Title: Church of Our Granddaughters, by Carrie Frederick Frost
Published by: Cascade Books (February 19, 2023)
Pages: xv + 114
Dr. Carrie Frederick Frost’s Church of Our Granddaughters welcomes the reader to a vision of what the Orthodox Church might become if it successfully addresses unique challenges women face that are paradoxically caused by the Church and simultaneously at odds with its teachings. The book is partly a response to an unpleasant exchange recounted in the introduction, where a well-meaning, non-Orthodox woman asks the author “How can you stand it?” (1), referring to the absence of female clergy and disenfranchising treatment of women in the Orthodox Church.
Yet, this book is neither an apologetic for Orthodoxy nor a wholescale concession to the ethical commitments animating that question. Rather, Church of Our Granddaughters holds the Orthodox Church accountable for failing to uphold its own teachings regarding women. Accordingly, Frost dismisses the platitude that she is capitulating to contemporary norms. The problem is not that the Orthodox Church is not “feminist” enough; it is not Orthodox enough: “The oppressive structures of the Orthodox Church are oppressive in relation to Orthodox doctrine, not according to any pressures from the secular world” (7, author’s emphasis). Each chapter takes up one of these oppressive structures, challenges it on the basis of Orthodox doctrine, and articulates compelling alternatives.
By Frost’s own admission, chapter one is the headiest, but I found it impressively balanced in accessibility, clarity, and nuance. At issue is the longstanding Orthodox history of speculatively framing sexual difference in terms of a lost protology (beginning) or an anticipated eschatology (end) that can often devalue our current bodies—often to men’s benefit. Rather, Frost proposes that the Church begin from the middle, a concept she calls “incarnational reality” (29). This model bypasses the pitfalls of the alternatives, which can essentialize sexual difference (protology) or jettison its importance entirely (eschatology). Instead, incarnational reality refocuses our attention on the richness of the experiences of gendered individuals now. I found this model refreshing, properly grounded in Scripture and Tradition, and promising for constructive theological projects.
The next three chapters call for the reform or elimination of unfortunately resilient vestigial practices of the Church that uniquely penalize attendant circumstances of female bodies rather than girls’ and women’s deeds. For example, the practice of excommunicating female parishioners during menstruation (chapter two) renders their bodies “unworthy of the Eucharist for a significant portion of their lives” (38). This practice is “indefensible” when directed at girls, who should not be kept from approaching Christ/the Eucharist (Mt 19:13–15), especially when they have not sinned. Equally troubling are the prayers to receive new mothers during the churching ceremony (chapter three), which refer to them as “impure” and “defiled” merely for accomplishing the very thing they are blessed to do in the wedding ceremony (43–45). The result is that: “For many women, childbirth is not all sweetness and light. It can be dislocating, disturbing, humiliating” (50). Impossible contradictions such as these illustrate the Church’s failure to apply its doctrines consistently. The same can be said regarding Orthodoxy’s prayers and practices surrounding miscarriage (chapter four). In response to one of the most viscerally painful events that as many as one in four women might experience, the Church’s response is to conflate this tragedy with abortion and to designate it as involuntary murder (58–60), for which women are excommunicated forty days. And yet, perplexingly, given the murder charges, there is no funeral rite or ecclesiastical means of closure. These practices are “another form of excommunication for women based on circumstance, not sin” (58) that are “focused on assigning guilt rather than providing consolation” (59). One can only imagine the outrage if men were insulted and excommunicated for, say, sneezing or having nocturnal erections. But the point of reform here is not arbitrarily to start penalizing male bodies, but to cease punishing female bodies for functioning as God intended.
Such reform, however, is unlikely without women having a say. Accordingly, chapter five considers minor orders and leadership that women already perform, drawing on the frankly remarkable work of Patricia Fann Bouteneff for Axia Women, as well as other Orthodox scholars and initiatives centered on women’s service and needs (72–75). Frost highlights that women are already functioning in myriad, often unrecognized and underappreciated, diaconal ministries—chaplaincies, administration, church finances, music, scholarship, etc.—and that the Church should not devalue its female members by overlooking these vital functions nor categorically exclude them from the Church’s decision-making processes. As a corrective, the Church should institutionally recognize female parishioners in minor orders that they frequently already perform in deed, if not in name, such as readers, cantors, subdeaconesses, altar servers, homilists, and catechists (81).
The book culminates with Frost’s unequivocal call for restoring the female diaconate, while addressing common objections. For example, citing fear of schism over deaconesses is specious, since the Church is “already in schism over women and their roles in the church” (95, author’s emphasis). Similarly, she addresses the claim that deaconesses are a slippery slope to the priesthood by rightly noting that “our reticence to change means the Orthodox Church will never hastily ordain women to the priesthood” (95). Indeed, in 1,200 years of the existence of deaconesses, not one was elevated to a higher order. More positively, deaconesses’ incarnational reality would enrich the Church’s ministry in many areas, such as broadening the Church’s response to sexual abuse and assault (91). I would add that deaconesses historically also ministered to former sex workers, such as the deaconess Romana in the Life of Saint Pelagia of Antioch. Simply put, deaconesses are scriptural, apostolic, and canonical; their absence is not.
Church of Our Granddaughters is one of the two or three most timely Orthodox books I have read in the past decade. In it, Frost succeeds in being accessible without sacrificing academic thoroughness and nuance. Many contemporary Orthodox Christians can learn valuable lessons from this book, not only in terms of theological, ethical, liturgical, and historical content, but in terms of approach: the book is reconciliatory, not combative, hopeful, not cynical, loving, not authoritarian. However, with the somewhat restricted scope of the book, further questions insinuate themselves that Frost acknowledges but understandably declines to address (18, n. 1). For example, we might ask whether the Church of our granddaughters will recognize that the virtues can be deifying even if they emerge in relationships between our granddaughters or between our grandsons or those, like many ascetics of antiquity, who transcend this binary. On this subject, I would welcome Frost’s further reflections on her concept of “incarnational reality” and its constructive possibilities for Orthodox theological anthropology in the twenty-first century. Further questions beyond gender and sexuality could of course be raised about the Church of our granddaughters; perhaps the fact that Frost has encouraged a retrospectively-minded Church to consider what it rarely does, the pre-eschatological future, will define this book’s future significance.
In sum, Frost has an urgent message that she conveys with the warm but concerned voice of a prophet (perhaps another unacknowledged role women play in the Church). How long, oh Lord, will your daughters be turned away from your holy places, how long your handiwork scorned for being fashioned by your hands? I can offer no greater praise for Frost’s book than concurring with her words in the conclusion: “I hope this book is obsolete by the time of the church of our granddaughters” (97).
Luis Josué Salés
Assistant Professor and Chair of Religious Studies
Department of Religious Studies