Recently the OCA issued a statement regarding the liturgical service of girls in the altar.

The text below was originally sent as an email to members. The main response was submitted to the OCA for publication in their newspaper. It was not published. Since there did/does not seem to be any formal mechanism to let the hierarchy know the thoughts and feelings of those in their flock, we have collected a number of responses to this policy that are included. (We had asked for anonymous submissions but some people included their names so they were included in the composite response. In general, they have not been edited.) They represent the thoughts and in some cases, frustrations of many regarding this issue.

Introduction

Dear Friends,

The Women's Orthodox Ministries and Education Network (WOMEN) and the St. Nina Quarterly are both 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. You are receiving this email because you are on our email list.

Although the Orthodox Church's theology of God and our relationship to Him is life-giving, there are times when certain practices in the Church fail to reflect this life-giving theology. For many women and girls this is most evident within the liturgical assembly. One area that has been particularly painful to many girls and women is the practice of only allowing males to serve at the altar. Although many bishops, priests, and lay theologians admit that there is no good theological reason for such a practice (women have served in the past as female deacons and altar servers in Russia and elsewhere), it persists. (How many parents have had this conversation with their daughters who wonder why their brothers are allowed to serve and they are not?) Within the past few years, a small number of parishes have taken tentative steps to include girls as altar servers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this has been a welcome development in those settings. Unfortunately, the bishops in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) have just put out a statement forbidding the practice of allowing any females to serve within the altar. (See statement below.) Many of us are disappointed by this reaction and feel that the decision is overly broad and does not allow for the work of the Holy Spirit within communities that have already or may accept this practice. We have collected a number of responses. They are below.

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The Statement

October, 2004

An Altar GirlAn Altar Girl

To the Reverend Clergy, Monastics, and Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America,

Recently, questions have arisen on numerous internet forums concerning the position of the Orthodox Church in America [OCA] with regard to those who serve in the Holy Altar in parishes. The questions and ensuing controversy arose as a result of photographs appearing in two parish web sites depicting robed girls performing duties traditionally delegated to males. This has led to a great deal of confusion and discussion as to the policy of the Orthodox Church in America [OCA] in this regard.

In their concern for maintaining the integrity of the Church and its traditions, the Holy Synod of the Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America [OCA], meeting at Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, October 18-21, 2004, reaffirms the ancient practice of the Orthodox Church that only males are to be admitted to service within the holy altar. Any practice to the contrary in this regard is strictly forbidden.

While reaffirming the Orthodox Church's practice concerning sacred ministers and others called to serve within and care for the holy altar, the Holy Synod of Bishops also wishes to encourage all Orthodox Christians to offer their services to Christ's Holy Church, in keeping with their baptismal vocation.

Thanking you for your generous and devoted service to the Church,

I remain
In Christ,

Protopresbyter Robert S. Kondratick, Chancellor
Orthodox Church in America [OCA]

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Response submitted to the OCA for publication in their paper.

Response to the recent statement regarding the practice of altar service with parishes in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).

March, 2005

I would like to respond to the statement issued by the Holy Synod at their October 2004 meeting at St. Tikhon's Monastery regarding who can serve within the Holy Altar in the parishes of the OCA. I am extremely disappointed with this statement as reported. For many people, both clergy and laity, this is arguably one of the most important liturgical practice and pastoral issues of our day, especially as it affects not only young girls and women, but also the Church at large. It is certainly an issue that needs further reflection. How we approach the issue has repercussions for how we understand our theology (our understanding of and relationship with God) and our ecclesiology (our relationship with one another as Church). In an effort to maintain the "integrity of the Church and its traditions," the statement appealed to the "ancient practice" of the Church that "only males are to be admitted to service within the holy altar." However, if we look closely at the ancient practice of the Church, the criterion for altar service or even entry into the altar area was, according to Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas, Professor Emeritus of Liturgical Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, that they be members of the clergy - specifically, the higher clergy, and not that they necessarily be male. According to Professor Evangelos Theodorou and Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, author of Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, this would also have included females, specifically female deacons. I quote from Dr. FitzGerald's article, "Orthodox Women and Pastoral Praxis" in Orthodox Perspectives on Pastoral Praxis:

According to Byzantine liturgical texts, the ordination of the woman deacon occurred as any other ordination to major orders. It took place during the celebration of the Eucharist and at the same point in the service that the male deacon was ordained. She was ordained at the altar by the bishop, and later in the service received Holy Communion at the altar with the other clergy... (p. 110)

And from her book, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church:

After she has finished communing, the bishop hands to her the holy chalice which she accepts and replaces upon the altar by herself. (p. 79)

Although the full extent of the female deacon's service within the altar area in the Byzantine tradition remains a matter of debate, her service within the ancient Syriac tradition is clearer. According to a report on the diaconate at the June 2003 consultation at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, in the ancient Syriac Church the deaconness "poured the wine and water into the chalice [and, in addition] read the Gospel in gatherings of women, placed the incense, washed the sacred vessels, and lit the candles..." (p. 3)

In addition to the higher orders of clergy, others - both male and female - have served within the altar throughout the history and life of the Church. These include those in the so-called "minor orders" (including female subdeacons in most of Syria in the 5th and 6th centuries - Ecclesiastical Canons Bk. VIII), as well as others who were blessed to do so. The latter category includes nuns in women's monasteries, women in Russia (almost ubiquitously prior to the fall of communism), as well as women and girls in isolated parishes throughout England, France, and the United States, not to mention almost all the young boys who serve in our parishes today. According to our liturgical theology, anyone who has a liturgical reason for being in the altar area and is blessed to do so may enter. There is no one particular time in history of the Church that can be absolutized in regards to the "traditions" of the Church, including women's participation in altar service. When we try to do so, we deny the work of the Holy Spirit within the living Tradition of the Church. It becomes a type of fundamentalism or traditionalism that Fr. John Meyendorff calls in his book, Living Tradition, a misunderstanding of the Holy Tradition of the Church.

The one Holy Tradition, which constitutes the self-identity of the Church through the ages and is the organic and visible expression of the life of the Spirit in the Church, is not to be confused with the inevitable, often creative and positive, sometimes sinful, and always relative accumulation of human traditions in the historical Church (p. 21)

Are there, in fact, any good theological reasons for denying girls the opportunity to serve? Although many "reasons" may be given, many theologians including Dr. Lewis Patsavos, Professor of Canon Law at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology; Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis, Professor of Dogmatic Theology and Dean of the school; and Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas, Professor Emeritus of Liturgical Theology, say that there are no good theological reasons for doing so and that allowing females to serve is consistent with the living Tradition of our Church. Moreover, at an Oct. 2004 symposium on anthropology in Irvine, Ca., Fr. Thomas Hopko, former Dean and Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir's Seminary, Dr. Sister Nonna Harrison, and Dr. Valerie Karras, three Orthodox theologians with differing views on the role of women in the Church, all agreed that there was no theological reason not to allow females to serve within the altar area.

According to the statement, it is the concern for "maintaining the integrity of the Church and its traditions" that has led to this new policy. We rely on our bishops to maintain the integrity of the Church. We also rely on them to teach and be pastors of the flock. They are the focal point of our unity in Christ. It is true that some in the Church may be "scandalized" if we allow girls and women to serve within the altar, and the bishops are rightly concerned with maintaining the harmony of the Church. (Although I would ask, what specifically is so "scandalizing" about a young girl holding a candle or bringing water to the priest?) However, it is also true that many others are "scandalized" by the status quo.

In general, altar service is simple and functional. Yet we go to a great deal of trouble to disallow the service of girls and women. Why should girls/women be allowed to participate in the ministry of altar service? Can the Body of Christ be built up by allowing their participation in this ministry? As one who has spent a great part of her adult life studying and contemplating this issue and who has a great interest in liturgical theology, I offer four immediate reasons:

1) The liturgical services of our Church are filled with opportunities to learn about God and grow closer to Him. Serving within the altar can give us an important opportunity to shape this relationship in a positive manner. Serving can increase our understanding of and connection to a celebration that is done for and with all believers but one in which many of the liturgical actions are rarely, if ever, seen or experienced by those of us in the congregation. By not allowing females the opportunity to serve, we are depriving them of an important catechetical opportunity. This was made abundantly clear to me during one of my liturgics classes. As someone who put a great deal of effort into the class, I was always surprised at the little things that the men seemed to know, but of which I was totally unaware. It is important for everyone to read about the liturgy and to participate as a member of the congregation. But we can get a richer and deeper understanding of the service when we are able to observe and participate within the altar area.

In my opinion, the policy of only allowing males to serve also has an adverse educational effect on them as well. While many of them should be offering their gifts in other capacities and learning from those experiences (e.g. the choir), they are encouraged only to serve within the altar, limiting other educational opportunities.

2) Not allowing girls and women the opportunity to serve can have an adverse effect on their spiritual lives. This is especially true of girls who want to serve and are told that they are not allowed. Not only do they miss an intimate connection with the liturgy, but they are told that the gifts they offer are not welcome. In as much as the Church can be the community within which we experience God, this rejection, which can be quite painful, may become an impediment to the growth of that relationship. Their experience of the liturgy - the most intimate connection with God in this life - then becomes less than the ideal.

3) We do damage to the integrity of the Church. By disallowing the service of girls and women within the altar, we fail to live up to the life-giving theology of our Church, especially the anthropology of the Great Cappodocian Fathers. We are all made in the image of God and called to grow into His likeness - theosis. We do this within the community of the Church, which is the risen Body of Christ. Furthermore, we are all called to build up this Body and are given gifts in order to do so. As it says in 1 Cor. 12:7, "to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." Our baptismal vocation should not be gender-determined. While no one has a "right" to altar service, no one should be denied the opportunity to serve merely because of their gender. By not aligning our liturgical practice with our theology, we risk establishing a "gender determinism" to altar service that is not only devoid of such necessary criteria as ethical and moral considerations, but which inhibits our ability to build up the Body of Christ. Many theologians admit there are no good theological reasons for not allowing girls the opportunity to serve. Yet we remain either unable or afraid to act. It is as if the Body of Christ is paralyzed. A living and healthy Church welcomes all the gifts of its members. I want to be clear, I am not talking about the ordained presbytery or episcopacy. I am only addressing the issue of altar service for which we have a history of both male and female participation.

4) The last reason that I will offer in the context of this letter is that, instead of inculcating a sense of service, limiting altar service to males can give them a false sense of entitlement that is antithetical to the Gospel message of humility and love in service to Christ and His Church.

Another meaning of "integrity" is "completeness." In concern for the "completeness of the Church and its traditions" on this issue, I urge our bishops to examine the issue in greater detail. What is the experience of those parishes that have had girl/women altar servers? Has it been accepted within that community? Anecdotal evidence suggests that it was a welcome development in those communities. Depending on local circumstances and at the discretion of the local priest and with the permission of the bishop, there should be room for a variety of practices in altar service without disrupting the integrity of the Church.

I conclude by quoting Rev. Dr. Konodothra M. George on the strength of Tradition and its manifestation in our practice, "The real strength of tradition should be its transparent openness to the power of the Holy Spirit who always guides us into an ever-renewed vision of the Truth." Let us be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in the livingTradition of the Church.

In Christ,

Teva Regule, M.Div. Candidate
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
Member, Holy Cross Orthodox Church, Hermitage, PA (OCA)

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Additional Responses (Signed and Anonymous):

For most of my life I thought that the possibility of having female altar servers would never be a reality. Although I always wanted to serve in the altar when I was growing up, I knew that there were just some things that girls weren't allowed to do, like playing in Little League and wearing pants to school. There were never any good reasons for not letting girls in - it was just the way it was.

However, girls today have had quite a different experience. They expect to be given the same opportunities that boys are given. When they are not given those opportunities, simply because they are girls, they know that they can do something to make it change. In my first grade classroom we often have discussions about unfair rules and the ways that we can make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. Boys and girls recognize when someone is not being treated fairly because of what they look like or who they are.

I have heard many clergymen (deacons, priests, and bishops) admit that there are no good theological reasons that girls and women cannot serve in the altar, yet I continue to see girls and women categorically excluded from serving. I continue to hear some of the same reasons that I heard when I was a girl - a boy may be a priest some day, a woman may be menstruating, or simply no reason, only that females are not allowed in the altar. Most have given up those reasons and now turn their attention to the fear of scandal and of the chaos that would take over if girls and women were allowed in the altar because the people are not ready for it.

But the people in many parishes are ready for it. In fact, I would suggest that the exclusion of women and girls from serving in the altar has now itself become a scandal. At the time when society at large blatantly discriminated against women and girls, it didn't seem unusual that the Church would exclude them from service in the altar. That was a place for men and boys. Women and girls had no business being there. But now that society has recognized that there are no good reasons to deny women and girls the same opportunities given to men and boys, the Church's apparent refusal to live up her own life-giving theology by denying women and girls access to the altar when her leaders have admitted that there are no good theological reasons for doing so, has become a scandal. Whether it is out of fear or sexism or simple inertia, it has become a scandal.

We all know the story out of Soviet Russia, when the churchgoers were asked who would be in church once the old babas died and the reply was that there would be new babas. My fear for the Church is that we will not have any new babas tomorrow if the girls and young women of today continue to be excluded.

If there is no good reason that a girl should not be able to serve and she has the desire to do so, then let her do it. If there is not good reason why a woman should not be able to hold a candle or hand a censor to the priest, or cut the bread, then let her do it. I pray that the beautiful, life-giving theology of our Church will be manifested in the way we treat all of her people, men and women, boys and girls, not simply because they have the right, but because it is the right thing to do.

Bonnie Michal
Graduate, St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary, 1986

 

The bishops of course understand that being true to Tradition can sometimes mean changing, growing, and adapting rather than clinging to Tradition to the extent that it becomes an idol. They will also recognize that numerous changes in the function of women in the services have already happened quietly in the last few decades with no particular decisions being made to allow or forbid them, but simply as expression of the dynamic life of the body of Christ - I'm thinking particularly of the fact that women very often read in the services, where that was uncommon a number of years back, and in places even unheard of. That is a practice that may also, fifty years ago, have created some confusion and discord, but that is now quite accepted.

Beyond that, the exclusion of women from altar service will solidify the disappointment felt by so many girls who out of love of God want to serve in the altar but find themselves forbidden. In today's world the appeal to the fact that it has always be done that way is an unacceptable answer for girls (and women, men, and boys), as it should be, and it is an answer that I believe will, tragically, end up driving even more of us away from the Church.

I urge the bishops to prayerfully reconsider this decision.

Dave O'Neal
M.A. SVS 1986

 

I am deeply saddened by the recent statement on the service of girls in the altar which appeared on the OCA website. The confusion regarding the policy of the OCA has led to a confused statement. The current statement relies on "the ancient practice of the Orthodox Church that only males are to be admitted to service within the holy altar." Yet it is not at all clear that this is the ancient practice of the Church. The existence of the female diaconate, who were ordained with the same rite as the male diaconate, and who received communion with fellow clergy indicates, at the very least, the presence of women in the altar during liturgical service. More significant is the fact that this is a conversation about altar boys and altar girls. It is correct to say that there is no ancient practice of altar girls. Of course, there is also no ancient practice of altar boys. This is a relatively recent "innovation," one which has been welcomed by parents and priests as a way of encouraging participation in the liturgy, a practice which educates the youth. I am delighted that it appears that there is an Orthodox congregation and Bishop who had the foresight to include girls in such service and education. The synod needs to give more than a hollow nod to "ancient practice" if it is to forbid something for which we as Orthodox have no significant theological reason to forbid. Why is it that only boys can serve in the altar? What exactly is offensive or theologically inappropriate in the service of girls in the altar? Are they incapable of carrying a cross or lighting the gospel? Are they less attentive than boys their age? Do they defile the Eucharist by their presence? How is the service of girls in the altar a violation of their baptismal vocation? (As a theologian and ethicist, I am disappointed by what appears to be a thoughtless and off-the-cuff statement substantiated only by an appeal to a dubious interpretation of ancient tradition.) However, I am more grieved by the pastoral precedent. My understanding is that the girls who appeared in the photographs served with the permission of their priest and Bishop, and did so for many years. Who was involved in this controversy on the Internet? Why were they upset? The internet is a haven for grievances on all sides of the theological spectrum, grievances which are rarely considered and thoughtful. Does the distress of some members of the Church over particular practices dictate the life of all parishes? Was the congregation of these altar servers upset? Who told them they had to stop? What reason was given? What was said to their parents? Will these girls continue to participate in the Church, having been dismissed for such poor reasons? Who will explain to them that they are made in the image of God, that they are baptized into new life in Christ, and that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor male and female, even though their Bishops deny their ability to participate because they are female? The Orthodox Church holds that our practice is our belief. So, when we forbid girls the practice of serving in the altar, what exactly are we saying we believe?

Maria McDowell
Doctoral Candidate, Boston College

 

I have never once questioned the Orthodox faith and my place in it until I saw this letter. I have since been told that the real problem is a bishop who is doing things that he shouldn't and this letter was to shut his practices down. I find it interesting that the way this group of men chose to deal with one of their own was by suppressing little girls. I don't even know where to go from here. It was so harshly and unlovingly worded.

This issue is so devastating and seems to be a knee jerk reaction. I am so heartbroken that the bishops are so concerned about a small group of people who are scandalized by this but their response gave no thought to the many, many faithful who are patiently waiting to be heard and recognized. Why are the children and women always the least important ones; the ones who are expected to compromise and surrender?

 

In England, there are at least two parishes, English-language ones, one of the Moscow Patriarchate, one in ROCOR (Russian Synodal), where girls act as servers at the Liturgy.

 

What are we afraid of? The Roman Catholic Church now allows altar girls as well as the (very conservative) Armenian Apostolic Church (the Oriental Orthodox). Their world has not imploded as a result. In fact, this has strengthened the spiritual life of many of those girls. Why can't we allow girls to serve without feeling as if we are heading down the so-called "slippery slope?" We do more damage to the Church by hanging on to the "status quo" than by allowing young girls who so very much want to serve the opportunity to do so.

 

[A direct response to my letter from the father of the altar girls at the New York parish which seems to be at heart of the "controversy."] Thank you for writing the letter, it was excellent. I plan to share it with my daughters who are following the issue. I especially endorse your point #2 [not allowing girls to serve can have an adverse affect on their spiritual lives/development], both of my girls are less connected in the service than before and that is extremely disheartening.

 

As a middle-aged woman who has grown up in the Orthodox Church, I remember when women were not allowed to do many things which today are considered perfectly acceptable.

We were not allowed to be full, voting members of the parish.
We were not allowed to receive the Eucharist or even enter the Church building during our menses.
We were not allowed to hold positions on parish council.
We were not allowed to sing at the kliros.
We were not allowed to wear pantsuits.
We were not allowed to uncover our heads.
We were not allowed to stand with our husband, fathers, or brothers in the Church (being relegated to the back of the Church in our tradition)
We were not allowed to read the Epistle.

Over the last 40 years, our Priests and Bishops have taught us that there was no theological reason why women could not participate fully in parish life and worship in roles that are not solely for the ordained clergy. These "traditions" which everyone presumed were "ancient" fell away without much ado. Change came organically, without formal statements; each Bishop, Priest, and parish in its own way, and at its own speed. The integrity of the Church was not compromised.

However, the last bastion of the all male domain is still the altar area, with rare exception at women's monasteries (even when there are males present who could carry the candle or relight the censer).

We all know that the Orthodox Church reserves the order of ordained clergy [presbytery and episcopacy] to men only. But roles within worship that are not ordained, as today's "altar boys" are not ordained, could be considered for females in the same deliberate and prayerful way that other roles have been opened to women.

The way that the "Statement concerning Liturgical Practice" was presented, without any explanation of "why?" appears that it was a "knee-jerk" reaction to a photograph (I've been told that the particular parish had their Bishop's blessing for the altar girls), out of a fear of the OCA appearing "liberal" on an internet chat group.

Let's not determine our Liturgical practice based on a fear or a reaction. I'm hoping that this incident may initiate prayerful and intelligent discussion and consideration of the role of women in Orthodox worship in a proactive, not reactive manner.

 

If the Church is the Bride of Christ, the Bride is only half-dressed! The male-only limitation is bad for the Church as the Body of Christ because it allows for only half of "the Bride's jewels to shine". And since no other reason is forthcoming, one can only assume that this "tradition" is apparently based on a human conceit that ultimately denies the Body of Christ 50% of its possibilities. So how is that good for the Church? Can the Orthodox disagree that one of the main goals of an Orthodox Christian should be to strengthen and glorify the Body of Christ is every way possible?...

 

Our calling as Christians is to let God's light inside of us shine. Through prayer and participation in the life of the church, we learn to listen attentively and hopefully shine brightly. The OCA bishop's decision to prevent girls from serving in the church is a statement that denies Christians the opportunity to serve and to shine.

The Church has never been perfect, and this is a clear place where it can demonstrate its wisdom. Please reverse your decision and let God's servants live out their lives in the service of Christ to the best of their abilities.

 

I am thankful for Teva's response to the statement regarding the service of girls in the altar. I feel that her theological and pastoral framework is soundly Orthodox Christian and the topic should be open to discussion. As her letter shows, she is certainly not alone in her position: priests, deacons, lay people, seminarians, women and men alike have a sense that the time may have come to allow females to serve in this way.

I am a female Board Certified Orthodox (OCA) Hospice chaplain. I provide spiritual care for terminally ill patients and their families. I counsel and pray for the grieving, bear the burdens of the spiritually downtrodden and help people face the prospect of death. I chant Psalms while sitting next to dying people; I pray for their spiritual healing and forgiveness; I hold their hands when they are alone. I also provide memorial services for our deceased patients and counsel Hospice staff in times of loss.

I am deeply thankful that I am able to serve in this capacity as a minister, and I appreciate the blessing of my Church to do so. However, I am acutely aware that my ministry takes shape only in an ecumenical setting, and not within my own church. On some level, I wish that I could live out my vocation of prayerful service - of holding a candle in the darkness of terminal illness - by holding a candle or serving in another capacity during the Divine Liturgy, in which my faith and ministry find life, meaning, and nourishment.

 

As far as I can figure, the stance being taken by The Holy Synod has implications for many, many issues, principally gender justice, but nearly as much for an equitable role for the laity, that silent majority that the clergy either takes for granted or chooses to disparage should we get too strident. I take the view that the laity are the bedrock of the Church - the "humus" or fertile soil from which every cleric has sprung. Fr. Schmemann wrote eloquently about how "humility's" meaning springs from a proper understanding of its root, "humus," being as constant, as unassuming but also as stolid and solid as the very earth beneath our feet.

I really don't see how our bishops can both accept nuns serving in monastery altars while at the same time forbidding chaste women from serving (of course precisely the same requirement exists for male servers, but is too often and deliberately overlooked with a "wink and a nod."). Neither marital nor monastic status can be operative - surely a woman does not shed her womanhood when she vests in either the Rasa or the Wedding gown! Isn't it the altar server's humanity what counts - being part of the Royal Priesthood.

My point is that the current male-centric attitude IS UNWORTHY OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH - it doesn't describe the Church as Her best - liberal (in the good sense, of being "free" of the legalistic strictures that plague Roman Catholicism), practical, and more than anything else - THANKFUL in the Eucharistic sense - for the gift that each one of the faithful lays at the feet of Our Savior. I see it as profoundly hurtful for the Synod to be taking these steps, that are almost palpably self-indulgently pro-male. Not without justification could the attitude of the Holy Synod be called self-indulgent and DAMAGING TO THE SPIRITUAL INTEGRITY OF THE CHURCH. This might genuinely [be] why (at least in part) the ancient mother churches maintain that we Americans lack spiritual maturity to constitute a traditional unitary Local-National Church!...What is most distressing is that unstated premise underlying all this treatment of our mothers and sisters - that if the Church somehow empowers women by admitting them to the Holy Altar and ordaining them to the Holy Diaconate, that they will "freak out" and start militating for ordination to a female priesthood! We can and must have trust that our sisters are true to their One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Orthodox Faith, that they seek a wholesome restoration of apostolic practice, not innovation. Our hierarchs need to feel the sting of conscience, not simply at their act of dismissiveness in dealing with this issue, but at the more telling problem - of how off-handedly they dismissed it, of the profound hurt it caused to both pious Orthodox women but to men also. The Holy Synod owes an honest explanation to the laity of what prevented it from appointing a clergy-laity commission to prayerfully, respectfully examine this issue.

 

Females as servers in the Holy Altar! Deny it if you wish, but women have served in Orthodox altars since Apostolic times, as Deacons. Today, nuns serve in monastery altars throughout the world. The Church would be well served if our Holy Synod addressed our sisters pious desire for altar service with more than a dismissive Chancery Directive. This matter is worthy of a Pastoral Letter, fashioned only after a profound searching-out of where The Church finds itself as concerns the true role of women in The One, Holy, Catholic Apostolic Orthodox Church of Christ. I was left wondering at the hierarchs reference to "ancient practice" in banning girls from altar service, as though it trumps the practice and piety of the Apostolic Age.

I grew up in Orthodoxy, devoting considerable study to it and have for nearly 20 years served as cantor of my diocese's cathedral parish. Before that I was Diocesan President of A.R.O.Y., Chairman of C.E.O.Y.L.A., diocesan attorney and legal counsel, including a member of the Joint Dialogue Commission with the Romanian Missionary Archdiocese. After much prayer and research, I've concluded that Orthodoxy would be enriched by a renewal, a return to our heritage of ministry by formally embracing a ministry of pious girls as altar servers. "The legal precedent" would be the apostolic Order of Deaconesses that has existed, including in Greece, until quite recent times. We wouldn't even require a "standards committee," the standards are the same as for all clergy, enshrined in The New Testament and ancient church practice.

This is not an innovation, precisely because of the precedent of Deaconesses. In more mature Orthodox Churches like Romania and Greece, nuns routinely serve in altars without shocking anyone's piety - lay, clerical or hierarchical. Such an act of renewal would keep us true to the Faith and Practice of both the Apostolic Age and of the post-apostolic - the Age of the Martyrs.

The Orthodoxy that I love and admire has plentiful reserves of vitality and freedom to embrace both female acolytes and women deacons. Indeed, the definite majority of those holy people I've known whom I would dare to call Saints have been women, pillars of the church and of faith. Such a step might even reflect our spiritual and ecclesial maturity, for in the ancient "mother" churches such fullness of ministry is uncontroversial and even natural. On my first visits to Romania in my youth, the vision of nuns serving in the Altar was deeply edifying.

We urgently need a forthright, profoundly faithful joint clergy-laity inquiry into what human gender has meant for ministry throughout Orthodoxy's history, not just limited to some idealized "ancient" age. What has been the difference between cheirotoneia (liturgical orders) and cheirotoniseira [cheirothesia] (minor orders)? Would liturgical ordination be limited to widows? To nuns? Within the "freedom of love" that characterizes Orthodoxy at its best, should a woman's marital or monastic status determine her eligibility for liturgical ordination? Indeed, should her gender be a determinant? Or should her piety, chastity and humanity rule, just as they do for men?

We are not talking about any ministry that would be unapostolic. Female Deacons and altar servers hearken to an Apostolic heritage. In that same spirit of honesty, Our Lord called no women to be priests, nor did His Apostles. So critics can forget about arguing that women deacons are just "the thin edge of the wedge" toward a female priesthood.

This subject also has profound implications for the glaring, even embarrassing lack of The Church's piously searching out those laypersons - male but more so female - who have answered Our Savior's call to that life of holiness that we formally proclaim and canonize as Sainthood. How many more males - worthy though they are - will be canonized before we declare a moratorium pending a determined search for the lay saints of North America?

If we set aside all the distractions and prejudices that have caused us to grow too comfortable in the beauty of a Faith that our critics somewhat justifiably call "pedestrian" and "time-encrusted" we can work miracles! We can more and more be the True Light that enlightens the world that once did and today can again sideline the superficial appeal of benighted paganism, fatalistic demonism, and the futility of worshipping false gods. Women are truly "second class citizens" in other major faiths - it would be a sin to allow such a situation in Orthodoxy "by default" to old social conventions. It is the Christian Gospel that proclaims the equality of male and female, and it thus makes it our duty to witness that equality fully, in these days where many would shroud and bind half the human race into social and religious straitjackets.

Placing all our faith and hope in The Holy Spirit for our inspiration guidance - and restraint - The Church will be more and more true to Our Lord's Gospel. Then will my Church have become more of what I know it to be when it is at its best - the haven and stronghold of love which in Apostolic times made the Christian Church salt for the earth, to which all eyes, hearts and souls can turn. Let’s be true to our Orthodox Tradition, Our Savior and ourselves.

 

I don't really know what to think of the Bishop's response to the question of altar girls. It seems as if, "what's for lunch?" got more attention and discussion. Too bad. At the very least if they had said, "forbidden indefinitely while the issue is being investigated," more dignity would have been given to daughters belonging to the church. I guess in the end, the Theotokos herself would not be allowed to serve - in order to maintain the integrity and traditions of the Church.

 

Our family has two daughters. Both of them have been called to serve the Lord. One has already left the Orthodox Christian Church because of negative responses to her desire to serve over the years as she matured. She now has numerous college degrees, one in divinity. She has served as a missionary all over the world for Christianity. The second daughter has diligently pressed, without success, to be able to serve more fully within Orthodoxy. Her frustration will soon lead to desertion....and when she makes that decision, the entire family will move with her and her sister. Other religions encourage and are supportive of females who desire to be closer to the Lord. Shame on us.

 

What gives? The bishops make such an important decision that directly affects over half of the flock and none of the OCA papers carry it. I have read as many reports of the Synod meeting that I could find and none even mention it. Interesting also that the statement was posted on the web before the end of the first day of the session! So, did they really discuss this issue or not? Give it careful consideration? They either don't realize that this is an incredibly important issue for many women and girls or they do and just don't care. How sad.

 

There is no "ancient church tradition" of having young boys serve in the altar. It has only been recently that such a "western" practice has existed in our Church. It has also been only recently that women have served in the altar in places like Russia. So why are we allowing the tradition to allow the boys and not the faithful women (and girls)? It is no wonder these boys have such a sense of entitlement.

 

Too bad the [bishops] can't see the damage that this does. I have had the same experience, finding myself among men who know the play by play of what happens in the consecration of the elements and the prayers and I don't know [a thing] because I never hear it! It makes me mad because I feel like the hierarchy is so blind and so unwilling to even discuss it.

 

I was disappointed in their edict and even more disappointed in its tone, which ignored the fact that there are pastoral issues behind the desire to let females serve in the altar. This issue especially affects children, their parents and church school teachers -- and through them the whole parish community. Why couldn't the bishops at least have acknowledged the existence of these issues even if they felt they had to say no?

 

I am stunned, but not surprised. "Somebody" saw that photo of the girl in the altar robe and "freaked out"! What [is] missing and what was SO needful was a WHY?!! But there is NO why? They are reactionary and frightened of little girls! This issue sent me flying out of the church in my 20s. Would anyone listen to the Holy Spirit!??

 

I feel strongly about the issue of women serving in the altar. I'm having a big struggle right now regarding the idea that I should leave the Orthodox Church.

 

Oh, my God! Are they completely ignorant of the Church's history and practice, both ancient and modern. Surely some of the OCA bishops have served in one of the major cathedrals in Moscow, where there are older women in the altar providing vestments for the clergy. Moreover, they didn't mention the service of nuns in the altar at women's monasteries.

 

I have long been concerned about this issue because I think it really does negatively impact girls. I have spoken to all of my hierarchs about it with no concern on their part. I'm frustrated by the situation.