Bringing Together a Community

The St. Nina Quarterly

Bringing Together a Community of Orthodox Christian Women

Teva Regule

This article was published in the Ecumenical Review, Volume 53, No. 1, January 2000. The Ecumenical Review is a publication of the World Council of Churches. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

As Orthodox Christians we believe that human beings, men and women, are created in the image and likeness of God. Because we also believe in the Trinity, a divine community of Persons, we believe that in order to be truly human, we must be community. As Sister Nonna Harrison states in her article, The Holy Trinity as a Model for Human Community,

...to be made in the image of God is to be made in the image of the Holy Trinity; like the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, human beings are persons. This means that we are free and are able to know and love others, but it also means that our belonging to the community of humankind, our relatedness to other people, is at the very root of who we are.1

This provides a model for the ideal human community, in which people are united by mutual love, they work together in harmonious consensus, and the equality and dignity of each person is respected.2

What a beautiful and life-giving understanding of the human community and our part in it! Throughout history many women have played an important role in helping to build and sustain the Christian community: the Virgin Mary who gave birth to Jesus the Christ; the myrrhbearing women of the Gospels who were the first disciples to witness to the risen Christ; and the many women saints who, throughout the ages, have used their gifts to proclaim the "Good News" to the world.

We have a rich history of women's participation in the community of the Church. Unfortunately, much of this history is not known to many Orthodox Christian women and men. Of course we worship the Trinitarian God in the Divine Liturgy, but the God of "inter-relationship and shared love"3 is sometimes hidden by practices that are more reflective of cultural biases and outdated understandings of women's participation in that shared love, than of the genuine theology of the Church. As Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, a well-known French Orthodox theologian, has written about the reality of the Church today,

Here is juxtaposed and joined the liberating message of the Gospel and archaic taboos, a theological anthropology both spiritual and personal, and the misogynistic stereotypes inherited from patriarchal societies.4

This has led many women who truly love God and His Church to a sense of isolation and loss of connection with the Church. As one of the readers of the Quarterly wrote,

I thought I was the only person who felt as I did, felt a piece of myself, of my faith missing in the Orthodox Church. To know there are others who feel the same, but are also doing something to find those missing pieces, the history that was never told to us as young women growing up in the Church. . . . [Letters, vol. 1 no. 3]

This sense of isolation and loss is hard to quantify precisely because so often it is experienced in isolation. In discussions with friends I have met through my work in the Church, many of us admitted that, although we love Christ and His Church, we sometimes experienced a similar sense of frustration and even loss. We agreed that we needed a vehicle that would enable us to share our thoughts and feelings as women in the Church, to study the faith, and ultimately to find our salvation within the Church as members of the community of believers. There were others who did not necessarily share our feelings of frustration or loss, but who thought that a journal focusing on women in the Orthodox Church was needed. It was at that time that the first seeds of what was to become the St. Nina Quarterly were planted.

Here is juxtaposed and joined the liberating message of the Gospel
and archaic taboos,
a theological anthropology both spiritual and personal, and the misogynistic stereotypes inherited from patriarchal societies.
Elisabeth Behr-Sigel

We started as a small group of women who, through friendship and a growing women's network, had found one another. Some had known each other for years and others were meeting for the first time. Many of us had studied at seminary and had earned advanced degrees in theology. However, few were working in the Church in a capacity for which they were trained. Also, we soon discovered that, because the Orthodox Church in North America is grouped primarily along ethnic lines, our contact and communication with one another had been limited at best. Therefore, the journal would not only need to explore the ministry of women in the Church, but would also need to include the experiences of all Orthodox women, regardless of ethnic group or jurisdiction. We sought the assistance of several well-respected Orthodox theologians, both women and men, of various dioceses and jurisdictions. They eventually became our honorary advisory board. So, with a sense of mission, hope, and admittedly, little money, the St. Nina Quarterly was born.

St. Nina (late third century) is known as the Enlightener of the Georgians. Because of the extent and nature of her missionary work, the Church has given her the title, Equal to the Apostles. We chose her as our patron and namesake because of the example she set in heeding the call to preach the Gospel.

Selecting a patron saint proved to be much easier than defining and describing our mission. Although the task of explaining our purpose fully, yet succinctly, seemed daunting at first, after many rewrites we were able to put down in words our beliefs and mission for the journal:

The St. Nina Quarterly is a publication dedicated to exploring the ministry of women in the Orthodox Church and to cultivating a deeper understanding of ministry in the lives of all Orthodox Christian women and men. We profess firm faith in our Church's teaching that each of us is created in the image of God and called to grow into His likeness. We believe that all persons are endowed with gifts of the Holy Spirit in ways that uniquely express the fullness of their humanity and contribute to the fullness of the entire community of believers.

Our mission is the discovery and cultivation of these gifts for the nurturance of the entire Body of Christ. To this end, we will strive to educate, inform, and provide space for an ongoing, creative dialogue aimed at reaching across all boundaries to support and encourage the growth and vitality of the God-given ministries of all of our sisters and brothers in Christ.

From our first issue to the most recent, we have received responses from women and men that are full of joy and anticipation. For example, one reader wrote,

I feel as if a new day has dawned. Your publication is such a new and exciting and much needed concept: bringing Orthodox women together so that we could all pursue the "discovery and cultivation of [our] gifts for the nurturance of the entire Body of Christ.' Having the opportunity to read pieces written by and for faithful, committed, thinking, searching, Orthodox women gives me hope and much needed strength and support in my own life as an Orthodox women. [Letters, vol.1, no. 2]

It is also fair to say that the journal was met with a bit of skepticism as well, especially at the beginning. But as each issue has been published, more and more we are regarded, as one reader wrote, "one of the most thoughtful publications in the Orthodox world."

We build each issue around a theme and focus on ideas and subjects specifically of interest to Orthodox women as well as to the Church at large. Some of the themes of past issues have been: Women in the Church, Past, Present, and Future; Women in the Early Church; Women in the Church as a Reflection of Society; Mary as an Icon for all Humanity; Women and the Creation Stories; Language and Imagery in the Church; A Tribute to Our Foremothers; Our Faith and Body and Mind; and Our Faith and Our Praxis. In each issue we have attempted to increase our awareness of our roles as persons made in the image and likeness of God, within the entire community of believers.

Many of our readers, women and men, have begun to find a sense of community with one another through the Quarterly. Although our readership is based in North America, we have readers in countries throughout the world. Women living in the traditionally Orthodox countries of the former Soviet bloc can now study their faith more freely and read about their Orthodox Christian sisters in the west. By learning about women in our history and by looking at our theology, especially at it relates to our practice, we hope that those who have felt isolated from the community of believers can reconnect; that those who are physically isolated by distance have found kindred spirits with whom they can correspond; and that all of us, learning from one another, have found a community of interrelationship and shared love.

This fall, the St. Nina Quarterly (with support from the Council of Eastern Orthodox Churches of Central Massachusetts) sponsored our first conference entitled, "Gifts of the Spirit." This was the first time that Orthodox Christian women (and some men) gathered in the New England region to explore the ministry of women in the Church. The gathering offered an opportunity to meet other Orthodox Christian women, exchange our experiences and ideas of ministry within the Church, grow in our understanding of ministry, and further explore the various ministries of women in the Church.

It was a tremendous success! Although originally envisioned as a regional event, the conference attracted women from all over the United States. They came from many different ethnic jurisdictions and parishes, ranged in age from teenagers to women in their eighties (we had quite a few mother-daughter pairs). Some had graduate degrees in theology, some were faithful women in their parishes who had never studied theology formally. We were a diverse group, but we all gathered as one in Christ. We formed new friendships and renewed old ones. We shared experiences and feelings. We discussed and debated theology. We lived, shared, and exalted in the gifts and ministries of women in the Church. It was an exhilarating experience for many of the participants.

When I think back at our first planning meeting that took place many months prior to the conference, it would have been hard to believe that we could come together as one community. On that late spring night, in addition to the local editorial board members, we assembled ten other women from the various Orthodox ethnic jurisdictions in North America to help form the planning committee. Although we all lived within close proximity of one another, many of us had never met. As we discussed our ideas for a conference, it became clear that we were not communicating with one another even though we shared a common faith. Over the months, as we grew to know one another, started sharing our experiences, and found that indeed we were members of the same communion of believers, a consensus of purpose and unity of spirit emerged. We hope to be able to build on our experience by sponsoring other events and conferences for Orthodox Christian women in the future. We have already received inquiries about replicating this past conference in three other major metropolitan areas in the United States.

With the glow of the conference still with us, we turn our attention back to publishing the issues of The St. Nina Quarterly with a renewed spirit and common purpose. Our experience and our understanding of Church continue to grow. Our celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the conference was, as one participant said,

It was the most beautiful, peaceful, prayerful, uplifting Liturgy that I had ever attended. It was wonderful to pray where so many women were using their gifts for the glory of God, iconographers, chanters, readers, homilists. . . .

Truly, as we proclaim in the motto of the Quarterly, "To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the Common good." [1 Corinthians 12:7]

Notes.

1. Sister Nonna Harrison, "The Holy Trinity as a Model for Human Community," The St. Nina Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 3, 1999, p. 1.

2. Ibid., p. 1.

3. Kallistos of Diokleia, "The human person as an icon of the Trinity," Sobornost 8 (1986) 6-23, 17-18.

4. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, "Women in the Orthodox Church," The St. Nina Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 2, 1998, p. 1.