Can ecumenism survive some Orthodox churches’ resistance to ordained women?

The issue of female ordination is threatening to define the future of ecumenism and Orthodoxy at large.

The dome of an Orthodox church in Romania, decorated with traditional icons. Photo courtesy of PXFuel/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In January, at an ecumenical prayer service in Warsaw for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a recently ordained Lutheran priest, the Rev. Wiktoria Matloch, was asked to leave the event because priests of the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church refused to pray with her, saying the rules of their church forbade female ordination. 

None of the other clergy in attendance demonstrated solidarity with the Lutheran clergywoman, though it’s unclear if they were aware of the reason for her departure at the time. Afterward, Bishop Jerzy Samiec, the head of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland, criticized Matloch’s exclusion, followed by the website, and some progressive media such as the daily Gazeta Wyborcza and the weekly Polityka.

For its part, The Shalom Foundation, which organized the event, wrote on its website: “Collaborative ecumenical prayer, in which Catholic Church priests and representatives of other denominations participated that day, was a very important part that highlighted the spiritual aspect of this event.” 

Female ordination is of course controversial in many Christian communities around the world. Churches of the Southern Baptist Convention risk expulsion if they call a female minister, and female priesthood is not accepted in Catholicism.

However, there is a difference between enforcing denominational policies and regulating public interactions among clergy of various backgrounds. If Christian ecumenism is to thrive globally, as nearly every major church body insists it should, women priests must be a tolerated, if not welcomed, part of the modern religious landscape. 

Poland presents an especially difficult case. Dominated by a particularly conservative strain of Catholicism, the country boasts only 25 or so ordained (Protestant) women, according to anecdotal data. Ecumenical events can be harrowing for them. The Rev. Monika Zuber, who serves an Evangelical-Methodist congregation in Northeast Poland, told me via Facebook Messenger that a Catholic bishop told her to leave an ecumenical event held at a Catholic church. (In that case, other attendees, including an Orthodox priest, left the church in solidarity.)

Orthodox prelates have also displayed a particular resistance. In 2015, Ambrosius, the now-retired metropolitan of Helsinki, of the Finnish Orthodox Church, invited a Lutheran bishop, Irja Askola, to an ordination service at the Uspenski Cathedral, and the order of service included prayers for her. Orthodox Archbishop of Finland Leo and, later, Bartholomew I, the patriarch of Constantinople, both condemned Askola’s presence at the altar during the service.

But the incident in Warsaw turned out to be not a one-off response but something more systematic. Metropolitan Sawa, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Poland, has prohibited his subordinates from praying publicly alongside female clergy and has set about making female clergy an obstacle to ecumenical understanding.

Last May, in a letter to the Polish Ecumenical Council, Sawa threatened to withdraw from the council if the “problem” of female ordination continued, despite the council’s requirement that “member churches commit to respecting confessional identity of others, and advocating for religious tolerance.” PAOC is also a member of the World Council of Churches, which brings together both female-ordaining and non-female-ordaining churches and denominations.

In 2021, the Lutheran World Federation, a member of WCC, elected the Rev. Anne Burghardt as its general secretary, making her the first woman and the first pastor from Eastern Europe to lead this denomination.

Metropolitan Sawa in 2008. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Metropolitan Sawa in 2008. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Sawa is already something of a notorious figure in Poland. At one time a documented informant for the former Communist regime, he once denounced Orthodox clergy, lay theologians and international Christian organizations to the authorities — including the World Council of Churches, where he represented the Polish Orthodoxy from 1965 to 1987. According to letters passed to the East German Stasi and the KGB by the Polish Security Service, he also denounced Protestant pastors in the former German Democratic Republic.

The Communist state rewarded his collaboration by helping him climb the clerical ranks, though his activities didn’t become known until state files were made public in 2009 by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. By that time he had already been metropolitan for a decade.

A year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sawa sent a letter to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow congratulating him on the 14th anniversary of his installation, despite near-universal criticism of Kirill’s support for the war. In the letter, he commented on the split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2019: “The enemy of the faith hates the stability of the Orthodox Church and tries to destroy it. What has happened in Ukraine demonstrates this.”

Sawa later backtracked and apologized, but the episode suggests that the metropolitan is struggling to position the PAOC as an ally in the Moscow Patriarchate’s opposition to the “liberal West.”

The issue of praying with female priests, if it becomes a stand-in for acceptance of so-called Western freedoms, may define the future for Orthodoxy at large. Orthodox churches in Europe and the United States are committed to ecumenism, and their representatives to international ecumenical organizations were quick to express unease with Sawa’s stance. 

“It really comes to me as something very strange,” Fr. Nikolas Kazarian, the ecumenical officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, told me in a phone interview. “The experience I had in other European contexts, like France, like Italy, like Switzerland, like Germany, is that there is absolutely no issue with participation of an Orthodox clergyman (where women clergy are present).”

Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, said over email, “A common understanding among the member communions is to respect the internal decisions made by the respective churches, especially regarding matters that may be considered doctrinal in nature, such as ordination,” adding that the Polish church’s move was especially puzzling at a prayer service “gathered to remember one of the most horrific chapters in human history.”

The Orthodox Church of America refused to comment, and the Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USA did not respond to a request for comment.

The resolution of the ecumenical conflict in Poland proved to be rather unsatisfactory. On March 13, at a closed board meeting of the Polish Ecumenical Council, PAOC Archbishop Jerzy Pańkowski apologized to Bishop Samiec, but the council refused to issue a public statement, and Matloch did not receive a direct apology from the PAOC or The Shalom Foundation. (It did apologize to her church.)

In this atmosphere, it’s no wonder that the “problem of female ordination,” to quote Sawa’s letter, is on the rise in Eastern Europe. Ecumenical and interfaith organizations need to develop policies addressing discrimination against female pastors and enforce them, lest ecumenical dialogue become hijacked by conservative denominations with larger agendas than simply those with whom they pray.

One could argue, after all, that “no-women-allowed” ecumenism is no ecumenism at all.

(Anna Piela is a visiting scholar in religious studies and gender at Northwestern University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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