THE DORMITION AND WOMEN PRIESTS
Written by Vladimir Moss
THE DORMITION AND WOMEN PRIESTS
Today we celebrate the feast of the Dormition, or Assumption, of the Mother of God, and the greatest glory ever attained, or ever possible of attainment, by a created human being. The All-Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary falls asleep in death, but is immediately resurrected in the flesh and ascends into heaven. She is the only created human being ever to be granted this glory. And she is a woman…
The question immediately arises in the minds of some: if this is so, why should women not be given equal rights with men in all things, and in particular be allowed to become priests?
For the Orthodox the answer to this question is simple: because the Holy Tradition of the Church has quite clearly excluded the possibility. But this answer will not be sufficient for those coming to Orthodoxy from other traditions, nor for that large number of Orthodox who have been significantly influenced by feminist currents of thought. So we need to look into the matter more closely.
Let us begin with Holy Scripture… Although the Scriptures say nothing specifically about women priests, they do say a lot about the relative roles of men and women which is directly relevant to this question. St. Paul says that he does not allow women to teach in church, nor to exercise any authority over men. For the woman was made from the man and for the man, and not vice-versa. The woman must be in subjection to the man as to her head, and for that reason she must wear a veil or scarf on her head.
The veil is the symbol of the hierarchical, head-body relationship between men and women. The apostle writes: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head” (I Corinthians 11.7-10).
As St. Theophan the Recluse writes: “The husband, as the image and glory of God amongst creatures, must not cover his head in church, while the wife was taken from the husband later, created, as it were, in accordance with his image, and is therefore the image of the image, or the reflection of the glory of the husband, and must therefore cover herself in church as a sign of subjection to her husband”.
This hierarchical, head-body relationship between men and women is important not only in itself, but as symbolizing still higher mysteries. For just as “the head of Christ is God”, so Christ is the Head of the Church and “the head of the woman is the man”. And just as the Son is “the effulgence of the glory” of the Father and “the impress of His Hypostasis” (Hebrews 1.3; Colossians 1.15), so the woman is “the glory of the man”, “the image of the image”, and yet of the same nature as him. Thus the relationships between the Father and the Son, Christ and the Church and man and woman mirror each other, and are in turn be mirrored by the relationship between the head and the body. It follows that the relationship between man and woman has the capacity to illumine for us the relationship between Christ and the Church, and that the structure of the human body is an icon, a likeness of the most spiritual and ineffable mysteries. For just as the head (the man) is lifted above the body (the woman) and rules her, but in love for her and desiring her salvation, so does Christ love and save the Church, His Body – all in obedience to His Head, the Father, Who “so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16).
From this perspective we can see that the psychological differences between man and woman reflect the differences in spiritual function between Christ and the Church, and that these differences were implanted in human nature from the beginning, before the fall, precisely in order to mirror the spiritual relationships. The man is physically stronger, more aggressive and more inclined to lead because he, like Christ, must wage war on the devil and rescue the woman (the Church) from his clutches. The woman is more intuitive, compassionate and submissive because she must be sensitive to the will of the man and submit to him in order to make their common struggle easier. If, in the fall, the man must take the lead, this is not because he is less fallen than the woman, or that only the masculine qualities are necessary for salvation, but because obedience to the hierarchical principle at all levels is the only way out of the fall. For only if the woman obeys the man, and the man obeys Christ, as Christ obeyed the Father, can grace work to heal fallen nature and restore “glory” to the fallen lower levels of the hierarchy. Only if the man disobeys Christ, and demands that the woman follow him in his disobedience, must she disobey him out of obedience to Christ. In this case the hierarchical principle has been violated at one level (the level of the man), but remains intact at another (the level of the woman).
Although the woman is placed at the bottom of this hierarchy, she can be united with the very top. For, as St. Paulinus of Nola says: “We might say that she is placed at the base to support that body’s chain which is linked to God by the head of Christ, to Christ by the head of man, and to man by the head of woman. But Christ makes woman also belong to the head at the top by making her part of the body and of the structure of the limbs, for in Christ we are neither male nor female…”
Thus there is neither male nor female in Christ not in the sense that sexual differences cease to have any importance in Christ, but that if each sex carries out his or her differentiated role in love in accordance with the will of God, there will be complete harmony and unity throughout the hierarchy, and an “interchange of qualities” will take place, not only between God and man, but also between man and woman, with the result that God will be “all in all” (I Corinthians 15.28).
Turning now to Holy Tradition, we note that from the beginning the Church clearly and decisively excluded women from the priesthood. Thus in the early third century, Tertullian and the compiler of the Didascalia confirm this ban with specific reference to the performance of the sacraments. Thus the Didascalia says: “That a woman should baptize, or that one should be baptized by a woman, we do not counsel, for it is a transgression of the commandment, and a great peril to her who baptizes and to him who is baptized. For if it were lawful to be baptized by a woman, our Lord and Teacher Himself would have been baptized by Mary His Mother, whereas He was baptized by John, like others of the people. Do not therefore imperil yourselves, brethren and sisters, by acting beside the law of the Gospel.”
We find the same teaching in the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions: “Now, as to women’s baptizing, we let you know that there is no small peril to those that undertake it. Therefore we do not advise you to do it; for it is dangerous, or rather wicked and impious. For if the ‘man be the head of the woman’, and he be originally ordained for the priesthood, it is not just to abrogate the order of the creation…”
These admonitions were considered necessary because, as Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) writes, “various schismatic groups in the second and fourth centuries had women as priests and bishops: the Gnostic Marcosians, for example, and the Montanists, and the Collyridians. When referring to these last, St. Epiphanius (d. 403) examines at length the possibility of women priests. ‘Since the beginning of time,’ he states, ‘a woman has never served God as a priest.’ (He means, of course, in the Old Testament; he knew there were priestesses in the pagan fertility cults.) In the New Testament, although we find female prophets (Luke 2.36; Acts 21.9), no woman is ever an apostle, bishop, or presbyter. Christ had many women among His immediate followers – Mary his mother, Salome and others from Galilee, Martha and Mary the sisters of Lazarus – yet on none of them did he confer the apostolate or priesthood. ‘That there exists in the Church an order of deaconesses is undisputed; but they are not allowed to perform any priestly functions.’ Besides deaconesses, the Church has also orders of widows and old women; but we never find ‘female presbyters or priestesses’. ‘After so many generations’ Christians cannot now start ordaining priestesses for the first time. Such, then, is Epiphanius’ conclusion concerning women and the ministerial priesthood: ‘God never appointed to this ministry a single woman upon earth’.”
The matter appeared to be settled, and in none of the mainstream Churches – Orthodox, Monophysite, Catholic or Protestant – was it seriously discussed again until the twentieth century. But then the Anglican Church – always exceptionally sensitive and responsive to modernist currents of thought – put it back on the agenda. And now, as is well known, it has women bishops and priests.
Let us examine the response of the famous Anglican layman, C.S. Lewis, to this proposal when it first came up.
“At first,” writes Lewis, “all the rationality… is on the side of the innovators. We are short of priests. We have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone. No one among those who dislike the proposal is maintaining that women are less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office. What, then, except prejudice begotten by tradition, forbids us to draw on the huge reserves which could pour into the priesthood if women were here, as in so many professions, put on the same footing as men? And against this flood of common sense, the opposers (many of them women) can produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse…”
Lewis then dismisses the idea that this discomfort comes from any contempt for women. He cites the extreme veneration for the Holy Virgin in the Catholic tradition, which nevertheless rejects the idea of women priests. And he says that there were prophetesses – whom he identifies as “female preachers” - in both the Old and the New Testaments.
“At this point the common sensible reformer is apt to ask why, if women can preach, they cannot do all the rest of a priest’s work. This question deepens the discomfort of my side. We begin to feel that what really divides us from our opponents is a difference between the meaning which they and we give to the word ‘priest’. The more they speak (and speak truly) about the competence of women in administration, their tact and sympathy as advisers, their natural talent for ‘visiting’, the more we feel that the central thing is being forgotten. To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us. Our very eyes teach us this in church. Sometimes the priest turns his back on us and faces the East – he speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to us for God. We have no objection to a woman doing the first [sic]: the whole difficulty is about the second. But why? Why should a woman not in this sense represent God? Certainly not because she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable or stupider than a man. In that sense she may be as ‘God-like’ as a man; and a given woman much more so than a given man. The sense in which she cannot represent God will perhaps be plainer if we look at the thing the other way round.
“Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to ‘Our Mother which art in Heaven’ as to ‘Our Father’. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.
“Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity. Common sense, disregarding the discomfort, or even the horror, which the idea of turning all our theological language into the feminine gender arouses in most Christians, will ask ‘Why not? Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?’
“But Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity. It is also surely based on a shallow view of imagery. Without drawing upon religion, we know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit; that a child who had been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child. And as image and apprehension are in an organic unity, so, for a Christian, are human body and human soul.
“The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within this context, treating both as neuters. As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body… The point is that unless ‘equal’ means ‘interchangeable’, equality makes nothing for the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction, but in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and seminal figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were geometrical figures.
“This is what common sense will call ‘mystical’. Exactly. The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we would expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call suprarational…”
Let us now return to the Orthodox tradition in order to learn more about what this suprarational element is… As Lewis rightly says, one of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. Still more fundamentally, as we have seen, the male-female relationship is symbolic of the relationship between the Creator and His creation. Just as Eve came from Adam and was dependent on him for her existence, so the creation comes from the Creator and is dependent on Him for everything. Of course, this dependence is much greater in the case of the Creator/creature relationship: the creature was created out of nothing by the Creator, whereas Eve came from the already existing being of Adam. Moreover, she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones, whereas the material universe has nothing in common with the nature of God. Nevertheless, the analogy exists. And it became much closer when the Creator became one of His own creatures, taking on flesh from the Virgin. Now He is the New Adam, and she – the New Eve. He is flesh of her flesh and bone of her bones. He is the head, and she – the body. He is the Bridegroom, and she – the Bride.
By meditating on the mystery of sexuality in its unfallen, what we may call pristine form, we come closer to understanding the higher Mystery of the Incarnation, and of the whole salvific economy of God in relation to man. It teaches us that the relationship between God and man is one of hierarchy and dominance, but at the same time of sacrifice and love. God is incomparably greater and higher than man; and the well-being of man consists in his voluntary and heart-felt submission to the will of God in all things – “be it unto me in accordance with Thy will”. But even when man goes against the will of God his Creator, and falls into the dark realm of estrangement, corruption and death, God shows that He is not only the Creator but also the Saviour, not only the Lord but also the Bridegroom. He forsakes His position of dominance in order to take on the form of a servant, descends to the depths of man’s estrangement, and saves him from death through His sacrificial love. This is romance – but romance on a cosmic scale, not the cheap, novelistic kind, but the heroic, suffering kind that pays the ultimate price for the sake of the ultimate prize – the salvation of the Beloved.
Now the role of Christ as the Saviour of the Church is precisely the role of the priest in relation to his flock. This role is explained in detail in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, whose main theme is the nature of the New Testament priesthood and its relationship to the old. Christ the Great High Priest pleads for the forgiveness and salvation of mankind with God the Father. For the forgiveness of men’s sins, He becomes man, defeats the devil and offers His human nature in sacrifice to the Holy Trinity. The priesthood of the New Testament Church is precisely Christ’s priesthood; the ordinary human priest is not simply imitating Christ in his priesthood, he is Christ; the symbol does not simply mirror reality, it becomes reality.
And that is why the symbol cannot be changed. Merely conventional symbols can be changed. For example, the colour green could cease to be a symbol for “go” and become a symbol instead for “red” – if everyone agreed. But the symbolism that God has implanted in creation from the beginning as symbolizing His eternal mysteries cannot be changed, just as the mysteries themselves cannot be changed. And so even if everyone agreed that women could now serve as priests, the reality of God’s order and God’s creation would remain the same: the only difference would be that now there would be no true priests on earth…
The greatness of the Mother of God consists in the fact that in her life, death and resurrection from the dead she perfectly exemplified and symbolized, not the Priesthood of Christ, but the perfect attainment and consummation of the Great High Priest’s aim and desire. God became man on earth in order to carry out the work of a priest, in order that men should be forgiven, justified and deified, and should ascend with Him to sit at the right hand of the Father in glory. The Dormition of the Mother of God shows that aim achieved, the first and most glorious fruit of the mystery of the Christian priesthood.
And yet, paradoxically, it was precisely by her refusing to take the man’s role, and by submitting in all things to her Bridegroom that the Holy Virgin acquired the title by which the Orthodox know her of “Despoina”, “Mistress” – the Mistress of all creation, almost on a par with the “Despotis”, the Master. Moreover, we can say that just as a priest cannot perform the Divine Liturgy without the presence of at least one member of the laity and without the offering of the gifts of bread and wine by the laity, so the Priesthood of Christ would not have been possible without the Holy Virgin’s offering of her body to become the dwelling-place of her Son. For without her humble assent, “Be it unto me according to Thy word”, the Son of God could not have become the Son of man in her womb, the gulf created by sin between the Creator and His creation could not have been bridged, and we all would still be in sin and death…
That is why an ancient Anglo-Saxon homily on the feast of the Dormition says that it “incomparably surpasses the feast-days of all the other saints” and continues: “On this heavenly queen’s ascent the Holy Spirit gave glory in hymns, asking: ‘Who is this that here ascends like the rising dawn, as beautiful as the moon, as choice as the sun, as terrible as a warlike band?’ (Song of Songs 6.9). The Holy Spirit wondered, for He caused all Heaven’s inhabitants to wonder at this Virgin’s upward journey. Mary is more beautiful than the moon because she shines without intermission of brightness; she is choice as the sun with rays of exalted power because the Lord, Who is the Sun of righteousness, chose her for a parent; her journey is comparable to a warlike band because she was escorted by heavenly potentates and companies of angels.”
For “it was fitting”, as St. John of Damascus says, “that she who had nourished the Creator as an Infant at the breast should find shelter in His heavenly mansions. It was fitting that the Bride the Father had promised in marriage should dwell in the heavenly bridal-chambers. It was fitting that she who had beheld her Son upon the Cross, and had received in her heart the sword of pain she had escaped in childbirth, should now look upon Him sitting next to the Father. Lastly, it was fitting that the Mother of God should receive back her Son, and as Mother of God receive the veneration of all creatures. For though the inheritance of parents ever passes on to the children, now, however, to use the words of the wise man (Ecclesiastes 1.7), the fountains of the sacred rivers turn back ‘from whence they came’: for the Son has made all creation the servant of His Mother.”
August 19 / September 1, 2014.
Afterfeast of the Dormition.
Holy Martyr Andrew the General and those with him.
St. Theophan, Tolkovanie Poslanij sv. Apostola Pavla (Interpretation of the Epistles of the Holy Apostle Paul), Moscow, 2002, p. 179.
Cf. St. Cyril of Alexandria: “Because the woman is the likeness of the man and the image of the image, and the glory of the glory, he admonishes her to nourish the hair on her head on account of her nature. And yet why would the former begrudge grace to the latter, especially as the woman herself displays the image and likeness of God? But nevertheless she does so in a sense through the man, because the nature of the woman differs in some small way” (P.G. 74, pp. 881-884). And Blessed Theodoretus writes: “He is called the image of God on account of being entrusted with dominion over all things on earth. The woman, on the other hand, being placed under the authority of the man, is the glory of the man, just as she is also the image of the image. Now she herself also rules other things, but is justly subjected to the man” (Commentary on I Corinthians 11, P.G. 82, pp. 309-314).
St. Paulinus of Nola, Letter 23: To Severus, 24, 25.
 This and the previous quotation from Patrick Mitchell, The Scandal of Gender: Early Christian Teaching on the Man and the Woman, Salisbury, Ma.: Regina Orthodox Press, 1998, pp. 49-50.
 Ware, “Man, Woman, and the Priesthood of Christ”, in Peter Moore (ed.), Man, Woman, Priesthood, London: SPCK, 1978, pp. 75-76.
 This can be found in an article Lewis wrote for Time and Tide in 1948, which was republished in his Faith, Christianity and the Church, London: HarperCollins, 2002, pp. 398-402.
 St. John of Damascus, Second Homily on the Dormition, 14.