Nancy Holloway: How would you describe your experience growing up in a Greek Orthodox family in the first half of this century?
Eva Topping: The daughter of Greek immigrants, I was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia (in 1920, I'm exactly the age of the amendment that gave women the right to vote!). At that time and when I was growing up, there was no Orthodox church or Greek community near my home. A priest from Washington traveled by train to Fredericksburg and baptized me in a washtub. So I have been Orthodox all my life, even though I grew up in the Baptist church. As long as I can remember I knew that I was Greek Orthodox, and I was proud of it. Thus, the many prayers of a Sunday school teacher that I should one day become a Baptist missionary in Korea were never answered. My first prayer was in Greek and to the Theotokos, taught to me by my mother when I was a little girl. I still pray those few lines.
N.H.: What were those words?
E.T.: "Give me, Lady Maria, give me your help. Never, never, O Panagia (all-holy one), leave me far from you." I have recited this at my church in Fredericksburg where I am a trustee. It is very moving to Greek people. I did not know who the Theotokos was at three or four when my mother taught me this prayer. But now that I know who she is, I see its deep significance.
N.H.: What was your first experience with the Orthodox Church?
E.T.: My first real experience of Orthodoxy did not come until I went to graduate school at Radcliffe-Harvard. What impressed me most was the Divine Liturgy (about which I later wrote an article which was published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review decades ago.) I learned that the Divine Liturgy is what we need. And if we know it, we don't need anything else. Through this article I became acquainted with people all over the country who asked if they could reprint it. I later lived in Greece, which brought me into contact with a culture that had a strong Orthodox component. Not yet an active participant, I was still, however, an interested observer, eager to learn more.
N.H.: When you returned to the States what did you see as the needs of the Church that you felt had to be addressed?
E.T.: I became a participant in the Church after our return in 1960 with our five-year-old son. I taught Sunday school and was active in a study group of which I was a founder. This experience revealed to me how little we know about Orthodoxy and its rich traditions. One reason for this lack of knowledge was the use of Greek in the services and the lack of materials in English. I began then to advocate the use of English and was generally condemned by fellow-parishioners, very few of whom knew what the Divine Liturgy was all about.
N.H.: How did you advocate the use of English? What steps did you take to promote this?
E.T.: The study group which I founded felt very strongly that it was time for the Liturgy to be offered in English. We published this statement in the Sunday bulletin which was sent to the Archdiocese. We received a stern rebuke for this!
N.H.: What other steps did you take to help educate people about Orthodoxy?
E.T.: Trained as a classicist, I knew Greek. I could go directly to Orthodox sources, and serve my church by my knowledge of Greek. This self-directed diakonia began with the publication of my first book, Sacred Stories from Byzantium (Holy Cross Press, 1977), in which I retell the lives of a few saints. I am now ashamed of the fact that not one female saint was included. Now out of print, it was well received and used in some Sunday schools.
At the same time, I began to study the hymns of the Orthodox Church and to publish articles in learned journals in this country and abroad on this subject. At every opportunity, I also lectured, wanting to share the spirituality and beauty of Byzantine hymns which revealed a whole new world to me. I discovered the hymn of Thekla the Nun. As I wrote in my essay "Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman" (in Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy, Light & Life, 1987), this hymn is "written by a woman, in honor of a woman, for and about women." It is unique in the corpus of Byzantine hymnography, being the only hymn we have that was composed by a woman in honor of the Theotokos. I cherish the experience of speaking at a Vespers service about the hymns of the Nativity of the Theotokos; of speaking about the famous penitential hymns of Kassia at the service during Holy Week; and finally, using hymns as a text to preach a Lenten sermon from the pulpit of an Orthodox cathedral. Seventeen of my articles on the subject of hymns were reprinted recently in Sacred Songs: Studies in Byzantine Hymnography (Light & Life, 1997). [See profile in this issue.] To this day, I lament the fact that the treasures of our hymnography are not sufficiently known and appreciated. It is a wonderful tool through which to teach and experience Orthodoxy.
This same self-assumed diakonia inevitably expanded to an absorbing preoccupation with the second-class status of women in our Church. Contrary to what is often asserted, this interest did not develop from pernicious "outside" influences. It grew out of the experience of women in our Church, and from the knowledge that Orthodox teachings and theology contradict prevailing patriarchal practices against women. Simply put, reality contradicts the ideal that among those "baptized into Christ . . . there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:27-8).
N.H.: Tell us about the challenges/obstacles you encountered, and also the support and encouragement you received in your work.
E.T.: For two decades, in lectures and writings I have taken the stand that the time has come to put into practice the ideal expressed above. Two books deal with women and the Church: Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy and Saints and Sisterhood (Light and Life,1990). Both have been praised by some and condemned by others. There are many obstacles to the realization of the ideal - entrenched, centuries-old discrimination against women, the ignorance of women's history in the Orthodox Church, the reluctance of women to claim their rightful place, fear of and resistance to change.
Having encountered these obstacles and personal attacks (I don't like to think about the latter), I have to confess to being more discouraged than encouraged about the future of women in our Church.
After my presentation at a pan-Orthodox retreat a few years ago, a devout churchwoman of my generation got up and said, "I hope to see some change before I die." She died a year later. Her fate will probably be mine. Then a young woman, a lawyer and the wife of an Orthodox priest, got up to say: "I've been waiting to hear this for thirty years." I pray that she will not lose hope. At the same retreat, another woman wrote an angrily negative assessment of the retreat because of me. And of the four or five Orthodox priests present, only one was supportive.
N.H.: In your book, Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy [See profile in the Summer 1998 issue of the Quarterly], you give a history of the misogyny found in the writings of the Church Fathers. How do you explain this development, beginning at the end of the second century, which is in such contrast to our Lord's attitude toward women and the prominent role women played in the early Church?
E.T.: There are books that explain this. An excellent one is by Karen Jo Torjesen who teaches at Claremont Graduate School entitled When Women Were Priests. She explains that these patterns go back to Greek philosophy and Judaism. The Church wanted respectability and so conformed to the mores of its time.
N.H.: Tell us about your successes. How has the situation improved and what was your particular contribution? In what ways do you feel you have accomplished your objectives and have at least begun to realize our vision for the Church?
E.T.: I can't claim success. Nevertheless, there have been some good signs. Letters from Orthodox women from around the country; some standing ovations and enthusiastic responses; and most of all, friendships with my Orthodox sisters here and abroad. Finally, a man wrote me that he was converted to the Orthodox Church as a result of reading my books! My gifts, abilities and ministry are expressed in my role as lecturer and my writings about women, through which I encourage women to learn their history in the Church, to claim their equality, and to make a difference in the life of Orthodoxy today.
N.H.: What work do you feel still needs to be done today?
E.T.: Women need to know their own history in the Church. Historically, we have been deacons, teachers, martyrs. We should not accept the current second-class status of women in the Church. It is neither Biblical nor traditionally Orthodox. We cannot make the contributions women are called to make, unless we are first informed of our history and enlivened by the true vision of Orthodoxy that all are equal in Christ. One specific way women are denigrated from birth is that girl babies are not taken around the altar as boy babies are [during Churching]. This segregates and demeans women from birth. Also, why not allow young girls to be altar servers? These are concrete ways we can begin to change attitudes toward women in the Church. We should not be satisfied with slight cosmetic changes.
N.H.: What are the three or four more important changes that need to take place in the Church today?
E.T.: The laity should have a voice in the selection of the hierarchs. Good English translations and good musical settings for the Liturgy should be developed. And, of course, the full participation of women in the liturgical life of the Church. Equal discipleship should be our goal. Nothing less.
N.H.: You mention in your essay "Orthodox Women Face Challenges" (in Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy), that a "network needs to be created to establish communication and a publication by and for women seems essential." The St. Nina Quarterly is attempting to do that. In what ways can it better serve the purposes you envision?
E.T.: By speaking out forcefully against the second-class status of women; by identifying specifically what is wrong and why it is not true Orthodoxy; and by working on ways to change this situation. The priority ought to be educating our sisters.
N.H.: What do you envision as the contribution and ministry of women in the Church for today and into the next century?
E.T.: My vision for the Orthodox Church is one of spiritual nourishment for all the souls entrusted to it, recognizing the full humanity of women, the acceptance of their gifts of love and talents in all aspects of Church life, barring none.
This will never happen unless Orthodox women act courageously to bring our Church closer to its ideal. What a diakonia that would be!