Faculty Footnotes: Women in the Orthodox Church, Here and Now
26 May 2011 • Faculty Footnotes • Reflection by Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
This year’s SVOTS summer conference, scheduled for June 17–19, is on women in the Orthodox Church—entitled “Women Disciples of the Lord.”
Having helped to organize this gathering, I want to first express some enthusiasm about it: It is shaping up to be a remarkable, inspiring event, bringing together a wide array of speakers and workshop leaders. It is a unique opportunity to reflect, listen, speak, network, and enjoy fellowship.
This is the first conference on this theme to be organized by an Orthodox seminary in North America in over thirty years. Several excellent conferences, meetings, and talks, held here and internationally, have brought people together to discuss related themes from different perspectives. The fact that we are doing it here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary this year is notable in several ways. For one, it gives the issue a certain kind of visibility. It also means that we will be devoting at least part of the conference to theological reflection. But finally, its main organizers, as well as many of its speakers and workshop leaders, are graduates of Orthodox seminaries.
To us at St. Vladimir’s—which has had women students since the early 1960s—it has always seemed strange that a seminary could be without them. If a seminary sees itself as—among other things—a place to come closer to the life of the Church through studying and living it in community, it no longer makes any sense to exclude women from its student body.
The question has followed: what jobs or vocations can women fulfill after leaving seminary? That question runs parallel to the challenge that laymen alumni experience. Many graduates of our theological schools end up with church-based jobs; but some do not, and are seeking to contribute their gifts.
It is partly to address such concerns that one of the main focuses of the upcoming conference is vocations for women. There are sixteen workshop sessions planned (several of them running simultaneously) that will bring together women involved in church-based vocations, such as International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), as well as in vocations that have a clear bearing on their Christian identity and training, such as hospital and prison chaplaincy, education ministry, and many others. Aside from an opportunity to network among people working in these fields, we are looking to this conference as a source of inspiration and ideas for women and men in the Church who seek to build up and participate in such ministries. Our seminary, as well as clergy, hierarchs, parish officers, and others, stand to learn a lot from this meeting too.
I know that I have been learning a lot already. This has been a challenging conference to organize, and that is partly because there are several strongly held and often opposing opinions on this subject. We’ve gotten messages and calls from women who say, in no uncertain terms (and with a touch of resentment) that “there is no problem” surrounding women in the Church, that “nothing needs validating.” Others see things very differently indeed. Many have been deeply hurt by the Church’s inability to find a place for women (including young women and girls) in the Church’s life. They also believe that the Church itself has been functioning at a reduced capacity, not engaging more fully this huge constituency of its membership.
One presumes that there are also people who are just interested in seeing “what’s out there” and what the issues of interest are. I’m sure many such people will be at the conference, but they aren’t the ones writing us. In fact, almost nobody who has contacted us is neutral or vague about this issue in the slightest. The intensity of the various and sometimes contrasting signals we are getting also goes to show how very important it is to bring all these issues into a forum for discussion. That too is what this conference is about. Bringing women from Holy Cross, St. Vladimir’s, St. Tikhon’s seminaries together. Bringing under one roof single, married, monastic women, theologians, professionals, academics. People who are stung by this issue and people that aren’t—bearing in mind that if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together (cf. 1 Cor. 12:26).
This is one thing we do here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, by vocation: bring multiple voices together into conversation—voices that matter—from different perspectives, different passionately held positions and backgrounds. Not only is this a part of our mandate as a theological school; it is something that, by God’s grace, could play a role in bringing more people closer to the Church, and therefore closer to Christ.
So come and be a part of it! Go to our website and register. We would be delighted to see you at this gathering, whether you’re a woman, man, priest, professional, student, parent, single person: Come!