of Christ, who was a man, ignores the fact that Christ’s incarnation is not about maleness but about humanness. Andrew Louth, professor emeritus of Durham University (UK), deals with the question of whether women’s ordination to the priesthood would be an innovation. He makes clear that the three aspects of priesthood, which are purification, illumination, and deification, relate to every Christian. The question of women’s ordination is in his understanding not a question “from outside,” but a question Orthodox have to discuss, because the Church is part of a society that has changed. Since women have always been involved in spiritual care, the priesthood of women is not a pure innovation, but female priesthood would change the nature of priesthood. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church in Japan, presents the development of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s thinking on the ordination of women. Originally a close follower of the Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov, Behr-Sigel later developed her own reflection focused on “personhood” rather than sex or gender. She comes to the conclusion that “the designation of Father and Son for the first two persons of the Trinity are to indicate relations of origin, but not to imply any sort of biological analogy…”(107). Priests also are “persons” and therefore the representation of Christ by the priest is independent from his/her male/female nature. Mary B. Cunningham, honorary associate professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK), examines the Mother of God as a possible model for female priesthood, but finds that Mary stands rather for the Church as a whole. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, adjunct professor of theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston (USA), shows that the Byzantine ordination rite for female deacons “clearly expresses all the essential features of ordinations to ‘major orders’ as understood by Orthodox theology” (131). This testifies that the female deacon in the early Church received the same “grace of the diaconate” as did the male deacon.

Section 3 moves to the “Implications of Contemporary Practice.” Carrie Frederick Frost, adjunct professor of theology at St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary in South Bound Brook (New Jersey, USA), observes a growing interest among the Orthodox faithful in the USA, Africa, and Western Europe in the renewal of the ordained order of deaconesses. She states that the revival of the ministry of deaconesses would lead to a “fruitful rebalancing of the three major orders” and would help the restoration of a diaconal ethos in the Orthodox church. Paul Ladouceur, adjunct professor at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto (Canada), discusses in general the arguments for and against the ordination of women to the priesthood. Similarly to K. Ware, he considers especially the argument of tradition as unconvincing, because it presupposes that tradition is rigid and immutable, while modern theology views tradition as dynamic rather than the mere repetition of the past. Also, on the other hand, the arguments for the ordination of women are not setting a necessity for the Orthodox Church to ordain women. Therefore, the author proposes that the ordination of women should no longer be considered a theological issue, but rather a pastoral question. Gabrielle Thomas, lecturer in Early Christianity and Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School (USA), looks at her own priesthood and her experiences as a priest of the Anglican Church in light of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus. She understands the priesthood as a gift from God, with obedience to Christ as an important factor.

This book is a comprehensive piece on the issues related to the question of female priesthood in the Orthodox Church. It offers not only an overview of the ongoing discussion but also new insights and ideas. Its contributions make especially clear that

  • there exists a vibrant scholarly conversation as to whether a female priesthood must a priori be excluded from Orthodox theological thinking;
  • the revival of the female diaconate does not necessarily lead to the introduction of female ordination to the priesthood, but it would make the Orthodox better prepared to discuss the issue of female priesthood;
  • the reference to tradition as an argument against the ordination of women has to be reconsidered;
  • the iconic argument against the ordination of women is based on wrong assumptions;
  • Scripture and tradition provide convincing arguments neither against nor for women’s ordination to the priesthood;
  • a way forward might be to look into the pastoral arguments.

Probably the most “revolutionary” contribution in this collection is the article of Salés, trying to show that female ordination is an apostolic tradition. But such work is based largely on presumptions and proceeds on the basis of the traditional understanding of tradition, without reflecting on the notion of “tradition” and its nature. Therefore, in my view the most forward-leading authors in this volume are Kallistos Ware, by pointing to the dynamic nature of tradition, and Paul Ladouceur, by introducing new perspectives.

The book includes also voices of some Anglican and Lutheran theologians, and therefore shows an ecumenical openness which is ready to learn from others. At the same time, it has to be admitted that the authors are all scholars living and teaching in the West. It is urgent to widen the discussion by engaging representatives from traditionally Orthodox countries.

This volume shows that the discussion of women’s ordination to the priesthood in the Orthodox Church is more lively than generally presumed—in any case in non-Orthodox circles. All in all, it is an important and forward-leading contribution to this discourse and it is hoped that it may stimulate further discussions within pan-Orthodoxy.


Dagmar Heller
Program Officer for Orthodoxy
Institute for Ecumenical Studies and Research, Bensheim, Germany