Throughout the entire history of the Church only men have been permitted to serve as priests and bishops. This is not a tradition that merely stems from the inequality between men and women in the ancient world. From the very beginning priesthood has been a service of spiritual fatherhood. A woman can be a mother, wife or daughter, but she cannot be a father. And while motherhood is not inferior to fatherhood, its mission, service and vocation are different. Only a child knows what distinguishes fatherhood from motherhood even though he cannot express it in words. The difference between spiritual fatherhood, and any other form of service is known to every Christian who has a spiritual father. The Orthodox Church takes a negative view of the recent introduction of women priesthood in some Protestant communities. This is not simply because Orthodoxy is traditional and conservative, neither does Orthodoxy wish to denigrate women or consider them lower than men. It is because Orthodoxy, taking fatherhood in the Church very seriously, does not want it to vanish by entrusting to women a service alien to them. Within the Church’s organism every member carries out particular functions and is irreplaceable. There is no substitute for fatherhood and if the Church were to lose it she would be deprived of her integrity and fullness by becoming a family without a father or an organism without all of its necessary members.
It is in this sense that we can understand the Christian attitude toward marriage and the role of the woman in the family. The Christian family is a ‘small church’ created in the image of Christ’s Church. According to apostolic teaching, it is the husband, not the wife, who is the head of the family. However, the headship of the man does not entail inequality. The power of the man is the same power of love as Christ’s power in the Church: ‘As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her… Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects the husband’ (Eph.5:24-25; 33). The headship of the husband is his readiness to sacrifice himself in the same way as Christ loves the Church. As head of the family the husband must love and respect his wife: ‘Likewise you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honour on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life’ (1 Peter 3:7). It is not inequality, but a harmonious unity that retains different functions which should exist in both family and the Church. For if the family is a domestic Church, then the Church is a large family.
The fatherhood of the priest is not limited by his function as head and guide of the community. In fact, leadership of the community is sometimes entrusted to a woman. For example, Orthodox convents are always under the guidance of an abbess who directs not only the nuns but also the priests who serve the convent. In the convents of the Byzantine era there were female elders who had the right to hear the nuns’ confessions. Even the sacrament of Baptism in special circumstances can be carried out validly and legally by a woman, for example, if the candidate is on the verge of death and there is no priest at hand.
However, there are no instances in Church history when women served the Liturgy or ordained priests, as now is the case in some Protestant communities. The priest celebrating the Eucharist symbolizes Christ, God who has become man, a male. The Church attaches great importance to liturgical symbolism: in the Orthodox understanding of symbolism, between the symbol and the reality there is a direct interdependence so that, should the symbol be changed, there is a change of the reality which stands behind it.
There were, however, in the early Church deaconesses with a wide range of obligations. For example, they helped the bishop perform the sacrament of Baptism and took part in the celebration of the Eucharist. The question of whether to restore the institution of deaconesses is now open for discussion in the entire Orthodox Church. It can be answered positively by a Pan-Orthodox Council, if such a Council would ever be convened. In actual fact, many important and irreplaceable services within the Church akin to those of deaconesses in the early Church are carried out by women today: they bake the bread for the Eucharist, read and sing in church and quite often direct the choir.