Anglican Women Bishops: A view from the Orthodox Church

The recent announcement that the Sarah Mullally DBE (right) had been nominated to be the new Anglican Bishop of London caused quite a stir, but it was only to be expected considering that the first women priests were ordained in the Church of England over twenty years ago and the first woman bishop was consecrated in January 2015.

How does this concern us? We are not  interested in doing a 'hatchet job' on the Church of England in this article. We are just trying to explain why the Orthodox Church only ordains men to be priests or bishops. We will also briefly consider some of the reasons why the Church of England has found itself in this situation so we can avoid this faulty reasoning in our everyday lives.  Our question is therefore: ‘Why does the Orthodox Church only ordain men?’ rather than: ‘Why does the Orthodox Church not ordain women?'

The answer to our question is found in the Tradition of the Church. The Early Church only ordained men to the priesthood and we continue this tradition. Historically only pagan and heretical sects had priestesses, and it was unthinkable to the Church to even consider the ordination of women priests. St. Epiphanius of Cyprus (fourth century) writes: ‘Since the beginning of time a woman has never served God as a priest… God has never appointed a single woman upon the earth to this ministry.’

In Scripture and Tradition we hear of women prophets, women deaconesses, women martyrs, women ascetics, but never women priests or bishops. The Church has many female saints, some of which are given the title ‘Equal to the Apostles’. The most famous of these are Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Thecla, Saint Elena and Saint Nina the Enlightener of Georgia. Saint Nina brought a whole nation of people to the Orthodox faith, but she still was not ordained a priest.

We can see that ‘episcopal gender equality’ is unknown to traditional Christianity.  The Orthodox Church, however, never discriminates on the basis of gender! This might seem contradictory, but we can ‘have our cake and eat it’ on this issue because our idea of the priesthood is very different to that of the Church of England.

God created mankind in His image as male and female, establishing a diversity of functions and gifts. These functions are complimentary but, as St. Paul insists (1 Cor. 12), not all are interchangeable. In the life of the Church, as in that of the family, God has assigned certain tasks and forms of ministry to the man, and others  – different yet no less important – to the woman.

In Orthodoxy, the differences between the genders are not as important as the mystery that makes us equal: our baptism. We are all born as a result of sexual union between man and woman, and we are born, die and will be judged in our bodies. However, in this life, we are all seeking to be ‘delivered from this body of death’ (Rom. 7:24) and to attain eternal life, in which our bodies will be transformed and we will live like the angels of God (cf. Matt 22:30).

We attain real equality in the Church by being united to each other by faith, although our responsibilities and gifts are different as St. Paul teaches: ‘Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who worketh all in all’ (1 Cor. 12: 4-6).

By our baptism and chrismation, all Orthodox Christians are members of the Body of Christ and we comprise ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:5) by being reborn of ‘water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5). Orthodox Christians are members of the Body of Christ, and members ‘one of another’ (Eph. 4:5). Our equality in the Church is spiritual because our ultimate goal, as men or women, is to attain the Kingdom of Heaven. St. Basil the Great says that ‘the virtue of man and woman is the same; creation is equally honoured in both, therefore there is the same reward for both.’

In other words, all Orthodox Christians are priests by their baptism but only some men are chosen to become priests or bishops by being ordained. In Orthodoxy, men do not have the ‘right’ to become priests simply because they are male. Men are chosen by the Church to become priests because of their Orthodox faith and the uprightness of their life.

We have said that the Orthodox Church has never ordained women bishops, but what is the theological reason for this?  The answer is based on the obvious differences between men and women on a physical level.  Christ did not become human; He became a man. This is why the priest, as an icon of Christ, is male. This symbolism is an integral part of the worship of the Church and cannot be divorced from it.

A bishop is called to be an imitator of Christ the True Shepherd, and a priest is called to imitate both Christ and his bishop. St. Theodore the Studite describes a priest as an ‘icon of Christ’ not simply because the priest resembles Christ in appearance, but because Christ Himself is the Great High Priest, and became man to save mankind.

Our Orthodox faith and worship are traditional and the Church does not change this faith or worship in order to be more socially acceptable or popular.  In contrast, the Church of England’s constant search for relevance has led to it becoming increasingly involved in politics rather than preaching the Gospel. The House of Bishops’ letter before the 2015 General Election was widely criticized for its socialist bias. Not having learned from this, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he would be voting Remain in the EU Referendum and recently criticized state-funded schools that select poor pupils by academic ability – a somewhat incongruous position since he benefited by going to  Eton (one of the most expensive private schools in the UK).

The politics of the Church of England doesn’t concern us, but we should be clear what the role of the Orthodox bishop is. According to a member of the commission that nominated the new Bishop of London, ‘candidates for episcopal office need to demonstrate commitment to maintaining the diversity of the traditions of the Church of England and enabling mutual flourishing. It also needs to be remembered that one of the most important evangelistic functions of the bishop is to give the Church a voice in the public sphere.’ [1]

An Orthodox bishop, on the contrary, is not called to maintain diversity or to give the Church a public voice.  He is called to imitate Christ the Good Shepherd and shepherd his flock to the heavenly kingdom. Calling people to repentance by preaching the Gospel is his primary public duty but this is exercised within the Church  and not in the political world. We too, as members of the royal priesthood, are called to witness to Christ not by empty words but by deeds. The Orthodox Church is a spiritual hospital wherein we receive healing for a souls – it can never be a platform for empty political grandstanding.

Having said this, it is not enough simply to belong to a traditional Orthodox Church with traditional bishops – our whole life needs to be traditionally Orthodox. We need to say our prayers, fast, and avail ourselves of the Mysteries of the Church by going to confession and taking Holy Communion. We should avoid at all costs, any ‘modernizing’ of our behaviour in order to be more popular or socially acceptable. Remember that we are called to be a shining light of Orthodoxy in the world so that our friends will see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven (cf. Matt. 5:16).

By holding fast to what we have (cf. Rev. 3:11) we will be spiritually strengthened to keep the Gospel Commandments and to show true love of God and neighbour without any discrimination. For as Christ says: ‘If a man say, “I love God,” and hateth his brother, he is a liar. For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?’ (I John 4:20).

[1] The Times, Letters,  Friday 22/12/2017


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