Aneta Jovkovska: The question of tradition is of central importance for the women’s (non)participation in the Church

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    Aneta Jovkovska is a scientist who deals with contemporary issues that include education, religion, spirituality, interreligious dialogue, human rights, and peacebuilding with more than ten years of experience in academic teaching and work in the non-governmental sector. She is a member of the Alumni Association and works at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Skopje as an assistant professor, where she holds courses in Christian pedagogy, religious education methodology, and history of religion. While growing up, she lived near the Orthodox Theological Seminary, so she says that she practically grew up playing in its yard. The students of this school were my first friends. Religious topics often dominated our conversations, and my friends patiently answered each of my curious questions. That was the reason for me to take a serious interest in theology, and when the time came, I knew for sure that I would study theology.

    Is there a discussion in the Macedonian Orthodox Church regarding the position of women within the Church, as well as the possibility of their advancement in church institutions?

    I must admit that such discussions are mainly encouraged by women who work in educational institutions of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. I researched the role of women in the Orthodox Church and society, as well as whether there is discrimination against women in the Macedonian Orthodox Church. My colleague Biljana Petkovska wrote an important paper on the topic ”Doprinos Crkve u sprječavanju nasilja nad ženama” (op. prev. “Church’s contribution in preventing violence against women”). Another professor at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Skopje, Marija Girevska, researched the topic entitled “The Role of Women in Building Bridges of Interreligious Dialogue in Macedonia: Education of Female Theologianswith special reference to the education of female theologians in Macedonia and their prospective work opportunities within churches and religious community.

    In your paper Is There Discrimination Against Women by the Orthodox Church in the Republic of North Macedonia? you state that as a female theologian working within the Macedonian Orthodox Church, you are deeply convinced that the restrictions imposed on women in society have no basis in the Bible.

    I believe that the biblical verses regarding the question of a woman and her spiritual subordination to her husband should be interpreted in the spirit of the social and cultural concept of their time, as well as in the light of the great and fundamental principles clearly expressed in the Holy Scriptures: first, it is important to always affirm the truth that both men and women are created equal in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1-2) and secondly, that the ultimate goal of every Christian’s life (both men and women) should be the harmony with Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:10-11; Gal. 4:19). But for a complete answer and analysis of the question of biblical equality, some biblical texts, such as 1 Cor. 11:3-16; 14:34-35; Eph. 5:21-33; and Tim. 2:11-15, 3:1-12; Titus 2:3-5, 1 Pet. 3:1-7, should be analyzed and interpreted having in mind the teachings of the entire Bible.

    The Orthodox Church claims that any act that negates the dignity of the human person and any discrimination between women and men based on gender is a sin. However, it admits that throughout history there were examples that confirmed discrimination against women. These observations are contained in the Conclusions of the Inter-Orthodox Consultation:

    “The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women”, held from October 30 to November 7, 1988, on the island of Rhodes. The symposium was held at the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, and it was attended by archbishops and eminent theologians of the autocephalous churches. Among the conclusions of this symposium is the following: “While recognizing these facts, which witness to the promotion through the Church of the equality of honour between men and women, it is necessary to confess in honesty and with humility, that, owing to human weakness and sinfulness, the Christian communities have not always and in all places been to suppress effectively ideas, manners and customs, historical developments and social conditions which have resulted in practical discrimination against women. Human sinfulness has thud led to practices which do not reflect the true nature of the Church in Jesus Christ. The Church should re-examine potential data, views and actions, which do not agree with her unshakable theological and ecclesiological principles, but have intruded from outside and, being in fact perpetuated, may be interpreted as demeaning towards women.”

    Therefore, if we want to truly believe in the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, we must constantly strive to improve the position of women in society in the defense and respect of their rights and be active in recognizing their great contribution in life, in society, in culture, and the church. The Church should be the first to advocate for equal values and equal rights between women and men, helping to overcome stereotypes and prejudices and enabling everyone to contribute and benefit from economic, social, and political development in society.

    How did the interpretation of certain epistles influence the prohibition of women’s public activity and the reduction of their functions in the Orthodox Church?

    Pauline epistles sometimes speak directly and sometimes indirectly about the active role of women. Writing, for example, to the Philippians, the holy apostle Paul specifically mentions Euodia and Syntyche who “have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel…” and whose names, together with Clement’s and the names of other co-workers, are written in the Book of Life (Phil 4:2-3). The Apostle Paul does not accidentally use the term “co-workers”, because that term means work, effort, and participation not only spiritually, but also physically. The reference allows the reader to understand the important role of the two women in the life of this community, taking into account the apostle Paul’s call for reconciliation. We must not forget that, according to the Acts of the Apostles, the preaching of the Gospel began in Philippi when “on the Sabbath, we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there” (Acts 16:13). The text continues with a speech about Lydia and her house (Acts 16:14-15).

    Paul’s other references to female names mention Philemon’s house and Apphia (Philemon 1:2) and references to Priscilla and Aquila (Rom.16:3-5; 1 Cor.16:19). It is certain that most of the mentions of women who are co-workers and helpers in the work of the Apostle Paul are found in the last chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Ten of the twenty-two names are female. Furthermore, according to numerous researchers, the two most important offices or functions in the first Christian communities are attributed to women – that of deaconess Phoebe and the apostle Junia. According to anthropologists, Phoebe also received the title of “patron” or ”protector” (προστάτις), a term with a special social and economic meaning at that time. The Holy Apostle Paul does not use this term by chance, but because Phoebe’s role in the community was that of leadership.

    Although, as already mentioned, the Apostle Paul had female co-workers in local churches, who supported his work in various ways, some texts cite perceptions and opinions that the Apostle Paul supported discrimination against women and the patriarchal structure of the church and its functions (1 Cor. 14:34, Eph 5:22, Col 3:18). It is generally accepted that in these places he recounts the codes of domestic behavior (Col 13:18). It is precisely these cases that lead many researchers to claim that the apostle Paul was in no way opposed to the socio-political situation of his time. After Paul different Christian communities interpret these views in different ways. Thus, many holy fathers of the Orthodox Church express their opinion in texts such as: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over her husband; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.” (1 Tim 2:11-15). This text was adopted by the Church as a canon, which led to the prohibition of women’s public activity and their active participation in any of the church’s functions. A woman’s destiny was to marry and bear children, while monasticism was the only case in which celibacy was justified.

    According to feminist studies and research on the history of the Church, the decisive point in defining the role of both sexes in the Church was the transition from house churches to public buildings and basilicas. This change resulted in the borrowing of cult elements from the surroundings and the adoption of attitudes and behaviors that were socially acceptable. At the same time, the Church, and especially its hierarchy, tried to avoid, often for reasons of survival, everything that would offend and challenge the society of the time. Among these rules is of course the Church’s compromise regarding gender roles. Due to the success and strengthening of the missionary service, many local churches have decided to adopt stereotypical attitudes, limiting the concepts of parity and equality only to a theoretical framework, rather than to practice and experience.

    In what way do you see the realization of a feminist reading of the Orthodox tradition?

    In countries with a majority Orthodox population, every women’s movement arose and developed outside and independently of the church. Political factors contributed to the course and evolution of Eastern Orthodox theological thought being slow and quite different from the West. However, questions and demands have recently begun to be asked by contemporary Orthodox female theologians, and these questions are in many ways similar to those posed by their Western counterparts a few decades ago. For example, the biblical concept of clean and unclean, Paul’s passages that talk about silence and submission and lead to the exclusion of women and their creative activity in the community, and paternalistic views that contributed to the status of devaluation and isolation of women, are some of the issues that Orthodox female theologians are beginning to open for discussion.

    The fact is that, despite the objections and reservations of the Orthodox Church towards a feminist reading of Scripture and Tradition, female voices in Orthodoxy still exist, such as that of Elizabeth Behr-Siegel. She was the first to openly raise important theological questions about the role of women in the Church, although she was accused that the liberalism of her views was a consequence of her Protestant origins.

    We must recognize that both the feminist theological movement and the contemporary world with the challenges and questions they pose to the Church open more opportunities for self-criticism and introspection than danger. Ultimately, the studious research into the sources of Christianity undertaken by female theologians can only contribute creatively to contemporary theological thought. Dialogue is an important way to mutual understanding.

    If the question of tradition is of central importance for the participation of women in the Church, how is this tradition being understood? Does the Orthodox tradition embody the Orthodox faith?

    Of central importance to the issue of women’s participation in the Church is the issue of tradition. What does tradition mean and how is its preservation understood? According to Father John Meyendorff’s apt formulation, tradition is “the history of the right choices that people made in meeting the prophetic word of God, justly responding to the specific historical conditions and circumstances of their time.” Tradition is characterized by the shift from “power” to “energy”. Whenever this happens, the tradition is true and salutary and reveals how it unites its main complementary characteristics: moving forward and standing before the face of Christ. In this way, tradition cannot be understood without progress, continuous study, and deepening of the essence of revelation in relation to the specific problems of each age. To be a true expression of God’s will and sanctify those who participate in it this moving forward must coexist with the attitude or in the language of the evangelist John as “remaining” in Christ. The church is “old” and at the same time “new”. This dialectical perception is very vividly expressed in the work “The Shepherd of Hermas” by the holy apostle Hermas of Philippopolis, where the Church is represented as a high tower that is constantly being built and raised by adding “shiny stones”. Old and new complement each other and make the Church “a living image of eternity in time”.

    In other words, by Tradition we understand the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Church, in which every member of the Body of Christ is a partaker, in which they listen, receive, and understand the truth in the light of God’s Revelation, and not through the medium of human speech. Here we are talking about true knowledge that comes through the divine Light, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6). Only such enlightenment frees man from the limitations of nature and the conventionality of history: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

    The Church is the guardian of Tradition, and Tradition as an expression of the Church’s ability to judge in the light of the Holy Spirit is not an automatic mechanism but represents the Church’s capacity to form the awareness of the truth. It is not an expression of a habit based on repetitive uniformity, because in that case, we would define the Church as static and any possibility of dynamic expression would be lost. The dynamic character of the Tradition, combined with its study and research, starting with the texts of the New Testament and continuing with the patriarchs of the Church, makes it obvious to conclude that they do not contain a systematic teaching of the participation of women in the church. In addition, most church fathers and writers believe that a woman is deeply affected by her social position. Women seem to be trapped between the declaration from Galatians 3:28: “there is neither male nor female” and the conditions of their cultural surroundings.

    You mentioned the document The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women published in 1988, which, among other things, calls for the restoration of the “apostolic order of deaconesses”. What is the situation in North Macedonia regarding the return of the order of deaconesses? Is the revitalization of the historic women’s order the highest point of its reform policy in this matter?

    Today, in the Orthodox Church, the question of the restoration of the order of deaconesses, which existed in the first centuries of Christianity as social service and a help to those in need, is being raised more and more often. We remember with joy the holy deaconess Phoebes from the church of Kechries, whom the apostle Paul calls the helper of many, including himself (Romans 16:2); Saint Olympias, a deaconess from the 4th century and a trusted friend of Saint John Chrysostom; St. Macrina the Younger, who was the sister of St. Basil the Great; Saint Nona, deaconess from the 4th century and wife of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder. Their daughter and sister of St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gorgonia, was also ordained as a deaconess. She is especially praised for her love for Christ and her study of the Holy Scriptures. After raising a family, she opened her home to the poor. Saint Teosebia, the wife of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, was ordained as a deaconess shortly after her husband was consecrated bishop in 371. We also remember Irene of Cappadocia, who in the 9th century was ordained as a deaconess in the Church of St. Sophia by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Methodius. Also, particularly significant is the example of Saint Nectarios of Aegina, who ordained two deaconesses in the women’s monastery on the island of Aegina in 1911. In this context, at the Inter-Orthodox Symposium held in Rhodes in 1988, it was concluded that the deaconess from the apostolic period should be revived. “It was never altogether abandoned in the Orthodox Church though it has tended to fall into disuse. There is ample evidence, from apostolic times, from the patristic, canonical and liturgical tradition, well into the Byzantine period (and even in our own day) that this order was held in high honour. Such a revival would represent a positive response to many of the needs and demands of the contemporary world in many spheres. This would be all the more true if the Diaconate in general (male as well as female) were restored in all places in its original, manifold services (diakonia), with extension in the social sphere, in the spirit of ancient tradition and in response to the increasing specific needs of our time. It should not be solely restricted to a purely liturgical role or considered to be a mere step on the way to higher “ranks” of clergy”, the conclusions of this Symposium state.

    The Macedonian Orthodox Church, like other Orthodox churches, sees the need for the service of deaconesses in areas such as pastoral care, religious education, the Church’s mission, and philanthropy; further in caring for the sick and poor and the growing need of the Church to serve parents who have lost their children, in domestic violence, human trafficking and other forms of trauma, addiction, or suffering. The renewal of the order of deaconesses in the Orthodox Church can especially highlight the dignity of women and acknowledge their contribution to all the above services of the Church. However, in the practice of the contemporary Orthodox Church, this remains only a good idea.

    What effect can the autocephaly of the Macedonian Orthodox Church have on the position, visibility, and presence of women in the Church?

    In the last decade, female Orthodox theologians, through their writing activities and participation at world theological forums, have tried to emphasize more intensively the contribution of women and their service in the life of the Church. By recognizing the autocephaly of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, all Orthodox scientific gatherings, symposia, and forums are open to female Orthodox theologians from Macedonia. By participating in these academic gatherings, female theologians of Macedonian Orthodoxy can make their contribution to the broader Orthodox domain, and collaborate with Orthodox theologians of both genders from other Orthodox churches on certain issues of importance for the entire Orthodox community.

    What do you think about the future of traditional Christian education in general, and Orthodoxy in particular, in the academic community?

    The question of the status and role of theology, and especially Orthodox theology in education, goes far beyond the narrowly specialized interests of the theological schools of the Orthodox Church or other denominations. This is directly related to the development of our society. The geopolitical challenges we are facing show that urgent systemic measures are needed to change the approach to spiritual, moral, and civic education, as well as the wider role and place of faith in education. We cannot limit ourselves to the task of instilling respect for traditional religions as ways of tolerant coexistence in a multicultural environment. This approach is already outdated.

    We, professors, are facing a much more difficult task: to instill valuable worldviews in students, creating such an intellectual and spiritual environment in society that can reliably resist these challenges. For this, it is necessary to revise the stereotypes of “secularism” that have been imposed on us which exclude religion from being effectively present in education. Today there is no longer any doubt about the necessity of religious education in secular schools; this experience requires expansion and distribution to other levels and forms of education. The latter creates the need for scientific, methodological, and staff support – I’m talking about the theological staff.

    Furthermore, theology represents a special area of interfaith and interreligious communication with a very important, specific format of dialogue. Expanding this window for dialogue is not only in the interest of traditional religions but also in the direct interest of the state. At the same time, the level of discussion and the level of interaction focused on the unity of values, our national unity, and social solidarity, also depends on the availability of scientific and theological personnel prepared for such dialogue, involved in the life of Churches and religious communities, who possess authority and influence in them. As a professor at the Orthodox Theological Faculty in Skopje, I try to answer such responsible tasks as successfully as possible.

    The publication of this text was supported by the Electronic Media Agency as part of the program to encourage journalistic excellence