I am going to do something I have never done before: post my sermon from today’s service. I don’t write down or record my homilies, so this is kind of a recreation of my remarks.
We celebrated the feast of the Entrance of the Virgin Mary today, and this coming Thursday is the feast of St. Katherine. Our church is one that holds female saints in high regard, with the Virgin Mary held above all. That being said…is the Church sexist? I recently had a conversation on this topic with a friend, and I think a lot of us may, passively at least, think this. There are definitely chauvinistic elements to Greek and Eastern Mediterranean culture, but that stuff comes from our time under the Ottomans rather than anything intrinsic to Christianity. Orthodox Christianity promotes the equality of all, but there are two major practices of our church that, especially in the context of 21st century American political culture, can make it seem like the Church discriminates against women.
The first big thing is the all-male priesthood. The Church is not, in this sense, an equal opportunity employer, but this is not what she is all about. If we look at the origins of male priesthood it all starts to make sense. Back in the day in Judaism, from which our priesthood has its origins, the priest was not the youth director, he didn’t go to clergy police academy and all that other stuff. He had one job: he conducted the sacrifice in the temple. Today’s epistle reading from Hebrews talks about this. He was essentially an ordained butcher, and this was a messy job. Culturally at the time this duty fell to males and our Church all these millennia later continues the tradition with the priest celebrating the bloodless sacrifice of the eucharist. Another reason the early church did not have female priests was the association of such a position with the pagan cults of the Roman Empire. These were not the mild new age pagan groups we have today but the often violent and frenzied cults discussed in The Golden Bough.
The second practice in our Church that can give the impression of sexism is the epistle reading during the wedding ceremony from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. This is the infamous “Wives, be subject to your husbands.” (I believe this is the point in the ceremony where the bride steps on the groom’s foot?). Like with the male priesthood, this passage can on the surface make it look like women are second-class citizens in Orthodoxy. But there is more to the chapter and verse. In the early church, when this line was read, people either didn’t register it or thought, “well, of course wives be subject to your husbands – that is how things are.” But the passage goes on to urge husbands to love their wives. This was a revolutionary idea; relationships back then were _not_ equal partnerships of love and respect. Christianity is revolutionary in this; and I daresay today this idea is still revolutionary.
My time in the Worcester Clergy Police Academy, to which I alluded to earlier, opened my eyes to what the police do here, and most calls that police here and I imagine elsewhere deal with are domestic situations. Two thousand years later couples still are not treating each other with respect. A relationship does not have to get to the point of calling the police in – we all have arguments and moments where we don’t treat our spouse with love and respect; this exhortation from Paul is as vital today as it was then. The Church is not sexist; rather, Christianity promotes the revolutionary idea of love and respect between a husband and wife.