Teva: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time for this interview and sharing your thoughts with the readers of the St. Nina Quarterly. You are known in the academic world as an early Church and patristics scholar. Would you please share more of your background with us and tell us how you came to Orthodoxy?
Susan: I was raised in an American Baptist family. My father is a theologian and was a seminary professor for most of the time I was growing up. When I was very young, he had a parish. So I grew up in the Church - in the Protestant Church - but very much in the Church. Besides my father, an uncle and both my grandfathers were also Baptist ministers. I grew up in a home where our religious life was the center of everything that we did. I grew up thinking that being Christian meant that you marched in picket lines for civil rights or against war. I just assumed that being Christian required a certain engagement in moral issues, but I also grew up in a family where reading the Bible together and praying together was something that we did all the time. Our life was filled with the Bible and Church involvement.
T: It sounds like a good foundation.
S: It was wonderful. I grew up surrounded by people talking about how to live in ways that reflected your faith. In college I entered a period of great alienation from institutionalized religion, like I see many of my students doing now. I never lost my faith or doubted my identity as a Christian. But the institutional Church or the problems of the institutional Church became much more vivid in my mind, to the point where I just couldn't imagine being involved in a church community, partly over issues of social justice and a lot over issues about women. Seeing the way in which the Church so much more often enabled oppression rather than undoing it - as I had grown up thinking it should - made it very hard for me to find a place religiously in the world away from my family.
As a junior in college I went to Greece. I had never heard of Orthodoxy - had never seen an icon - had no idea that there was a kind of Christianity like that. The first day I was taken to the Church of Daphne outside of Athens. On the ceiling at Daphne is one of most remarkable Pantocrator mosaics that we have. This was my first encounter with Orthodoxy - this spectacular mosaic ceiling. I felt in some way shaken to the core - I was washed, as if something was just pouring over me - the Holy Spirit - in a way that I didn't have words for but that shook me very deeply. It took me twelve years from that day to walk into an Orthodox Church and say, "Take me, I'm yours." It was a long journey. I think, for me, coming to Orthodoxy has been coming home - not in the sense that something was missing (I certainly was raised with the richness of Christianity) but in terms of really finding the fullness, the wholeness of the Church in a way I never had found it anywhere else.
T: It sounds like an incredible journey. It was not only a mental journey but one that appealed to all of your senses.
S: Absolutely. I remember Bishop Kallistos (Ware) once said that the whole body is involved in the Orthodox liturgy. Before you are even through the door, you are smelling the incense. In prostrating, in venerating icons, in chanting the liturgy and celebrating the Eucharist - your whole person is there. I learned in Protestantism that the whole of your life is there, but worship didn't involve the whole.... Alexander Schmemann once wrote that all of Orthodoxy is in the liturgy - and that is not a statement about the poverty of Orthodoxy but about the endless richness of the liturgy. I never ever get used to the liturgy. It is so powerful to be there - it is food in the most basic sense for me.
T: It is certainly something that can be experienced on many levels.
Much of your work has been on the social history of ancient Christianity-what women did in society, the family, and the perceptions of women. Did societal and cultural norms influence the early Church? If so, in what ways?
S: Christianity was born into a world wholly religious. It was a world in which religion dictated, in the best sense, what your daily life would be. Religion was the way that the family was organized. It was the way that the household, the community, city, and empire were organized. This was true whether you were Jewish or "pagan." Greco-Roman religion was very family-centered. An early Church theologian, Tertullian, preached against mixed marriages on the grounds that a Christian wife couldn't perform the work of a wife if she were married to a non-Christian, because in a Greek or Roman household every action of your day - getting up and stoking the hearth, cooking food, preparing food - everything you did was accompanied by sacrifices and prayers and libations and the burning of incense to the gods. Everything was sacred. There was no "secular" space. So how could you be a Christian wife in a household that wasn't Christian? There was no religiously unattached activity. So Christianity had to establish itself in a world in which everyone was religious, and it had to claim a different way of being religious.
The covering of the head is a good example of this. Some of the rituals that were associated with particular Greek sacred observances or holy days required women to wear their hair unbound and loose. Christian women who wore their hair down could be mistaken for non-Christians who were involved in religious rites and rituals of the civic community. Paul told women to cover their hair for the same reason he told people they shouldn't eat meat. In the first century the only meat available in the marketplace in the city of Corinth was meat obtained from sacrifices. There was no secular meat shop. Paul said that meat should not be eaten because it had been consecrated to a pagan god. It was a similar issue with head coverings: Christian women covered their heads to avoid being perceived as practitioners of Greco-Roman religion.
T: So, is that relevant for us today?
S: Biblical writings and early Church writings were written for people living real lives. They contain abiding and eternal truths, but they also contain guidelines for the cultures in which they were written. One of the hardest tasks for the Church, but one that is incumbent on the Church, is the discernment of the difference between what is its eternal and abiding message and what are concessions to the practical realities of the day. Biblical literature is saturated with the daily reality of its world because that is the world for which it was written.
T: Certain biblical passages regarding women have been cause for debate. Recently, there has been an increased focus on the passage in Ephesians where Paul talks about the "headship of the male." This has been used to explain women's place not only in the family but also in the Church in general. How was this passage interpreted in the early Church?
S: Let me answer this from two directions. The world in which Paul wrote his letter was a world that defined the family in a certain way - legally as well as religiously, whether you were Christian or not. The head of the household (the male) had all the authority in the household - all of the legal power including the power to determine life or death for his wife and his children. Women had no rights - or very, very few rights by law, and also religiously, since there was not a distinction between religious law and civil law at the time Paul wrote. Paul wrote to a situation that was accepted as being "the way things are because that is the way things are" in the world around him. Now how do you speak to that as a Christian? You can try to find a Christian slant on it. One thing going on in the Ephesians passage is an effort to envision the notions of hierarchy, dominance, and submission in terms of a theological correlation: our relationship with God
The other point is that Paul didn't think the world would be around very long. In 1 Corinthians 7 he says, "Stay as you are - slave stay as you are, if you are not married, don't marry, if you are married, don't have children . . . " Paul thought the world was going to end very quickly, so there was no point in trying to change it. In that situation there was a legal system that defined the household in certain terms, and it was necessary to put as Christian a cast on it as possible. Church Fathers (and one might think of Chrysostom in this regard) are actually very consistent in insisting (as Paul did) that there not be a double standard in marriage: that men and women were equal in the eyes of God and therefore equal in marriage, but that marriage was a social institution (like civil government) and it had an order to it. Some Church Fathers were more hierarchical in their way of interpreting the Ephesians passage than others. I think the way the Church has interpreted headship has a great deal to do with allowing custom to prevail over and against what we understand the Gospel to teach (St. Basil the Great actually admitted this): that men and women, created in the image of God, stand equal in the presence of God. In the ancient world - a world without our science, medicine, or technology - the work of the household was the domain of the wife, and the work of the civic, political and economic world was the domain of the husband. They called his responsibilities "headship." That is not the world we live in now. If there is anything to be salvaged of that image [headship] in terms of what it might offer to marriage now, it comes from seeking a theological understanding of how we relate to God or how the Church relates to Christ but as something incumbent equally on both members of an equal partnership.
T: Do you think women's place in society has affected their participation in the Church? If so, how?
S: It is a constant source of amazement to me that in the early Church there were many women saints. They came from all walks of life and they did all kinds of different things. They lived in families. They lived apart from families. They filled many roles within the Church. There were a number who did the kind of work that Mother Teresa has done in Calcutta in terms of setting up and running social systems. They built hospitals and ran them. They built orphanages and ran them. They conducted the affairs of their cities and were acknowledged as doing so. Sometimes they created problems for bishops. People were responsive (in the same way they were responsive to Mother Teresa) to the spiritual authority of women who were clearly acting out of dedication to God and not out of social convention. Now you turn to the condition in the modern Church. It is ironic that women had a greater range of activities in the early Church that were acknowledged as religious vocations than they do now. In this regard it seems we have regressed!
T: This issue of the Quarterly includes your paper, "Women in the Syrian Tradition," where you highlight the great variety of roles women had in the early Church. Can you envision ways in which women may participate similarly today?
S: I think women are doing a lot. Women are singers, chanters, Sunday school teachers, parish council members, parish council presidents, lay representatives to the large [Church] conferences (Archdiocesan meetings, NCC, WCC meetings). Women are serving in all of these capacities but sometimes not easily so. Much depends on the parish that you are in. Some parishes have seen a large, active participation of women, others haven't. I think if you haven't seen it, it becomes an issue of controversy, whereas if you have always (or for a long time) had women in those roles, it doesn't occur to you that they shouldn't be there. One of the things that fills the stories of early women saints is their love of learning and their study of Scripture, saints' lives, and the writings of theologians. Christian convents made women's literacy possible, so that they could say the prayer offices when priests weren't there. To read the lives of the saints they had to learn how to read. In the ancient Mediterranean, only the highest two percent of the population learned to read. But in the convent everyone had to learn how to read and write. There are descriptions from the patristic period of convents where women were sitting up all night debating theology and reading to each other - just reading to each other - knowing their Bible so well. It was often something that bishops or priests would write about with intimidation - these women who knew their Bible better than they.
It is a constant source of grief to me that the love of theological study for its own sake isn't encouraged in Orthodoxy today. You may encourage your son or daughter to study Church history - not to go into the priesthood - but simply because it is a worthy thing to know your Church, your tradition, your theology. Maybe that might lead to a profession.
T: What do you perceive to be some of the most pressing issues or concerns facing women in the Church today?
S: It seems to me that women need to name what they are doing within the Church and have the Church recognize what they are doing - as preachers, teachers - as vocations within the Church; and not simply what we do in the Church community. I'm a professor, and I teach in a secular institution. It was a very difficult decision for me; I thought for many years I should teach in a seminary. My priest for many years, Father Timothy Ferguson, did a great deal to cultivate in me the notion that "what I do is a vocation in the Church." There is a vocation to teaching Church history in a secular context and this is my calling within the Church, my sacrifice, my gift to the Church; this is what I was put here to do as an instrument. I think that what I do is not different or more worthwhile than what anyone else does, but that a vocational understanding of Christian life is something the Church could cultivate for women in ways that would be very important for us. There needs to be the understanding that not simply as Sunday school teachers or choir directors or presidents of parish councils but as social workers, as psychologists, as doctors, as teachers - in many ways, women can find a religious vocation. The Church needs to recognize and affirm the ministry of women, even the ministry that is already being done. This is a very crucial issue for women in the Church.
A renewed treatment of what we understand the ordained hierarchy of the Church to be - the relationship between that hierarchy and the priesthood of all believers - is something that needs to go on. Father John Meyendorff used to say that we couldn't treat the question of the ordination of women without treating the problem of the laity within the Church - that they are not two different issues, they are the same. I think the ordination of women is one of the most pressing issues in front of women - in front of the whole Church - today.
T: Are you referring to the ordination to the diaconate or the priesthood, or both?
S: I'm puzzled that the ordination of women to the diaconate is even a question. The [female] diaconate is in our history. It is canonically part of our history. The Coptic Church right now is showing how lively and vital that ministry can be. I think the question of the ordination to the priesthood is where I would put my sights. It is, of course, my conviction that there will be no ordination of women to the Orthodox priesthood for the next few hundred years. But it is also my conviction that there someday will be. The reason is not because of women and their place in society but because the priesthood is something to which the Holy Spirit calls the individual, and the Holy Spirit calls whom the Holy Spirit will. We cannot tell the Holy Spirit whom to call. Women are called to the priesthood - we know this, we see this. Women leave churches that don't ordain women if they must have that call fulfilled. Women have always had to respond to the call of the Spirit in ways that can be disturbing to society. The stories of women saints are full of such actions.
T: I want to thank you again for taking the time for this interview. Our journal is barely a year old - we are still evolving. Would you share some of your hopes for the future of the Quarterly?
S: I would think it a thrilling thing if its pages should be flooded with letters and reflections and articles by women - women who have studied or simply women who have experienced what it means to them to be Christian, the challenges of leading a Christian life, the challenges of what we teach our children, how we teach our children, what we are trying to do in our lives - that, I think, would be a wonderful thing for the Quarterly. I noticed that you have published a lot of reflections or sermons by women, many of which are generally directed to the Church, not simply on issues of women or questions about women - I think that is a wonderful thing, because I don't think these things can be separated. I would hope that you would continue to have a steady stream of articles that give serious attention to women's history within Orthodox Tradition. I think we need to know our own history - it's not a history easily available, but it should be. Maybe the Quarterly can be an instrument.
T: Thank you again.