Thursday, June 19, 2008

Orthodox Priesthood

The very first thing to be said about the priesthood is that it belongs to Jesus Christ. It is entirely His. Therefore, nobody, but nobody, male or female, straight or gay, has any "right" to it. Ordination is therefore not an issue of women's rights or gay rights or anybody else's right. In fact, when a person is ordained, his attitude should never be, "Thank heaven I've finally achieved my right," or even "this privilege." Instead, his attitude should be one of awe, even fear, at being called to minister alongside Christ at His altar.

A candidate for priesthood in the Orthodox Church must be a man but definitely not because men are considered superior beings; in Christ there is no male and female. And indeed, the greatest saint is a woman, the Theotokos. But a priest is to be a man because one of his roles is to be for his parish a living icon of Jesus Christ. (And yes, that is why he ought to have a beard, too.) Okay, technically it is the bishop we call upon to iconize Christ for us, but the priest, too, as his stand-in or delegate.

But isn't what a person looks like on the inside far more important than what he looks like on the outside, one may ask?

Yes, it is. Therefore the candidate must be of sound and solid faith with a character well-formed in Christ. Nevertheless, what he looks like on the outside is still very important to us as well.

The person to be ordained must either be celibate or the husband of one wife. He must have no sexual past that post-dates his baptism, no previous wife or lover. If he is married, his wife must be Orthodox. He must also have no human blood on his hands. If he served his country in the military and was in combat, that was his duty and to fulfill it is commendable, but he is ineligible for priesthood. Even if someone has died from an auto accident in which he was driving, he is still ineligible, not because we don't forgive him -- we do! -- but because the shedding of another's blood compromises his ability to be for us the living image of Christ. The potential priest must also be approved by the people, who at his ordination shout, "Worthy!" If even one person shouts, "Unworthy!" the proceedings are supposed to stop.

And quite likely, there are other requirements, too, of which I am ignorant.

Next, it is important to note that for the Orthodox, at least among those who rightly understand, priesthood in itself is neither a matter of status nor necessarily of leadership. Priests who do treat their office as such are going to have plenty of trouble getting anyone else to recognize any higher status, or getting folks to follow them, or gaining much respect among their people.

Priesthood does not necessarily entail leadership, because for us, the people we are willing to follow are those men or women who best show forth Christ in their lives and in their persons. It is much to be hoped that a priest may also be a good leader as well, but that role does not automatically come with ordination. It comes, instead, with sanctity. Among the Greeks here in Richmond, the most influential spiritual leader is a woman named Adamantia.

Priesthood is not a superior status in Orthodoxy. It is a service, which is another reason women so infrequently seek it. Servanthood, after all, for a feminist, is the same old, same old, precisely what she is trying to escape. A priest's service is indeed highly valued among us, indispensible, but it is still thought of as service.

Priesthood involves special functions within the Church, functions we cannot do without. Yet the highest, and most important function in the Divine Liturgy is to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Even our babies, including girl babies, can do that.

Priesthood carries with it limited, spiritual authority. The priest has, for example, the authority to forbid chit-chat within the sanctuary, or to decide how strictly to enforce such things as modest attire in church. It is his charge to safeguard the spiritual order and well-being of his parish. But if the issue is not specifically spiritual, if it has to do with such things as having the parish hall painted, or arranging for the grass to be mowed, those sorts of tasks fall under the authoriy of the parish council. These things a priest only at his peril attempts to dictate, unless they have clear spiritual ramifications. (And here is another reason feminists usually aren't particularly attracted to Orthodox priesthood; a priest's authority is much more limited than that of his Catholic or Protestant counterparts.)

Any further authority a priest (or anyone else) may have comes from our love of him or her. When we look at someone and see Christ looking back at us, we want to weep for joy, weep for repentance, weep for sheer love. We would follow such a person almost anywhere, or at least wish to, as St. Peter wished to follow the Lord to His death, before the cock crowed. We feel honored if such a person asks from us a glass of water, and shamed if he should have to ask twice. THAT is authority! What such a person says, our hearts leap to do, and the only regret we have is that we didn't think to do it before being asked or told, or didn't know to do it before being advised.

To this aspire, clergy, Christians, men, women, feminists, all.



DebD said...

Thanks Anastasia, this was very concise and helpful.

btw, I've been racking my brain trying to figure out a way for us to make soap together. Transferring it may be the trickiest part.

James the Thickheaded said...


Ditto but I'll bail on the soap. :)

This is very helpful I think especially to be able to suggest that sometimes there is someone more "looked to" in a community as a confessor or guide or whatever as I suppose you are suggesting in Richmond.. more so than the priest. And it may be a lay person, it could be a nun or a non-ordained monk; it could fit a number of possibilities.

I'd assume a post-ordination fatal accident requires a change in status, too? Would make sense.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I'd assume so, without knowing for sure.