Teva: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time for this interview and for sharing your thoughts with the readers of the St. Nina Quarterly. Like many Orthodox Christians, I was first introduced to you through your books, The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. Can you share with us how you came to Orthodoxy?
Bishop Kallistos: I first came to know the Orthodox Church when I was seventeen years old, just before I was due to go to university. My first contact with Orthodoxy was, in fact, not through reading books and not through meeting, face to face, living Orthodox Christians; my first contact came through attending a church service. That, I think, is the best way to be introduced to the Orthodox Church. We shouldn’t see Orthodoxy just as a set of ideas or teachings. We need to see Orthodoxy as a worshiping community—a community of prayer. I first got to know the Orthodox Church one Saturday evening. By chance or by Divine Providence, I went into the Russian church in London (that particular church has long since been pulled down). The vigil service was in progress. From that moment I felt, “This is where I belong,” even though I couldn’t, of course, understand the service because it was all in Slavonic. I knew enough to realize that this must be an Orthodox church, and what impressed me was the feeling at that service of invisible worshippers. …I had a sense of the participation of the heavenly community in our earthly worship. I felt that we were being taken up into an action much larger than ourselves. I felt a unity between heaven and earth, and when I talk to people who are thinking about becoming Orthodox, I speak of that. They should experience Orthodoxy in this way—a worshiping community in which there is no division between earth and heaven.
T.: One of the things I love about the Church is the transcendence of time and space.
B.K.: It was what the Russian emissaries of Prince Vladimir felt when they went to Constantinople in the story told in the Russian Primary Chronicle. I had not read that story at that time. When I read it much later, I was filled with amazement, “That was my experience!”
T.: It sounds like a profound liturgical experience—wonderful.
As you know, 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. What do you think some of the most pressing issues are concerning women in the Church today?
B.K.: (Pause) Let me first go back to something more fundamental. If we are to speak of problems that are distinctive to women, we have to ask, “What kind of a difference is there between men and women in the Church?” And here, surely, we have to emphasize two things. The first is the common humanity that we all share. There is not one spirituality for women and another for men. There is simply a single spiritual path for all the baptized. Every human being is unique, we are all different, and yet we all share one common humanity. That is one side that we have to look at—the fact that each of us is different but we are all humans. But then there is the second thing that we have to say, that though we share a common humanity, though each one of us is unique and realizes that humanity in his/her own way, yet there are certain distinctions to be made between men and women. This is an area to which the Orthodox have not given a great deal of thought until now. We have many things that are implicit in our tradition but we haven’t brought them into the open. How do we understand the difference between men and women—theologically, spiritually, practically? In principle there are two answers that we might give. The first would be to limit the difference to the begetting of children, but that otherwise men and women are basically the same. The second approach would be that…there are much more profound differences. …I suppose that very many Orthodox today opt for the first view, and they are extremely reserved in discussing a specific ministry for women, specific gifts of women, specific spirituality of women. All this is viewed with a certain skepticism. I have moved over, however, to the second position. It does seem to me that while, yes, we have to stress our common humanity, yet there are profound differences between men and women as persons in the way they apprehend the world and their relationship with God. It is very difficult to describe this without lapsing into clichés and stereotypes. But, before we can speak of what specific problems face women in the Church, we have to look at this much wider question: What, as Orthodox, is our theology of the distinction between man and woman within our shared humanity? I’m not sure that a great deal has been done on this so far…
T.: In Christian anthropological terms can you describe, in brief, what it means to be a human person from an Orthodox point of view?
B.K.: The most important thing about being human is that we are in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, central to any understanding into what it means to be human is an understanding of our relationship to God. We first need to ask, “Who is God?” That would then take us to the question: Though men and women within the Orthodox Church share a single faith in God, do they understand that faith in different ways, not contradictory but nonetheless, different? It is possible that they do; we need to think about this. To come to the query you posed to me, “What are the special problems that women face in the Church?” Certainly a number of the Orthodox women I speak to feel excluded. They feel that their gifts and talents are not sufficiently recognized by the Church. They feel that doors are closed to them. Is this actually the case? How can we make it clear to Orthodox women that they are needed in the Church, and not needed simply to make cups of tea and to clean the sanctuary? That would be bound up with my earlier question, “What are the distinctive gifts of women?”
T.: The Church in the world in which we live (that gives rise to some of these feelings of which these women speak) has always been, at least in part, a product of the culture in which it finds itself. What do you think the effect of the cultural understanding of the roles of women have had in women’s participation in the Church?
B.K.: What you say is very true—clearly cultural patterns have a great influence. Until very recently, in almost all the Orthodox countries, the prevailing pattern was that the woman’s place was in the home. She had her liturgy in the home—she lit her lamp before the icon, she offered incense before the icon—the domestic liturgy. Her work was to be at home—look after the children, cook meals, greet the man when he returned. As we know very well, this is no longer the pattern today, and in secular society, women have professional jobs just as men. Therefore, that is bound to have an effect on the Church. We are not simply to copy modern secular society, but nonetheless, we have inevitably moved away from the traditional patterns of agricultural societies. There is no going back. To give a specific example from the world in which I work; In the past in universities and theological schools, both in the Orthodox world and in the West, very few women studied theology. Now there has been a striking change. In Greece, for example, theological schools are full of women, and what are they going to do when they have completed their studies? Many of them will go on to teach religion at the state schools where there is religious education. But how is the Church going to use them, and will they be given roles as teachers in the pastoral ministry of the Church? I hope they will. That is something we might think about. All these women who go with enthusiasm to study theology, are they going to be disappointed by finding that the Church authorities say to them that we really don’t need you? Surely that is not good enough.
T.: Many women now serve as readers, chanters, church musicians, and yet they are not blessed to do so. Should the Church formally bless them to fill those liturgical functions?
B.K.: In my view, yes. First of all, we should try to go ahead with the revival of the order of deaconess. That has been discussed for many years. Some people were already discussing it at the beginning of this century in the Orthodox world. Nothing has yet been done. The order of deaconess was never abolished, it merely fell into disuse. Should we not revive it? If we do, what are to be the functions of deaconesses? They should not necessarily, in the twentieth or twenty-first century, be doing exactly what they were doing in the third or fourth century. The order may be the same, yet shouldn’t we rethink the functions that the deaconess might have? On my understanding of the evidence, they were regarded as ordained persons on an equal footing as the male deacons. (There is some dispute in the Orthodox world about that, but my reading of the evidence is quite clear—that they have not just a blessing but an ordination). Let us go beyond that, however. The minor order of reader, cannot that be conferred on women? It wasn’t done in the early Church (as far as I know), but why shouldn’t women now be admitted as readers because, as you say, that is what they are doing. In the early Church that was not so except in the women’s monasteries. Those are two, as I understand it, fairly noncontroversial possibilities.
T.: Many young women are first excluded from serving in the Church (in this country) as altar servers. It seems as though the only criterion for altar servers is that they be male (boys).
B.K.: The same situation exists in Britain. The only situation (to my knowledge) where women serve and stand inside the altar is within women’s monasteries, and therefore they are professed nuns. That is something we might rethink. We might ask ourselves, “What is the reason behind the rule that during baptism [churching] the male child is brought into the sanctuary but in the case of a female child, you stop outside the iconostasis?” I know there are many priests who disregard this rule today, although I myself observe it. However, before we set this rule aside, we need to ask, “What is the meaning of this rule? Why does it exist?” I am not very clear myself.
T.: It seems as though the Church inherited some Jewish practices that were prevalent in the Church’s early years. Is the way we church infants one of those?
B.K.: That is certainly part of the background of churching. Another factor is the way in which we understand original sin. How do we interpret Psalm 50, ‘In sin did my mother conceive me.’ The service of churching—the prayers to be said on the fortieth day as they now exist—are perhaps quite troubling. It might be a good idea for a pan-Orthodox gathering. Since we are concerned with a liturgical service it should be bishops who look at this (with input from other people). But we should ask, “What is the meaning of these services and are they appropriate?” That is a question which young Orthodox mothers today—certainly among the English-speaking members of our community here at Oxford—are beginning to ask more and more. If the service is the thanksgiving of the woman for the birth of her child which she now brings to offer to God—that is quite straightforward. But there are a lot of things in the prayers for the fortieth day which are not just thanksgiving and which speak of the need for purification. Why does the woman need to be purified more than the man after the birth of a child? That is a question I would like to see our theologians answer.
T.: Women’s menstruation was/is thought of as being unclean. I wonder if that is one of those things that is more culturally than divinely inspired.
B.K.: I too wonder about that. The rule, as we know, is ancient. It goes back before the period of the conversion of Constantine. It is already found in third-century sources and in letters which have been put into our canonical collections and which have been ratified by ecumenical councils. Although by adopting these sources, the ecumenical councils didn’t say anything directly about women’s menstruation as being something that is unclean. However, we do not regard the canons, even of ecumenical councils, as unchanging. It is only their dogmatic decrees that have eternal validity. Is there a doctrinal basis for these rules about menstruation?
T.: Holy Tradition plays an important role in the teaching of our Church. Can you elaborate on your understanding of what Tradition is and what it is not, and how it may apply to women’s participation in the Church?
B.K.: The best definition I know of Holy Tradition is that given by Vladimir Lossky: “Holy Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” In that definition, let us notice particularly the word, life. Holy Tradition is not simply definitions that are written down, fixed and irrevocable. Holy Tradition is something alive—it is not simply mechanical acceptance of things from the past; it is listening to the Holy Spirit in the present. Lossky even says that “Tradition represents the critical spirit of the Church.” All right then, in full loyalty to Tradition, let us adopt a critical position over such rules as women not being allowed to receive communion during their monthly periods and against the rules that girls are not to be brought into the sanctuary at churching. Let us be critical of this and say, “Why do these rules exist?” If there is no good reason, we should change them. I am well aware that in very many parts of the Orthodox Church in the West, the rule about not having communion in times of menstruation is no longer observed and that many priests would themselves say that this rule may be ignored. It is not just that women are disregarding it on their own initiative, but they do so with a blessing. But if this is so, then we ought to say openly and officially that this rule does not apply.
T.: This issue of the Quarterly includes your sermon “An Icon of Human Freedom,” in which you explain how Mary, the Theotokos, is an icon for all humanity—both women and men. Can you say a few words about how Christ is an icon for all humanity?
B.K.: (Pause) Yes, indeed, Christ is an icon for all of us. Christ is a double icon because He is both the icon of the invisible Father and at the same time He is an icon of our humanity. That is the essential thing about the Incarnation—that Christ became human. The Fathers scarcely ever discuss His maleness. They emphasize all the time His essential humanity. The maleness didn’t, for them, have a primary significance. What are we to see in Christ? We are to see all aspects of our humanity—it is difficult to single out any one aspect. What moves me most of all in Christ is His gentleness and His compassion. When I was having an icon of Christ painted for my own private chapel, I chose to have written on the book of the Gospel He was holding the words, “Come unto Me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart.” That has always been a text that has meant a great deal to me.
T.: I love the way Handel set those words in the Messiah. It is one of my favorite arias.
B.K.: Yes. I think of how again and again when people came to Him, He did not condemn them, but He gave them new hope. With the woman taken in adultery—He said, “Neither do I condemn you,” although He also said, “Go and sin no more.” I think of how after His Resurrection, when Peter came back after his threefold denial, He didn’t rebuke Peter for the denial but He did say to him three times, “Do you love me?” Peter, by denying Christ, had destroyed relationship—Christ, by asking three times if Peter loved Him, was reaffirming relationship. If Judas, instead of going out and hanging himself, had come back to Christ, would not Christ have accepted Judas as well? So, this—the wideness of Christ’s mercy—is the thing that moves me most of all. If we could be Christ-like in this way, that would make the world a more joyful place.
T.: Do you think that women in Europe and the Middle East face different issues from those in North America?
B.K.: I would make a distinction between Western Europe and the Middle East. It seems to me in Western Europe, the issues that women face are very similar to the ones faced by women in North America…the questions that are being asked here [in the U.S.] are also going to be asked in Europe if they are not already being asked. When I speak of Europe, I think of Greece as part of Europe. I don’t know so well the former communist countries in Eastern Europe. After seventy or forty years of communism, obviously they have a different immediate past experience. It would seem, however, that things are going to change there so that the differences will not be so great. Surely all over Europe, and also in America, there is the same basic situation which poses a question to the Church. Women now in all spheres of life are doing work alongside men… What about the Church? Here, too, women are asking to be given a share, and they are right to ask for that. If there are certain things within the Church that women cannot do, we must give a reason—not just say it has always been so and it will always be so. We must give a reason.
T.: I want to thank you again for taking the time to share some of your thoughts with us and, finally I want to ask, what are your hopes for the St. Nina Quarterly?
B.K.: I hope that in all the questions that you discuss, you will try to relate them to the life of prayer—to the worshiping experience of the Church. Fr. Georges Florovsky said, “Christianity is a liturgical religion—worship comes first, doctrine and moral rules come later.” Whatever the subject you are discussing, bring it back to the life of prayer, and show how it grows out of our prayer and worship, and how it leads us back to prayer. I would like to see—in the broadest sense of the word liturgical—a liturgical spirit running through the publication.