THE ROLE OF WOMEN
IN THE CHURCH
FR. TADROS Y. MALATY
THE COPTIC CHURCH AND THE FEMINIST THEOLOGY
Some consider that the increasing attitude of "Feminist
Theology" is one of the important characteristics of the
contemporary theology. Some western theologians adopt
this view, and those who belong to the "Black Theology"
look upon it enthusiastically. They call for equalisation
between women and men in ordinations (Priesthood), in
taking the church leadership, and for not using the masculine
genders for God etc... This attitude has no place in the
Coptic Church in Egypt, Why?
The Egyptian Church cared for women since its
inception. Men and women were admitted to the theological
School of Alexandria, to the extent that Origen in the second
century castrated himself so that there would be no chance of
stumbling! This indicated that many women went to him
seeking for studies, or in order to record his sermons. Today
we find that women and young ladies are admitted to the theological schools across the whole country in Egypt more than men. Some women are teaching in these schools.
The Coptic Church's high esteem for women is clear, as
she continuously honours St. Mary. The church upholds her
higher than all the heavenly hosts, even the Cherubim and the
Seraphim who carry the divine Throne. The church venerates
many women saints, like the martyrs, Mother Dolagy, St.
Rephka, St. Damiana etc.. All ranks of the church, i.e. the
pope, bishops, priests, deacons and laity, ask for their
The ascetic attitude has its effect on the
Egyptian Church. In as much as the believers' heart is
inflamed with love, often he does not desire to be ordained
nor to be involved in the social and administrative aspects
but rather seeks to practise self-denial. Therefore, in Egypt,
we notice the increasing desire towards monasticism and
virginity, the desire which the two sexes can fulfill equally,
without any discrimination.
I think that the "Feminist
appeared in the west
as a natural consequence to the struggle for power and
authority; and in the "Black Theology" as a sign of revolution
against injustice and the desire for freedom. The black man
feels that he wants to be freed from the yoke of the white
man, as it happens in South Africa. This feeling created an
exaggerated tendency against every order, looking at it as a
kind of bondage. Therefore they consider the exclusion of
women from priesthood as a western order and a white
man's culture from which they want to get rid of. This is their
opinion [as some of the African Theologians expressed
during their conference in Cairo, 1985]. In the Coptic
Church, priesthood is looked upon as a sacrifice of love and
fatherhood, and not as means of power and authority,
therefore there is no room for such struggle in the church.
The Orthodox Church respects the natural order
God has put, ie. the difference between the sexes, for God
created man and woman to complement each other. Truly in
Jesus Christ there is no man and woman (Gal. 3:28), for each
of them is a member of the one Body, having the same faith.
Both are children of God through adoption, and await the
same eternal glory. However, man keeps his role as a man
while woman keeps her role as a woman. Bishop Kallistos
says: "It is one of the chief glories of human nature that men
and women, although equal, are not interchangeable1."
The Fathers of the Church, bearing the biblical spirit, emphasised the equality of men and women but at the same time stressed on the distinction between them.
Some of those who defend the "Feminist Theology", try
to relate the ordination of women to giving freedom to
slaves, saying that the church which had an effective role in
freeing slaves during the eighteenth century has an obligation
to carry out the same role in defending women's right to be
ordained. The answer to this is that the distinction between
masters and slaves was not founded by divine order or by
nature. St. Basil says: "No man is a slave by nature2." While
the distinction between male and female is part of the order
Bishop Kallistos says that in the days of Jesus Christ
there where pagan priestesses, and inspite of that, the Lord
did not appoint a woman as an apostle. He asks: "Are we
assert that the incarnate Word and Wisdom of God was
mistaken, and that we at the end of the twentieth century
understand the truth better than He did?3." Our Lord did not
lack the opportunity of a woman to be ordained apostle,
since St. Mary was the supreme example, not just of female
sanctity but of human sanctity as a whole, because she had
Fourth: Nowadays we notice that women have their lively and positive role in the Coptic Church . We mention here some examples:
1. There are some abbesses who have leading roles. They
attract many young women to the ascetic life. I am not
exaggerating when I say that they play an important role in
the life of the Coptic families and that their convents have
become centres of spiritual sources for the people.
2. Wives of the priests in Egypt have an important role in
church ministry. In Syria a priest is called "Khori" and his
wife "Khouria." The Greeks call the priest "presbyteros" or
Pappas" and his wife "presbytra" or "pappadia." The
Russians call the priest "batushka"(little father) and his wife
"matushka" (little mother). These titles of the priest's wife in
the Orthodox churches have a special significance indicating
her duty or her right of acting in the church.
3. The increasing number of virgins who devote their lives for various services in the church is an interesting phenomenon in the contemporary Coptic Church.
4. His holiness Pope Shenouda III ordained (set) deaconesses in the feast of the Pentecost of 1971.
5. Most of the social activities of the Coptic churches, eg. in kindergartens, houses for elders and orphans etc... are looked after by ladies and young women.
6. Ladies and young women have an active role in teaching Sunday-schools' children.
Fifth: We would emphasise with Louis Bouyer4 the fact that the exclusion of women from priesthood in the Old and New Testaments, and the church tradition does not minimise their capabilities or their having an effective role in the church. Everyone ought to understand the "mystery of woman," to recognise her essential role and not only request that she performs certain jobs.
"The Woman" symbolises "the church", that is growing "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" Eph. 4:13. Her role is vital and internal. She is capable of giving birth to, and breading children, to offer them to God as a bride to the heavenly Bridegroom. Through love, women witness to Christ's Church.
"Man" symbolises "Christ" who sacrificed His life on the
Cross. Therefore, it suits him to attain priesthood not as a
matter of honour, but to offer himself as a daily sacrifice and
to die for the sake of the children of God. In the Coptic
Church whoever accepts priesthood is admitted to the
martyrs' hosts bowing his neck with love, forbearing death
every day joyfully.
Finally, we can say that the equality of men and women is
affirmed not by seeking for ordination of women - for
ordination is not an administrative position for attaining
honour but for suffering daily death that does not concord
with the feminist nature - but by declaring the "mystery of woman" which is inherited in her own identity, that is capable of revealing the church's unique beauty of her femininity. Louis Bouyer states that equality of women and men will not be realised by masculinizing women but by discovering the dignity of their femininity.
1. T. Hopko: Women and the Priesthood, 1983, p.29.
2. On the Holy Spirit 20:51. 3. T. Hopko, p.16.
4. Woman in the Church, 1984, ch.1.