Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Women in the Church

Like other Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church, the Armenian Apostolic church does not allow women to become priests. Women/girls are also technically not allowed up on the altar, BUT one of the churches I go to has a little girl who occasionally is up there helping, and has girls do the readings sometimes, etc. I don't see any adolescent girls or grown women up there, but considering there are very few youths/young adults of either gender who participate in church, even just by going, so it may not be an age thing.

I surprise myself, but the fact that women are not allowed to be priests does not bother me (although I sometimes think it should...). I think this is due to two things: 1) the nature of the duties of the priesthood and 2) the nature of church life.

First, the nature of the priesthood. As far as I can tell, priests in the Armenian church perform many of the same functions of their counterparts in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, except for one. Sermons. There are still sermons in the Armenian church, but they are significantly shorter and less important than they are in, say, my parents' Southern Baptist church. That is, the Armenian church is NOT about preaching. Some priests are naturally good at giving sermons, and some are not, but you don't have to be especially good at them to succeed as a priest. This means that if someone is called to spread the word of God, or to teach others, etc., there are other venues to do that, probably BETTER venues for doing that, than becoming a priest. The choir serves an incredibly important function in the service- I would argue that they are just as important to the service as the altar boys, so I don't exactly feel that I am being excluded from participating actively in the service the way I might in a Roman Catholic or Protestant church where the hymns are just nice little additions to the service.

There is also complete acknowledgement of the role that women play in generally sustaining the church. Well, this is the case at the two churches that I attend regularly, anyway. Maybe it isn't in other churches. Everyone knows that they might not be up on the altar, but really, there would be no churches without them. The women are the ones who run the church office, teach Sunday School and Armenian School, and coordinate fundraisers, among other things. At a recent Armenian festival at another local church that I don't attend, my husband and I noticed the women running around cooking and serving food (the main way that the festival raised money was by selling dinner!), while the men stood around in black, wearing black vests with SECURITY on the back in big white letters, smoking cigars or drinking. Not kidding. My husband wondered if the festival really needed that much security. I said that probably it was the only way the women could get their husbands and grown sons to help out. "Oh, you can work security!" In both the churches I attend, the Parish Councils have women, so they contribute to running the church as well. The Armenian Church even has a special title for the Der Hayr's wife- Yeretzgin. Jews also have a similar title for a Rabbi's wife- Rebbetzin. Protestant churches don't have this- there is no real recognition of the support and sacrifices that the wife of a minister (because although I know some female Protestant ministers, I don't really see their husbands doing so much of the day-to-day support, coordination, mentoring level that the wives of male ministers often do) makes. I like that the Armenian Church says, "hey, the wife of a priest is a real position of responsibility too!"

While I do have issues with the very old-world view of women in general (particularly when it comes to how sons are treasured versus daughters), I think that church life, and maybe only in church life, are the contributions of women, even though they are separate and not always equal (often they are greater), usually recognized and appreciated for what they are. Plus, since churches are usually on the small side, talent doesn't get lost in the herd, whether it is male or female. Maybe this is why I think that the women are appreciated? They can't afford to piss them off.

This is not to say that I don't think that girls shouldn't be on the altar- I do! I am glad that there are a few churches who break/bend this rule to a certain extent. Or that I don't care that the men are happy to sit around and smoke and drink and wear SECURITY vests rather than pitching in with the real grunt work. I am indifferent about women becoming priests, I think because there are so many opportunities to express a call for anything, and you can still go to St. Nersess seminary and take classes and get a degree if you are a woman (I know they have a layperson's track and a priest track- I am not sure if women can do the priest track, even though they obviously won't become priests).

One positive thing about the Armenian Church is that often they are not big churches, which means that any one individual person has a greater opportunity to make a concrete difference in the environment of a church. Each person can be more welcoming, can reach out to new people/strangers. You can work to organize activities to get people involved. You may not be able to change the entire culture and structure of the church, but you can make the church your own.

It is late. I might go back and edit this post later, for fear that it is incoherent, but I wanted to get it up there. I've been promising it for a while.


Araxee said...

Oh Ani, I'm kinda disappointed... I disagree with the Armenian church about that. I'm glad that you at least have that inner voice bugging you about it. It is hard, because that is a major thing for me, but I still enjoy worshipping in the Armenian Church. It is kinda like singing the National Anthem. To me it is more a cultural and social experiance than a religious one. I beleive in total equality. I have that voice telling me it is wrong to exclude by gender. Anyway, It's late and now I am babbling...

Anoushig Aghchig said...

I think that it's not that I agree with the church that women shouldn't be priests, just that it doesn't bother me like I expect that it would. I would be all on board for women priests, but I am not going to be leading the charge for it any time soon. I can totally understand people leaving the church, being upset over it, though.

I also contrast the Armenian Church with other churches that prohibit or frown upon women being priests or ministers, and I see that they do not appreciate or value women's contributions outside the priesthood nearly as much as the Armenian Church seems to (at least in my experience). So I think that this makes me feel less annoyed about it.

Anonymous said...

Whilst they may not be priests I have come across some impressively talented /active young women in the Armenian church on my last vist to Armenia..impressive not only with human talent but very impressive spiritually ..I am not Armenia by the way
do look at www.clinternational.org/pstudio/

Anoushig Aghchig said...

Thanks for that website link- I will look more closely at it later, but at first glance, it looks really interesting. I don't really know that much about Armenian art or current artists, but I am all for encouraging it!

Drucie said...

This is so interesting. I think you are maybe ten years (?) younger than I am (I turn 37 at the end of this month) and I was raised with a knee-jerk reaction to question anything and everything that excludes women (I was not raised at all religiously so this is in general, not just church/synagogue.) I wonder if things will come or have come full circle for girls a decade younger than you and a generation younger than me -- kind of a religious post-feminism, I guess.

re: women in Judaism -- kind of similar to what you're describing to Armenian Orthodox. Also we have family friends who are Greek Orthodox and a lot of what you describe sounds very similar (this is my husband's college friend, who converted to Greek Orthodox when she married her now-husband.)

In Judaism there is an idea that women are naturally born as more spiritual beings, so we don't have to do many of the gender-specific mitzvot (obligations/commandments.) Much of Jewish life centers around the home and things you do with your kids, family, as a family and extended family unit. So women are crucial to that. It takes a woman's contribution to make/keep a Jewish home.

Also there's a lot of what you describe in very practical terms with women basically running much of synagogue.

We are Conservative and there is something of a split about ordination of women as rabbis and even counting women as part of a minyan (for some prayers and to read from Torah you must have a minyan, which is at least 10 adult Jews.) Our former synagogue went through a huge controversy over this. Some days women would be allowed up on the bimah (altar) and others not, depending on who was running or assisting the service. What annoyed me about that was not the disagreement so much as the intellectual dishonesty. Pick a point of view and defend it! Change it if it turns out to be misguided.

I love hearing about your experience in choir. I would love to hear Armenian religious music. I might have to find a CD. Any recommendations? I picture it sounding a little bit like Gregorian chanting (I don't know why; that's just the vocal imprint in my head.)

Anonymous said...

The woman is center in the Armenian church. Just look on the altar, the first thing you see when you walk into the Armenian Church is Mother Mary holding Jesus. That's because she was there the day he was born and held his hand when he died.

I don't believe that women are not recognized in the Armenian church, I believe it's how society developed through the millenium... Our priests and bishops are educated in countries that may not necessarily recognize "women's liberation". I have faith that in time the way women and men share all responsibilities in the home, it will translate to the outside community.

We will see... I do have a lot of faith.