Coptic Women Priests?

I recently came across an interesting book by a pretty conservative Eastern Orthodox theologian on the topic of women in the Orthodox priesthood. You can guess that he was against the idea. What struck me about the book, though, was that some of the arguments he used were totally alien to my understanding of the priesthood.

Especially noticeable was one argument that kept pooping up, whether directly or indirectly, that I might paraphrase as follows:

Priesthood means authority. Authority means control, power, being in charge.
The woman is not fit for this role, since she is the man’s helper, not his boss.
Therefore, we can never have Orthodox women priests.

I’m not sure what you would make of this?

I don’t intend to get into the whole “a helpmate meet for him” argument in this post. It just seemed to me that this argument was weak because it was built on one big mistake: Priesthood is not first and foremost about authority; it is about service.

That this is the teaching of Christ couldn’t be any clearer. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

HH Pope Shenouda III wrote in his spiritual classic a chapter entitled “Poor Men” (Al Masakeen, I think). In it, he describes his pity for those who are ordained to the ranks of the priesthood, pointing out that they will be judged not only for their own deeds, but for those of the people whom they serve. Imagine, he says, the poor Pope – who will be held responsible for the fates of millions of souls! Perhaps you can guess he wrote this when he was still a layman, before entering the monastery. Prophetic, though, wasn’t it!

Now that’s the understanding of priesthood (and indeed, any kind of Church position) that I can relate to. The world is all about power and control and advantage and prestige. But those ideas should never be allowed to get in and contaminate the spiritual service. If ever the priest needs to exercise some sort of ‘power’ or ‘authority’ over his flock, it should never be out of a lust to control others, or pride or selfishness. It should be because that is the only avenue left to him to achieve the will of God and the spiritual goals of the Church. It can also only be successful if the people he serves are willingly accepting that authority. Yet it is an authority that any sane man would flee from, for it is very, very dangerous.

What if he makes the wrong decision? What if those he serves suffer because of his orders? There is a great scope for doing damage here! I recently saw a documentary about the Jim Jones tragedy in South America. In short, an American pastor grew gradually more and more manipulative of his flock. Being very charismatic, his influence upon them grew to such an extent that he was able to take 900 of them to a jungle in South America to build a new country, Jonestown, where everything would be perfect. With a frightening array of tools of psychological manipulation, these people virtually became his slaves. Eventually, the whole thing ended with him making them all commit suicide with him. Scary.

No, religious leadership is about serving. It is about the genuine needs of those being served – not the needs of the servant. Because of this, it is often a very harsh, very difficult path to follow. Which means that any sensible person would run a mile to escape it. If you have ever seen a Coptic bishop being ordained, you will have noticed that he is brought in to Church with two strong bishops holding him firmly by each arm. Although this is largely ceremonial now, its original purpose was to stop the candidate from running away! Pope Shenouda himself repeatedly refused to be ordained as a bishop, until Pope Kyrollos VI virtually forced the matter by one day unexpectedly placing his hand on his head in the corridor, and saying “I ordain you, Shenouda, Bishop in the Orthodox CHurch of God …” There was no escape.

Pope Shenouda is famous for saying “Those who wish to be ordained as priests are usually unsuitable, and those who are suitable, usually do not wish to be ordained”. There is a lot of wisdom in this. Only a person who really understands the responsibility and the sacrifice of priesthood is suitable to be ordained. Yet that is the very person who would run away from it because of that huge responsiblity and sacrifice!

Which seems to me the biggest reason why it is unlikely that we will have women priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church … they are too smart for that đŸ™‚

But seriously, I think we are very blessed to have a ‘humble’ attitude to service in the Church. We do not see it as authority, or prestige, or position or power. Priesthood is simply one important service among many others. The Church runs through teamwork, joint effort, not through the efforts of any one individual. There is simply a need for one individual to organise that teamwork, and that happens to be the priest. There is a need for one individual to be set aside for the very scary task of administering the sacraments, and that happens to be the priest. It is a frightening thing to approach an altar with the Body and Blood upon it – frightening because we are sinners, and we are approaching an unimaginably powerful Holiness. But the priest does it because someone has to, and because God has called him to be that someone. No one in their right mind would put themselves forward to do it – only those who don’t quite understand what it really means.

Sadly, in modern life, even Christian Churches have become infected with this idea of power and authority – hence the fight over who is to rule. I hope our Church never loses its innocence. It’s not about anyone ruling.

It’s all about serving.

Fr Ant