I had the pleasure to be a participant at the second Orthodox Women's Consultation held at the Orthodox Academy of Crete. Three issues emerged from our discussions and reflections of the three major papers presented to the delegates: Human Sexuality; Ministry; and Participation and Decision-making

The intention of the consultation was to raise issues of broad concern to women and men about their roles in the Orthodox church. For many of the faithful they have no desire, nor see any need for changes or for any other involvement other than fulfilling the traditional and restricted roles for the laity permitted by the church today. For many others, especially women, who feel most keenly their exclusion from so much of the life of the church and, who believe that their God-given gifts, intelligence and faith are not desired by the Church and indeed are very often openly or covertly opposed by many in the Church, the issues of the consultation raised many questions.

Many women are deeply concerned at the insular and inward looking to the past that is prevalent in the daily activities of many parishes and diocese our Church. The last few years of this century have placed before us all such dilemmas, moral, spiritual and social, that require a faith of unshakeable strength to help us find answers. These answers are sought with questions that are not answered by those whom we trust will know. Our questions are oft en treated with contempt. Our questions are often ignored as not being our business, or not being relevant to a true Orthodox believer. Through the consultation a group of women from disparate backgrounds, of both conservative and liberal thinking, sought to dialogue, to seek inclusiveness, and .to be equals in the whole life of their Church as members of the royal priesthood of the laity.

Leonie B Liveris (Editor)..

Orthodox Academy of Crete, January 1990


Human Sexuality
Participation and Decision making

Archives : MaryMartha, Volume 1, numbers 1-3, 1991-92.


Coming from 15 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and North America, we, twenty three Orthodox women, met at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from January 16-24, 1990 for the second International Orthodox Women's Consultation entitled "Church and Culture".

Sponsored by the World Council of Churches' Sub-Unit on Women in Church and Society, this consultation built on the work of the first International Orthodox Women's Consultation in Agapia, Roumania in 1976 and on the deliberations of the Inter-Orthodox Consultation on the Place of Women in the Church and the Ordination of Women held in Rhodes, Greece, in 1988. We celebrated the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998) by bringing our contribution to the work that lies before the churches.

The Consultation had three objectives:

1) to provide a forum for Orthodox women to share experiences and reflections particularly in the areas of ministry, human sexuality, and participation and decision-making.

2) to understand more deeply the inter-action of faith, church and culture.

3) to identify issues and formulate goals for the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with women.

We heard Dr.Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, France, who had spoken at the Agapia, Roumania gathering, deliver a paper on "Women and Ministry - Current Developments". The Archpriest Thomas Hopko, USA, spoke on "God and Gender - Human Sexuality from an Orthodox Perspective", and Prof. Mary Thomas, India, presented "Visions for Participation and Decision-Making by Women in the Orthodox Church". These papers formed the background for discussion in three groups and were the basis for the reports which follow.

Those discussions brought together the viewpoints from widely diverse cultures and situations: from state-supported churches and churches which are very poor; from churches in countries just experiencing democracy or with a long tradition of communal decision-making, churches in countries ravaged by war; from churches which give women a wide range of possible ministries and those in which women's possibilities are limited.

But our common concerns as women brought us together despite these many differences. Among these concerns were:

1) the urgent need for a renewal of women's ministries, particularly the diaconate

2) the need to clarify the teachings of Orthodoxy concerning human sexuality and relationships

3) the need to examine and broaden women's participation in the Church, including positions of responsibility for decision making.

During our stay in Crete, we were guests of His Eminence Metropolitan Irenaeus, Bishop of Kisamos and Selinon, and of His Eminence Metropolitan Irenaeus, Bishop of Kydonia and Apokoronos. We attended Saturday evening vespers at the Monastery of Panagia Chrisopigi, and the Sunday Divine Liturgy at the Monastery of Gonia.

The Crete consultation gave to us Orthodox women the rare opportunity to see our lives in the light of each other's varied experiences. Our hope is that these deliberations and recommendations will enrich, strengthen, and make ever more God-pleasing the life and work of the Orthodox Church.


We came together as theologians, educators, monastics, and social workers from different cultures to examine questions relating to ministry of women in the Church. We discussed ministry in its broadest sense and various manifestations, including the sacramental and diaconal ministries and that of the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), the ministry of the faithful. We considered new possibilities for women in ministry along with ministries women are now offering in the Church. In this regard we focussed primarily on the renewal of the order of deaconesses as recommended by both the first International Orthodox Women's Consultation in Agapia, Roumania in 1976 and the Inter-Orthodox Theological Consultation on The Place of Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women, which took place in Rhodes in 1988.

In Rhodes the discussion on deaconesses generated both a general call for the revival of both the male and female diaconate, as well as the specific recommendation that the "apostolic order of deaconesses should be revived". (See pars. 32.). In addition to the diaconate for women, Rhodes recommended that women be given a specific blessing, as men are given, to enter other orders, such as reader and singer, in order that they might serve more fully in the life of the Church. (See para 36). In many places women are already offering these ministries. For the Church to bless women to offer these ministries today would be both appropriate and timely. Currently in the Coptic Church, for example, the Church is officially blessing women to offer specific ministries in the Church. Further, Rhodes recommended the establishment of other ministries that the Church might consider to be necessary. We heartily concur with these recommendations and offer here our recommendations and thoughts regarding particularly the renewal of the institution of deaconess in our Church. We underline the urgency for a response to this vital need.

The participants expressed the need for the renewal of such a ministry in various ways, reflecting the different situations the Church experiences in each of our countries or regions. For example, where there are scattered families who are not members of established parishes, or parishes which have been without services for some time, the presence of a deacon or deaconess to lead the people in prayer, to give spiritual counsel, and to distribute Holy Communion where possible (when the people request it) would certainly nurture the faithful in their spiritual lives and even prevent the dissolution of those parishes.

The Churches of Eastern Europe are experiencing the impact of the changes taking place in their countries that offer new possibilities for the strengthening of the Church and for outreach into society. It is important that these challenges be responded to positively and expediently to fulfilthe expectations of the people for the benefit of the Church. Throughout the world the Churches are faced with growing secularisation of their societies and need to respond with ministries which fulfil the new needs of the Church in those societies.

The renewal of the diaconate for both men and women would meet many of the needs of the Church in a changing world. Some of the functions we deemed helpful and possible according to the needs of each church, as well as the specific charisms brought to the ministry by each person, include:

- engaging in catechetical work such as teaching the faith to children, youth and adults, instructing those preparing to become godparents, training catechumens and prospective converts, preparing couples for marriage, and developing the curricula for these educational programs.

- opening closed churches for liturgical prayer in places where there is no priest or where a priest celebrates the divine services in a parish on a regular, but infrequent basis, and establishing regular pastoral relations with the community.

.......serving the same needs for monastic communities as for communities without a presbyter

.......reading prayers of blessing for special occasions

.......performing social work in connection with the Church as part of pastoral care

........engaging in youth and college ministry, including developing fellowship among Orthodox youth and leadership training

.........encouraging, coordinating and traing persons for the lay ministry of the Church

........counselling the faithful in spirituality-related matters

........anointing the infirm

.........carrying out missionary work within the communities of the societies in which they live, drawing people to the Church through proclamation of the Gospel

-........ministering to the sick, imprisoned, and confined, and bringing them Communion when it is needed

........assisting the bishop or presbyter in the liturgical services.

Currently the female diaconate has all but disappeared and the male diaconate has been reduced to a liturgical function. The renewal of both would enrich the ministry of the Church in meeting its needs, both spiritual and practical. The female diaconate, in particular, would offer to the Church an opportunity for the faithful to experience much more widely a feminine form of ministry for which both men and women feel the need. The functions of the deaconess would include not only those listed here, but also those which fulfil the needs of specific communities or cultures and which utilize the specific charisms each woman is called to offer.

The qualifications for a deaconess would certainly include a training in theology and other related fields, practical experience, maturity, involvement in Church life, dedication to ministry, moral integrity, spiritual depth, and a call to this vocation, taking into consideration the issues raised by canons which describe the qualifications for the deacons, presbyters, and bishops. It is crucial that this ministry be recognized and sanctioned by the Church though ordination of the deaconess. The form of this ordination, the question of marital status, age, appropriate dress, and other specific matters might best be worked out according to the needs and requirements of each local church. Decisions on this subject should be taken in the context of a conciliar process and dialogue between bishops, presbyters, and laity, both male and. female.

Our conviction is that the creative restoration of the diaconate for women, which we hope will lead in turn to a renewal in the diaconate for men, will encourage and enhance the ministry of royal priesthood, strengthening the faithful to engage in lay ministry, and will provide an essential link between the bishop who sends the deacon or deaconess and the local parish. Because of this, it is hoped that such a ministry will help to bridge the gap which sometimes exists between clergy and laity in their common ministry in the life of the Church.

We believe that the fullness of ministry is present in the Church when men and women serve our Lord together, offering whatever charisms. He has given them. We express our confidence in the ability of the local churches to renew creatively the diaconate to the present needs of the Church, as well as the societies and cultures within which we live.

We also raised the question of women's access to a sacramental priesthood. Considering the urgency of some other matters, however, we only began reflection on this question and did not exhaust the topic. However, our limited discussion on this revealed that our opinions on the subject differed. We believe that it is necessary to study and reflect upon this much more fully in order to define more coherently the theology of the sacramental ministry of the Orthodox Church for our own faithful and for our friends in the ecumenical dialogue as well. Such reflection requires a more precise identification of the issues involved. And we recommend that continuing groups of women and men theologians who are involved in the study of this question be engaged in ongoing dialogue on this topic.

We offer these reflections and recommendations from our sense of deep responsibility as Christians. Having prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our deliberations, we make these proposals with the expectation that they will be fulfilled according to the will of God, through the intercessions of our most holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.

Human Sexuality


This section on "Human Sexuality" deals with very important and often difficult issues. They involve teachings of Christ and the Church which are often opposed to cultural and societal attitudes, values and lifestyles. Even the apostles responded to one of the Lord's teachings, "That is a hard saying". This should not be surprising, as Jesus Christ told us his kingdom, of which we claim to be members as members of the Orthodox Church, is not of this world. We must remember that what is taught by Christ and the Church is taught for our salvation and for the well-being of the whole human community. If we are striving for theosis, to realize in ourselves the image of God in which we have been created, these teachings are our sure guide for living in the freedom to which Christ has called us.

Most importantly, the teachings of Christ and the Church are rooted in God's love for each of us as unique persons created in God's image and likeness. Moreover, the decisions that we must make in the light of these teachings are always uniquely personal while taking place within the whole of the body of Christ. Thus, these decisions need to be made with pastoral guidance on an individual basis reflecting the greatest care, concern and love for the persons involved.

Issues of Clean and Unclean

An Orthodox woman of Ghana tells the story of a visit to a religious shrine in her country:

"In Ghana one important shrine has a large image of Christ located in a huge forest. Orthodox Christians regularly make pilgrimages to this quiet setting to pray. Men in some parishes, including the priests, believe that women should not offer prayers at the shrine when they are menstruating because the place is holy and the women's condition is unclean. Believers of both sexes are required to refrain from sexual intercourse for at least 24 hours before visiting the shrine.

When one priest advised that menstruating women should feel free to travel to the shrine, some of the men in the parish reacted negatively. In an attempt to educate them and correct their misunderstanding, the priest asked, "What is wrong about a woman having her period?" He insisted that it was a natural physiological occurrence, not something women choose to do or experience in opposition to the divine will. The men responded by objecting that when women are menstruating they cannot fast, and fasting is necessary preparation for visiting the shrine. The answer obviously does not address the issue, for to forbid a menstruating woman to fast is evidence that she is regarded as unclean, not an explanation as to why this is so. In the surrounding community of non-Christians, some places are identified as off limits to menstruating women. The priest pointed out that this practice of discrimination against women in the church is inherited from the culture and not Christian. The priest, his wife, and other women continue their efforts to educate all members of the community with regard to issues of uncleaness. The resistance to changing attitudes comes from women who have internalized them, as well as from men who reinforce them.

This kind of experience, in varying degrees, is common to many women in the Orthodox Church. We thank God that priests like the husband of the Ghanaian woman who tells this story want women to have a different kind of experience. However, many women are still made to feel sinful or unclean during their period, after childbirth, or following miscarriage.

Where does this attitude come from? It is certainly a serious misinterpretation of Orthodox teaching. Even the words "clean" and of "unclean" carry a stigma which the Church has never in its true teaching placed on women.

Those who have studied the issue feel that a deep misunderstanding underlies the problem. It is true that the Church has a service of churching for women, a kind of re-entry into the sacramental community after the momentous event of giving birth. It was understood as a purification, the same kind as required of any person who has come in close contact with the holy. Just as an Old Testament priest who had touched the Torah had to be purified, so does a woman who has taken part in the creation of life, certainly a sacred act. It was this participation in the sacred that the Church saw as requiring a purification. A negative understanding of this need for purification from "uncleaness" took hold, perhaps through Gnostic or cultural influence. Women came to believe, and were sometimes taught in their churches, that it was sinful for them to commune during their periods, because they were unclean. The churching prayer was looked on as a re-integration into the Church after some kind of sin.


1) All who are in teaching and pastoral positions within the Church should study, take to heart, and teach the true position of Orthodoxy regarding ritual uncleaness. This is well summarized in Women and Men in the Church, A Study of the Community on Women and Men in the Church, Syosset, New York, Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America, as follows:

"The churching of women in the Orthodox Church remains today as a special rite in which the woman offers herself and her child to God, asking the blessings of God and forgiveness of her sins, since she, a fallen creature with actual sins, has been found worthy to be a bearer of life and the living source of a new human being created for the Kingdom of God....

"...The rite, therefore, is not done because sexual intercourse is a sin, or because childbirth is wicked. On the contrary. It is done because sinful persons in a fallen and death-bound world have been accounted worthy to participate directly in an act of God. The fact that the Virgin Mary was "purified" after giving birth without man's seed to the Son of God should be proof enough that it is not the sexual act which makes the mother in need of purification after childbirth."

"...ideas that women with their menstrual periods should not receive holy communion or kiss the cross and icons, or bake the bread for the eucharist, or even enter the nave of the church, not to speak of the altar area, are ideas and practices that are morally and dogmatically indefensible according to strict Orthodox Christianity .... Saint John Chrysostom condemns those who propagate such an attitude as unworthy of the Christian faith. He calls them superstitious and the supporters of myths". (pp. 42-43)

2) We urge the Church to reassure women that they are welcome to receive Holy Communion at any liturgy when they are spiritually and sacramentally prepared, regardless of what time of month it may be.

3) Theologians should study and consider rewording the prayer said for a woman after she has miscarried. The prayer seems to imply that the woman is to blame for the loss that has taken place. The prayer may seem to have this tone because anything involving death is also connected with the fallen state of humankind. However, since miscarriage is normally a tragedy not of the woman's making, the prayer might be altered to offer more comfort and not to aggravate a spontaneous sense of guilt that the woman may feel.

4) Theologians should also write simple and appropriate explanations of the churching service and adapt the language of the rite itself to reflect the theology of the Church. This would be helpful to men and women who need to be given the true meaning of the service: that it exists as an act of offering and blessing for the birth of a child, and that it should be performed as soon as the mother is ready to resume normal activity outside her home. Our efforts in this area can always be informed by the words of our Lord, "Do you see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on. But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man: but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man" (Matthew 15, 17-20).

II. The Sexual Double Standard for Women and Men

An Orthodox woman from Syria tells the story: "In the Middle East a woman's place is with her husband, whatever he is or does. There was a nice couple in Aleppo who had three children, two daughters and one son. The husband suffered a mental disturbance due to a very bad situation he faced in his work. For three months the wife suffered much but kept silent. When the situation grew worse, she asked for help from his brothers and his nephew, but unfortunately no one believed her except the nephew. Since he was a physician, he took the husband to a specialist and then treated him on his own with tranquillizers. The husband's condition grew worse. He suspected his wife of having sexual relations with a friend of his and threatened repeatedly to kill her. When she went to her brother asking for support, he refused to receive her in his home and asked her to return to her own house because that was her rightful place. She did go back and awaited her fate.

"One night about 2 a.m. the neighbours heard children yelling from one of the balconies.. The neighbours rushed over and had to break down the door of the apartment. They found the wife dead in a pool of blood and the man standing with a knife in his hand. He had locked the children out on the balcony and then attacked his wife. It was obvious that she had been stabbed, tried to escape, was pursued by her husband and stabbed twice more. After this horrible incident women have become more courageous in asking for separation when living with their husbands proves impossible."

Most women will recognize in this harrowing tale an example of the double standard that exists for men and women. Had it been the wife in this story who exhibited such bizarre behaviour, others would have urged the husband to get her safely out of the house and into treatment before she harmed anyone. It is doubtful that he would have been told to go home and silently put up with it.

Perhaps in no area of behaviour is this double standard more evident than in that of sexuality. In India a wife is expected to receive her husband silently and readily after any number of infidelities. However, any act of infidelity on the part of the woman can have serious consequences. In the USA.sexual activity for single males was not perceived as damaging for their reputations and marital prospects, in contrast to its effects on single women. (Recently this double standard has changed in some segments of American society, with women exercising greater sexual freedom, but this change is not for the better.) In some countries a Christian husband can legally separate from his new wife if he discovers that she is not a virgin. The double standard is thus legitimized by law.

Yet none of this behaviour is in keeping with the Church's teaching, which sets for both men and women the same standard of married fidelity or unmarried continence. Women generally do not look upon men as potential sexual conquests, not should they; but the Church teaches that men must not look upon women in this way either.

Why are some men deficient in their attitude toward women? It may simply be that society, including some Orthodox societies, perpetuates a double standard and encourages men to see themselves as being completely in charge, having sole authority and decision-making power in any relationship with a woman. Some have even understood the Church to uphold this attitude through the Bible reading used in the service of marriage, "For the husband is the head of the wife..."(Eph. 5,23). However, it is important to know what this characterization of the man as head means, and a few verses later, the passage gives that meaning: "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it." Headship implies love and self-sacrifice for the sake of the other. It also means that, just as a head and body must work together, so the husband and wife must work together in making mutual decisions, taking mutual responsibility, and showing mutual selfless love.

With this understanding, it is easy to see that there can be no double standard for men and women. As much at odds as they may be with society, standards set by the Church must be proclaimed; fidelity for men and women within marriage and continence for all single people until marriage or as long as they remain unmarried.

A Syrian Christian woman from South India relates another troubling incident regarding the double standard affecting women. in her community it has long been the custom for the bride's family to pay a dowry to the groom and his people at the time of engagement. In recent years the amount of the dowry has increased astronomically and is based solely on the qualities of the male. In other words, he requires a dowry in proportion to his education, wealth, social status, etc., while the personal qualities of the bride are given little or no consideration in the assessment of the dowry.

About thirty years ago a Syrian Christian woman appealed the dowry practice and inheritance rights to the Indian court, and a judgment was given by the Supreme Court of India requiring that daughters share equally with sons in the division of the ancestral property and the father's own wealth if he died intestate. However, the practice of paying dowries in hard cash has continued, and to circumvent the law, brides are often forced to sign statements saying that they have received their due share of their family property even though they have not. The Church has been a party to such transactions because it receives a percentage of the dowry from both the bride's and the groom's family. Moreover, the Church has been unwilling to speak out against this injustice against women for fear of offending the men in the community. With regard to the middle and low income groups, the dowry that has to be paid to get a suitable boy is often far more than what the bride's family can afford, and as a result many women remain unmarried. Moreover, in marriages contracted without a dowry, the wife is often subjected to psychological abuse for having failed to make such a settlement.


1) The Church should encourage parents to give their children an upbringing that emphasizes respect for oneself as well as for members of the opposite sex. Mothers and fathers can be invaluable role models for their children, not least in the love and mutual respect that they show each other as husband and wife.

2) The Church should address the question of the double standard in her counselling of young people, those preparing to marry, and all members of the community.

3) The Church should speak boldly against the dowry system and in favour of women's inheritance rights and educate congregations in general and the youth in particular concerning these issues.

4) The Church should offer sympathetic counselling to women who are maltreated in marriage or are constant victims of their husband's infidelity, but who feel that any misery is better than the stigma of divorce. While not encouraging divorce, the Church does recognize that a marriage can become defunct. The Church should be prepared to combat the cultural attitude prevalent in some societies that divorce is always the women's fault.

III. Responsible Family Planning

Family planning is an important issue in some countries. Apparently some of the clergy in our churches are teaching that the Church's only permissible means of contraception is abstinence. If no other created means were in existence or available, that might well be true, especially if abortion were being used as the alternate method of birth control. However, we feel compelled to put forth that the teaching of "abstinence only", while well intentioned, is not an "official" teaching of the Church and is not universally accepted.

Marriage has been ordained by God and confirmed by Christ in His presence at the wedding in Cana. In the blessed union that ' brings a man and a woman together, the first and foremost goal is their mutual love and salvation in Christ. Physically, this is expressed by their sexual union. But this does not presume that every act of sexual intercourse is meant to create a child. On the contrary, while children can be the natural outcome of a marriage rooted in the love of God, they should be a wanted and desired fruit of this love. If a husband and wife unselfishly do not feel ready to have a child or feel that they already have as many children as they can responsibly raise and nurture, the idea of required abstinence from sexual relations to prevent conceiving a child is not the teaching of the Church. St. Paul recommends that married couples only "separate for a time for the sake of prayer and fasting, but then come together again lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control" (I. Cor. 7,5). In most if not all societies where Orthodox Christians live, there are safe methods of contraception that are advisable. The decision to use birth control should be made together with an open heart before God, who knows our thoughts and needs and limitations, and with proper pastoral guidance.

The emphasis here is on prevention. Only methods that prevent a child from being conceived are acceptable. Once a life is created, the act of taking a life is sinful in the eyes of Orthodox Christians, based on the Scriptures and the canons. Therefore, abortion is forbidden by the Church. However, if the mother's life is in danger, or in cases of rape or incest, pastoral counselling is recommended before deciding how to deal with the pregnancy. Because she may have children to care for or could potentially bear other children, the mother's life is given priority in medical emergencies.

Several women from the Middle East and Africa told stories about women in their communities who refuse to use contraception, even after bearing six children and finding themselves unable even to provide for them. These women do not do this out of love. They act out of fear. Should a woman choose to use contraceptives and the husband learns of it, the wife faces possible physical abuse. Why do so many men in these cultures refuse to allow the use of contraceptives? One reason is that their virility is expressed by the number of children they have - the more children, the more "manly" they are. Such an example of self-image is not what Christ taught, nor does this image convey the proper one of "husband" in the writings of St. Paul. As discussed earlier, the husband's being "head of the wife" means a loving and sharing of himself in all ways and all things, including decisions regarding family planning and responsibility for the use of contraceptives. Moreover, the basis for a decision should not be his virility status.

These same women also informed that sexual relations are used as a form of domination over women. In these cultures the norm is that only the husband decides if and when he and his wife will have sex. (Any desire by the wife for sexual intimacy remains unfulfilled unless she has an exceptional husband who allows her to express it). Such an attitude conflicts directly with scriptural teaching and the Church's understanding of shared intimacy. St. Paul wrote that the husband's body in marriage actually belongs to the wife and vice versa (I Cor. 7, 1-7). The gift of physical love should be given both in the form of affection and sexual union, as an expression of a person's total selfless giving to a spouse who receives it in selfless love for mutual enjoyment and fulfilment. Using sex as an instrument of domination is to debase physical love.


1) In places where "abstinence only" as a method of birth control is being taught, those people teaching it should seriously consider revising their position to a more comprehensive teaching concerning marital sexual love without conception.

2) In places where culturally determined values equate masculinity and femininity with the number of children a man or a woman has, steps should be taken by clergy and teachers to educate the faithful, particularly those approaching the normative age for marriage, about the wrongness of such thinking. We hope that Christian values concerning self-image and respect would be introduced boldly.

3) Where abortion is currently being used as a method of birth control, leaders of the Church (clergy and laity) should witness to the sanctity of life on several levels. The first would be in teaching that abortion is wrong. The second would be to recommend or assist women in obtaining acceptable contraceptives, even if only by referring them to doctors who understand the Church's teaching. Thirdly, the Church needs to be willing to help find adoptive homes for children born to unwed mothers who carry the child to term or to married couples who simply cannot afford financially, emotionally or otherwise to have another child. The church community must necessarily be willing to offer spiritual and emotional support, if not financial support, to the women, especially the unwed, who choose to carry a baby to term as an affirmation of the sanctity of life.

4) Pastoral care should be given with great sensitivity to women who have had abortions. Christ came to give us hope with the promise of renewed life and forgiveness of our sins. This merciful loving kindness is what we ask.

5) The topic of family planning and contraception should become a standard part of a priest's discussion with every couple seeking to be married in the Church. We hope printed material on the topic will be developed and made available, especially for clergy who do not feel qualified or capable of such open and frank discussion.


We regret that there was no time during this consultation and our working group to address several other very important issues. Among these topics are the concerns of single people, domestic violence, divorce, homosexuality, genetic engineering, and bio-ethics related to human fertilization and conception. Because these issues will remain in the forefront in many cultures, we sincerely hope that future consultations will take place internationally and regionally to address these topics. Additionally, because issues of human sexuality by definition include women and men, we recommend that future consultations include men as well as women participants.

Participation and Decision-Making


The Mother of God, God's instrument in the Incarnation and greatest of all the saints, is at the centre of every Orthodox Christian's understanding of the role of humanity (men and women) in the Church. Women have been active participants in the heart of the Church since its very beginning. Women are always there, faithful even in the face of great obstacles, attentive to the needs of the Church and of its members, whether it be by faithful attendance at the services, caring for the church building, educating the children or providing food for the community. It is they, above all, who have kept the faith of the Church and played a great part in its survival through the most difficult times, and older women in particular continue to play a vital role within all our communities, teaching the practices of the Church and their meaning. We have the examples from Scripture of the women at the foot of the Cross, faithful to the very end of the Crucifixion, and the myrrh bearing women to whom Christ first revealed His Resurrection.

The essential characteristic of the Church's communal life is conciliarity. This can and should be reflected in the structure of the Church, though the will of the whole Church body can assert itself even where formal structures fall short of conciliarity. Thus, where the Church has formal structures (committees, parish or diocesan councils, etcs.), the whole body of the Church should be represented.

The essence of conciliarity is that each baptized member of the Church is responsible for the Church and that all respect the unique gifts given to each person for the building up of the Church. Where respect for each is present, laity of both sexes will be enabled to serve the Church to the fullness of their capacity, unrestricted by stereotypes of what women are or are not able to do.

Where We Are

In order to present the following recommendations to the bishops, clergy and laity of the Orthodox churches, it is essential briefly to outline the present situation which reflects the participation and responsibilities for decision making already entrusted to women in Church life. This is not an exhaustive list but a synthesis of the experiences of those women who are present at this Consultation.

Women are keenly aware of their responsibility for all aspects of church life, making no separation between the physical and the spiritual. In some regions women may take an active part in all aspects of church life. Women are faithful to the liturgical life of the Church. They take responsibility for religious education, they organize social activities, they care for those in need, they work and assist in administration. Such activities are common to all regions. However, there are differences. Attempts by women in Ghana and Ethiopia to organize themselves into groups to participate more fully in the Church community and its liturgical life have been met, in many instances, with prejudice and suspicion. Orthodox women in many countries (e.g. Finland, France, Greece and USA) can freely attend any level of theological education; but women in India, for example, are not eligible for any education in Orthodox theological schools. In some churches in the Middle East women have many possibilities, while in others they are quite restricted in their participation. Similarly, outside the traditional Orthodox countries, as we heard from Australia, there are dramatic differences between the various ethnic church communities.

In many there is progress towards more varied participation by women but it is often erratic and uneven. For instance, in some Orthodox churches in North America and Europe, there is now more encouragement for women to take responsibility in various activities within the Church. However, both in the areas of representation in decision-making bodies of the Church and in possibilities for vocational work in the Church qualified women are still under-used.

Concerning responsibility in the community and decision-making the situation is totally different. There are still churches in which women are not permitted to be members of the decision-making bodies of the Church, ie. parish, diocesan and church councils, neither (as in India) are they permitted to vote in the church elections .In regions where both membership and voting rights have been guaranteed for women their representation varies greatly. For example in the Russian Patriarchal Diocese of Great Britain often more than half of the members of the parish council are women. In Finland and in North America the percentage of women delegates differs from parish to parish.

There is a serious need for general theological education for the laity, especially for women, to enable their full participation at all levels of the decision-making process. Those who make responsible decisions in the Church need an understanding of the Church as a Eucharistic community encompassing both the spiritual and the material life of its people. For the Church to function fully as the Eucharistic community in changing and secularized societies, its renewal and a rediscovery of the conciliarity of the Church is vital.


Women's participation in the communal and especially the liturgical life of the Church is often frustrated by a tangled web of tradition, custom and cultural prejudice. There is a pressing need to clarify the scope of women's participation and responsibility in the Church. As women members of the Body of Christ, our over-riding concern is to be able to place all our God-given abilities and skills at the service of the Church.

It is for these reasons that we put forward the following concerns:

1) We are not aware of any justification in the authentic teaching and tradition of the Church for the exclusion of women from those positions and tasks in the Church which are the responsibility of the laity, including positions of authority and decision-making in the community. We therefore urge all our churches to encourage the full participation of women in all these areas.

2) A general theological education and basic teaching about the Church needs to be more widely available to the laity,, with particular encouragement for women to attend their Church theological schools wherever possible. The question of subsequent employment of theologically educated women needs to be seriously considered and examined creatively and imaginatively.

3) The skills and abilities of highly educated and trained women often fail to be utilized in the service of the Church (e.g. as specialist consultants to bishops' conferences). There are women trained in research and scholarship, writing, music and many other disciplines. The Church needs to seek out and recognize these skills and encourage and bless their use for the whole community.

4) We are deeply aware of the need for renewal in church life, and the rediscovery of community life in parishes which have ceased to function as real communities. Areas where we see this need include: mission within our own parishes; pastoral care for new church members; outreach to the wider community in which we live; youth involvement in church life; exploring ways in which girls in particular can participate more fully in liturgical life; and support for partners in mixed marriages.

Women's traditional concern encompasses both the spiritual and the practical well-being of the family and the wider community. We believe that this integrated vision can make a real contribution to building up a community where men and women work together and where, indeed, men can learn to take many of the responsibilities frequently held by women.

5) We urge the Church to show increased awareness of the shared ministry of the priestly family. The bishop and also the parish need to have a pastoral concern for the priest and his family. There is a need to recognize in the wife of the priest a person who does play a role in the parish but may have her own particular charism. These charisms may or may not be entirely fulfilled in the traditional roles within the parish.

6) We believe that participation in the ecumenical movement has been valuable in showing Orthodox women that they can take responsibility and be competent and articulate witnesses to their faith. At the same time, the presence of Orthodox women has made a particular contribution to increasing and deepening ecumenical and pan-Orthodox contacts. We hope and recommend that more opportunities be given to women to make their full contribution at all levels of such contacts, and to report back to their churches. It is imperative that Orthodox participants in ecumenical encounters at all levels be properly prepared for dialogue, although this need not mean an academic theological qualification.

7) The courage and steadfastness of women saints from biblical times to the present day have inspired and strengthened Orthodox women for countless generations. Given the increasing scholarship of women theologians, often with a feminist perspective, there is a pressing need for Orthodox women to rediscover the place of women in the history of our Church, using the new scholarship, but always in the light of the tradition of the Orthodox Church. In this way the lives and writings of the women saints will continue to serve as models and inspiration for Christians today.


Back Row: Gertrude Labi (Ghana); Mary Ann De Trana (USA); Monika van der Maden (WCC staff); Leonie B Liveris (Australia); Tarja Lehmuskoski (Finland) Elaine Gounaris Hanna (USA); Constance Tarasar (USA); Leena Mikkila (Finland) ; Elizabeth Theokritoff (UK); Anu Talvivaara (Finland);

Second Row: Fr Thomas Hopko (USA); Stephanie Yazge (USA): ; Rev. Betty Bailey (USA, invited observer, National Council of Churches); Eva Suvarska (Czechoslovakia) : Natalie Le Chevrel (France); Valerie Zahirsky (USA): Rev Dr Jane Stuhl (USA, invited observer Lutheran World Federation ); two visitors from the Cretan Women's Association, Chania ; Rev. Anna Karin Hammar (WCC staff and coordinator of Women's Desk); Sr Theodekti (Greece).

Front row: Annama Verghese (India); Mulu Tibebe (Ethiopia); Mary Thomas (India) Maud Nahas (Lebanon); Karin Yalcin (Turkey) ; Farida Boulos (Syria); Helena Sperenskaya (Russia); Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (France)