The role of women in the Church
The role of women in our church has not been clearly defined even though we do confirm that the greatest among the saints and the first evangelist commissioned to convey the resurrection message by Christ, are both women. The Old and New Testaments contain stories of women who were ‘Judges’, Prophets, and Evangelists. The genealogy of Jesus Christ mentions certain atypical women who were not really from among the Children of Israel.
These women played important roles in the salvation story of man. These women co-operated with God’s will and they in turn were blessed and became instruments for others’ blessing. They were truly like the virtuous wife depicted in Proverbs 31, that is, a definite and creative force, what is in today’s jargon called ‘women of substance’ and quite unlike the unusual wishy- washy door mat and kitchen drudge image that is projected as the ideal woman in the Church until recently. Raising funds through Food counters, kitchen sales etc. and no votingrights. There was a prevalent stress on the image of woman as Eve – irresponsible and unreliable. St. Paul was and is quoted to substantiate this stand. But now matters are changing.
The Church is still an area of male-dominance today, yet the role of woman in our Church is evolving to the image of women as ‘Helen’ as in Jung’s theory of the development of the Anima. With the increasing number of women going out to work and becoming financially independent and part-providers, women are now understood as ‘capable of worldly success and of being self-reliant, intelligent and insightful, even though altogether not virtuous. Now they can vote, attend general body meeting and even become a trustee. But still they are excluded from any kind of public service during the Church’s most important and central work, the Sunday worship.
I understand that the Church has granted or is considering granting permission to allow women to read the Old Testament before the public celebration of the Holy Qurbana. It is being done in some Churches and this would be a very welcome change as this would enable direct participation of women in Sunday worship beyond their role as participating lay-persons. At any point of time, more women than men attend Divyabodhanam and other such courses and there are many who are well-versed with the Bible. Old and young women, who are baptized members of the Parish, may be permitted to read the Old Testament with the consent of vicar and after due practice. This would add depth and meaning to women’s role in the Church.
When considering other roles that women can play in the Church, I am tempted to use my imagination to understand how it might have been in the first century Church. In the beginning. The Church lived as a close knit community, an extended joint family. The physical, mental and intellectual as well as the spiritual talents of each was available for the benefit of all. About fifty years ago, there were more joint families and smaller parishes. The wisdom of the grand-parents and the knowledge and support of neighbourhood were freely shared and received without barriers of the self. Any parish can even now extend the benefits of a joint family under a good vicar, who can co-ordinate the women and use their talents synergistically. The following services can be rendered by the women of the Church without infringing on male bastions.
An important area where women can contribute in a significant way is in guidance/counselling. It comes naturally to women in their role as mothers and care-givers. There are several areas where nurturing and guidance are needed by the lay.
The first of these concerns women who marry into the Church from other denominations. They really need a basic idea about the Orthodox faith, rituals, prayers, etc. to make their integration smoother. Otherwise they may carry their husbands to their old faith or they might be unable to participate meaningfully. A panel of women can be appointed in each parish to identify such newly-weds and to make them feel welcome. They can offer the young women books and gentle and casual guidance regarding the liturgy, the Orthodox calendar, the importance of the day, attitude to saints, the use of incense, bells, etc. The women guides need special training to be effective. A special blue print can be developed by the Church to decide on the areas that are sacrosanct and private as well as those to be covered and the methods to be employed such as one-to-one or group interaction, literature etc. Every parish should have a library with books especially for the new converts. Women can be entrusted with the management of the library.
Women staying in each ward may also be entrusted with the duty of welcoming and acclimatizing new members of the parish in their respective wards. Relevant information regarding the parish, its routine etc. as well as the rates of wages for daily help in the locality, nearest grocery and other markets, medical help, pediatrician etc. would come in the very useful to the new comers to that area. New members must be introduced to the congregation after Sunday Service.
Marriage counseling should go beyond the spiritual. We read stories about young couples who have had stressful and unhappy marriages because of ignorance and guilt regarding the physical aspects of marriage. The necessary details regarding physical relationship, fertility, conception and child birth and possible problems should be explained to the newly married soon after marriage.It can be an optional service where couples can phone in and seek appointments/ advice in private. There are more ignorant couples than promiscuous ones among the young who are unjustly pictured in movies and novels as cohabiting and drinking pleasure-pilgrims. In fact many have hardly any energy after their taxing jobs and the constant pressure of heavy job commitments. The awareness regarding the basics of life that children developed gradually in joint families, growing up with animals and the pets is lacking now. Older women/ doctors/ nurses etc. can do this job, if trained, without embarrassing either side. The Library can also be useful here.
Counseling is required urgently in the area of child rearing Pregnancy and Parenting sessions can be arranged in each parish periodically where older women and young mothers can provide informative sessions and lead discussions. Christian parenting sessions should be conducted for prospective and young parents to train them as ‘Listening and praying parents’ without becoming paranoid about it. Importance of quality time with the children to know where the child stands at each moments within his heart, of walking the terrain with their offspring and inculcating the awareness that God walks with them must be stressed. Parents must be ‘watching parents‘as well as ‘listening parents’, but never spying or intimidating parents. Their children’s friends must be encouraged to visit so that the parents have an idea about the company the child keeps. Older women can provides the guidance, acting as foster grandmothers to help young parents and children. Again, training is needed here. A child learns first to love and trust his father and mother and later learns to love the father in heaven. It is agreed by all psychologist that there is a firm link between how children see their fathers and their understanding of God. The role of each parent in shaping a child’s God image and later his own parenting style and vice versa is significant. Obedience comes naturally where there is love. Parents must be taught to moderate their expectations, identify special talents and needs and nurture them. The church can use senior women as well as men and have annual sessions for carrier guidance. The talent that lies dormant in the adult population of the Church is vast and hardly utilized.
Parents of the children with special needs need special assistance and support from others who walked the path before them. It is within our power to train children to face defeat instead of giving up on life out of a sense of inadequacy and unworthiness.
The respect and trust that men have for women must evolve further if women are to be allowed to exercise their full potential and do their maximum for the Church. If considered appropriate, at least on special days such as women’s day, if not oftener and in other meetings, women with the necessary talent can be asked to give messages.
Women can also be formed into teams to keep an eye on sick or old faithful of the area living alone, visit them in hospitals and if possible offer help including help to come to church.
Since ‘Church’ means the people, anything done for the upliftment of the people is also for the Church. Grandparents played an important role in the joint families of yore as story tellers and communicators of moral values. They were close to the heart of the children and formed a bridge between parent and child. Today this blessing is out of our reach but we have many young and healthy grandmothers and grandfathers sitting alone and idle in their homes while in nuclear families with young working parents, children sit alone and listless before the TV during the long vacation, waiting for their parents to come back from work. Many parents try to enroll their children in summer camps or music classes. Some are sent to the grandparents. There is a supply and a lack. But I am not sure how this may be balanced. Already the Church has a Vacation Bible school to engage the young for a week.
Men and women are physically, mentally and psychologically different and this is a God created phenomenon. God made them to complement each other and to compete with each other for prominence or dominance. This difference ensure that each has to depend on the other and nurture the other for maximum welfare. Married life is the first step to learn love, synergy and sacrifice. It is like a river, stormy and turbulent near the source, but serene and calm towards the estuary where it meets with the sea.
Families are the building blocks of society and also of the Church. Men are the natural heads of the family through their physical and psychological attributes while women as in Proverbs 31 form the backbone of the family, the iron hand in the velvet glove, constantly working towards moral, spiritual and physical welfare of the unit. This is the primary role of women in the Church, though not the only one, and while the woman builds the families of the church according to our own faith and tradition, the church builds the woman through its training, worship and other nurturing activities.
Above all, women can and must pray for the church and its leaders as well as for the community as a whole as fervently as they pray for their families.