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. You grew up in the Church. What in your experience sparked your interest in theology?
Kyriaki: The quest for Truth. To make a long story short, I do think that I had a call at one time - whatever that may mean - and that somehow spurred me on to do more thinking, even as a child, to being good at Sunday school, to learning everything I could in church. I was kind of precocious when it came to theology. I was reading my pastor's (the assistant priest who was more of the pastor to the young people) notes from his systematic theology class at age 12. . . . The search for Truth engulfed me mostly because I was not satisfied with the non-truth I saw around me. That led me (in my own search) to an intellectual appreciation for the need of God - a God. And then once I got that intellectual appreciation for the need for God, eventually I reached the point where it had to be a personal God. This was all intellectual - which I think is pretty amazing for a young person, looking back on it now. For a long time I remember thinking that through and being angry realizing that if there is a personal God then I had to relate with this God. That led me to be open to that reality intellectually, and on a deeper level physically something happened and made me feel more alive, finding God within me and without of me. And that has never left.
In the Tradition of the Church, there are many women saints who have served as role models for women and men. Did you have any role models growing up?
K.: I find my inspiration by considering lives of the saints in various situations and times of history. The more I think about a particular saint in her/his context historically, the more their example teaches me, enlivens me, and draws me closer to God and to a relationship with the saint. I think of St. Nina, for example. As we know from the Quarterly, there are at least two general stories that we have of her. One, she was the niece of the patriarch of Constantinople and the other, that she was a slave girl. What does it mean for a slave girl, or a girl of noble background on her own, changing society around her because of the Good News that she was living from within? The society changed not because she made it change but because the people around her were open from the depths of their hearts to the radicalness of the Gospel - what the Good News means in her person. When I look at the lives of the saints - when I seriously meditate upon each person's example within the context in which they lived - they give me life, inspiration, and energy to continue in my own spiritual life.
T.: Can you relate that to your own personal experience growing up?
K.: Like many who grew up in the Church, I noticed that women faithfully are the backbone of the Church. They support the Church in many ways that most of us don't see, because they do it with love in their hearts, usually in silence and perhaps sometimes in a self-depreciating manner. At the same time, women also in recent decades have been more visible in parish council works, parish education, and administrative work within the parish. This is also a fact of life that maybe was not happening in my grandmother's day. I did not necessarily have role models in the Church growing up as a woman who wanted to study theology. In a sense (by the grace of God) I relied on the witness of the clergy in my congregation. Growing up in the faith and, at least in this context, one of the first [female theologians], might have made people feel uneasy - they can't foresee where you are going. (We can't foresee where we are going either. God has this sense but we don't.) I think even my own family would never have encouraged me in this direction. While they were happy that I went to school in my own hometown, (I was the first person to attend the seminary from Brookline) they weren't particularly happy with me going to seminary. They saw it as a place only for priests.
T.: So what advice would you give a young woman who would like to enter seminary today?
K.: I would advise her to consider at least two different seminaries if at all possible, and then to investigate the life at each - visit, talk to students, talk to professors, and attend the daily liturgical services and a few classes for a number of days to obtain a sense of what the real life of the seminary is like. She may find the life at one place more conducive or affirming to her than another. I have found that some Orthodox theological communities enthusiastically welcome women, while others barely tolerate their presence.
I think there is a lot of fear from some when women want to attend seminary - what do women want? I heard that often when I was at seminary: "What do you want?" My response was, "To study Orthodox theology."
I think there are three levels to why one studies at seminary. One is educational. Our clergy and leaders need to learn about the depths of our Tradition and learn more about the real history of the Orthodox Church. Women have served in many capacities in the past. We need to be open to hearing where God may be leading women and men in the present in order to respond to the crisis that the Church is facing in many places today. Second, it is pastoral - to be open to the pastoral needs of the Church today. And third, I believe for many women, it is personal.
I have found that women usually come to an Orthodox seminary for two personal reasons. First, they come for enrichment. They make the sacrifices, take the time and effort out of their lives in order to come to study the faith in depth and in an Orthodox environment. And this is truly a wonderful thing. Second, a good number of these women also desire to serve the Church in an active, intelligent, and permanent manner. When I taught at seminary (Holy Cross), I had many conversations with women who came to study for one or both of these reasons. While they generally loved their programs, many also shared their experiences of profound disappointment. They related to me repeated examples of their presence, gifts, and talents being diminished, ignored or rejected, simply because they were women. . . .When women are shamed in this way it is completely antithetical to the Gospel. It completely reflects the "bad news." This is what happened to women in Old Testament Israel when they were declared ritually "unclean." In an Orthodox Christian understanding now to be unclean means to lack the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is unrelated to biology or issues of blood. There are traditions within the Church that for many have been mistaken for Traditions regarding women being unclean when they have their menstrual period. The teaching that women are unclean, and therefore excluded from the sacraments as well as the altar as the custom has deigned, is not within the living Tradition of the Church. St. Cyprian of Carthage's popular saying fully applies here: "A custom without Truth is merely an ancient error." What I have learned in my life and studies is that every vocation, if it is of God and authentic to the person in that context, is beautiful. I use that word carefully and mindfully. The more I have learned about various ministries that women have served, especially in the diaconate, the more I have learned a woman's vocation comes only from God. The diaconate wasn't just a ministry where women were "allowed" to do certain things. What I have found instead in studying the history of the Church and studying the prayers of ordination is that woman is called to something beautiful from a God who is both beautiful and beyond beauty.
T.: Much of your recent research, including a recently published book, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church [See review in this issue.], has centered on the female diaconate. Would you explain, in brief, your research of this order.
K.: I studied many of the writings of the Fathers and many of the writings of a multi-volume set called, the Meterikon ("The sayings of the Mothers of the Church"), which, while their sayings may not be as authentic from a scholar's perspective, are volumes that are rich in hagiographical data that can also be corroborated elsewhere. They provide an ocean of wonderful information in which to swim far and deeply into the rich love expressed by the lives of women in the early Church. A third place I looked was in the canons and a fourth was the prayers of ordination themselves. These prayers are found in the ordination service for women deacons - one, coming from the third century to early fourth century, Apostolic Constitutions, and the other coming from the Byzantine ordination rite, which ranges anywhere from the eighth through the fourteenth centuries. The Byzantine rite was used in many places and has roots that reach back to the ancient Church.
T.: What did this research reveal to you?
K.: That women were indeed being ordained to the diaconate. That the diaconate is one of the three ancient orders of priesthood. One of the profound appreciations I have is that women were definitely ordained to "priesthood," just as male deacons were ordained to "priesthood." A deacon's priesthood has a different charism than the priesthood of a presbyter or the priesthood of a bishop. Most scholars who know about the diaconate on a deeper level know this. To have lived with the material, especially in the years of writing the book, really was a profound awakening experience. That and how beautiful the order is.
T.: Many people feel that the Church needs more ministers to care for the flock. How can we facilitate ways to properly minister to those in the Church?
K.: First of all, by starting to be honest with ourselves. The responsibility of a priest [in a parish] is just too big as it is. One parish priest (or even two, or three with a deacon) is not a big enough pastoral team to be available for the real needs of the congregation, especially in these times. What I am saying is not new. The Church as an institutional body that needs to care for its people needs to recognize just how big the responsibility is. I quote a letter written over forty years ago by Archbishop Michael of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America who himself put out a clarion call to reestablish the order of deaconess in the United States. One of his major reasons for doing this was to emphasize just how big the pastoral responsibility is for a priest in America and that the priests can't do it alone. To think that the priest can do it alone, in my opinion, is to abuse him. We are fooling ourselves on a number of levels. He spoke about it in terms of the missionary character of the Church that needs to be strengthened and developed in the United States:
(The Church members) are widely scattered throughout the country; because in most instances our brethren are rather isolated in the sea of America's millions, frequently living far from their religious centers, their local churches.
In order, therefore, that the Greek Orthodox Church be always in complete communion with its members it needs substantial assistance. While it has, of course, its priests, there is so much to be done in each community that the endeavors of these priests alone do not suffice. For should the priest wish to know, as he must, his spiritual children by name, their problems, and their spiritual and moral needs, this would certainly be beyond his physical and spiritual resources (p. 154).
So an archpastor who cares for the spiritual and pastoral needs of the laity and his own clergy was trying to expand the role of women in order to help with this as well. He was also active in seeking to establish monasticism in the United States. We are still learning from his example today.
T.: For many years, you worked as a pastoral counselor. Why did you choose this ministry?
K.: My first interest has always been Orthodox theology - in particular, systematic theology. When I was studying in Thessaloniki, Greece, my professor of systematic theology would always repeat (at least once a week if not more) that for theology to be real it has to be therapeutic, healing. If theology is real, it has to be pastoral because, I would say, if theology is real, it gives life. Why? Because it serves the Author of life. We do need treatises and books in order to dig into the Tradition but even as we do this, we have to do this with tremendous fear and trepidation, because we have to keep asking ourselves, "Is what we are doing accountable to the Good News and does it give or at least serve Life?" I think there are many tomes and books out there that don't do that. That [philosophy of theology] made me open to the possibility of trying to apply it. Even though my first love is systematic theology, the pastoral aspect helps me stay grounded. If it were real its principles had to make sense; theology had to be real in the lives of people around me. And so I later added a second specialization in pastoral theology. These were, I think, the two legs upon which I stood as I wrote the book [Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church].
T.: How can this be a healing ministry in the Church?
K.: I think that there is a need for pastoral counseling is as plain as the nose on our faces. We can not expect our pastors to have the time, training, and calling to do that. As time goes on with the complications that come with our societies illnesses, we need this much more now than ever. One of my ideas is that we should have an Orthodox women's theological studies program at the graduate level. I also would like to see perhaps as part of this, an M. Div./M.S.W. [Master in Social Work] program where women (and men) who feel called to ministry (diaconia in Greek) would be rigorously trained first of all in Orthodox theology and spirituality, then also receive the training (and credential) that would make them much more practical assets in both the Orthodox community's life and the life of the Church on a day-to-day level. In addition, they could be a witness or presence of light to the outside world that so badly needs the concrete love and presence of the Church.
T.: I think that is a wonderful idea. I hope that it comes to fruition at some point.
You have recently returned from living in Geneva, Switzerland, during which time you served as an Orthodox theological consultant, in particular to the World Council of Churches. Orthodox women can be thankful that the WCC has helped to organize international conferences for Orthodox women - Agapia (Romania) in 1976, and most recently Damascus (Syria) and Istanbul (Turkey), as part of the Decade in Solidarity with Women. You have played a role in these last two conferences. [We have included reports of the gatherings in the pages of the Quarterly. See Winter 1997 and Fall 1997.] What were some of the positive aspects of bringing Orthodox women from around the world together and what were some of the challenges?
K.: They were a gift from God. I had the honor (and perhaps the cross) to serve as the theological coordinator of the conferences [Damascus and Istanbul]. To try to design two meetings where women would recognize the content as Orthodox and to be able to take the content further was a very intimidating task. We did not know who the churches were going to send: Theologians only? Nuns only? Faithful women who have been working in the parishes and who may or may not have had formal training in theology? So anticipating who the churches might or might not send was perhaps the most difficult challenge of these two conferences.
We had a miracle. The women recognized the issues and agenda as their own. The two statements from the meetings will show this. The churches at both meetings sent some of their best women. I was amazed to learn from Orthodox women from the Middle East, Far East, and Africa just how much alike we are in the depths of our being as Orthodox or having grown up in the Church. I was also amazed at how open they were to discussing all the issues that were being discussed by the consultants we had asked to come and present papers. The first meeting in Damascus went amazingly smoothly. One of the insights that was agreed to was how vulnerable women are in the Church - it is so easy for a woman to be made inconsequential, for a woman's presence to be dismissed, and how vulnerable women are to that. The delegates for the Damascus meeting unanimously proposed that "sexism as sin" be addressed from an Orthodox spiritual perspective at the next meeting [Istanbul].
T.: What issues did they see as concerns of women in the Church?
K.: Women from outside of North America and Europe are very concerned about pastoral care and education. These were the issues of most concern. There are many forms of abuse - physical, sexual, psychological, neglect. Women are craving more human connection from the Church in order to receive more healing. There is much healing that comes from the life of the Church sacramentally. That was affirmed very much by the women who were there. At the same time, sometimes you just need to be with someone in whose arms you can cry, who represents and makes present the Church. This was very important to them - women ministering to women.
Relatedly, the importance of supporting the person and ministry of the priest's wife was very important at both meetings; as was the witness of women's monasticism.
The second (almost as important) was theological study opportunities for women. Unfortunately, theological education is not always open to women. There were cases, one in particular, of an Orthodox woman from the Middle East who was enticed to study at a Presbyterian theological school. In this case, to the sorrow of many people that she knew, the woman subsequently left the Orthodox Church and is now a Presbyterian minister. One of the reasons that she was enticed away is because they offered her a theological education. She had wanted an Orthodox theological education in her context and she couldn't have it. In some parts of the Orthodox world there is more opportunity for women to study formally or informally. In other places, it is almost impossible. The women from both meetings were sure to thank the small number of Orthodox women who did have theological degrees who were there as consultants for their participation. It was really very affirming.
In Constantinople [Istanbul] the dynamics were very different. [The Constantinople conference included representatives from Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, and North and South America.] Because of the history that the various Orthodox Churches have gone through in the past few years, it took the first few days for the women to recognize each other as sisters. Once that happened, it was like an "electric frenzy" to get the work done - like a clap of thunder. Almost a desperation to get the concerns out. They were very interested in speaking to the Church directly regarding their concerns.
There was a tremendous amount of overlap and consensus between the first and second meeting. What this says is that (perhaps for the first time in the history of the Church) we have a very humble yet real consensus about the issues that Orthodox women think are important. These women did not represent every single parish, but they were chosen by their hierarchs to represent their regional synods and church. This is highly significant. Because of that, it is an amazing document - an amazing phenomenon.
T.: Was there any discussion regarding the "lower orders" of the Church - subdeacon, blessed reader, altar server?
K.: Those orders were mentioned and affirmed. Both the laity and clergy need to be educated in terms of the depth and breadth of the Tradition that a laywoman may have similar charisms as a layman. Therefore, a laywoman may also be called to serve as a subdeacon, an altar server, a catechist, a chanter. In some jurisdictions in the United States, women have been tonsured to chant. This is a sign of people becoming more sensitive to the depth of the Tradition.
T.: It sounds like a wonderful opportunity to find a worldwide consensus on the concerns of Orthodox women and to find out how similar we all are.
Once again, I want to thank you for taking the time for this interview and welcome you back home from Europe. Finally, would you share some of your hopes for the Quarterly as we continue our journey.
K.: I have many hopes for the Quarterly. I see the Quarterly as an entity that is struggling to preserve a safe haven for men and women to discuss important pastoral issues within the Church. I am very impressed with those I know on the editorial board. I am moved and deeply impressed with their commitment to fair discussion - engaging the real issues of the Church in a dignified way - in a way that respects the whole spectrum of discussion.
I would hope that in the future parishes and dioceses adopt the St. Nina Quarterly as one of their sister publications and give you/us the support that you deserve from the hard work that you have been doing. I would urge anyone reading the St. Nina Quarterly for the first time now to read back issues to see how fair the editors have been in struggling to print the whole range of this discussion.
I would like St. Nina's to get to the point to sponsor seminars and programs for interested lay men and women and clergy on various pastoral and contemporary issues that the Church is facing. I think if every community would adopt the St. Nina Quarterly at some level - that would be a start.