Spiritual Community

Dr Jennifer Wasmuth Photo: Kenneth Appold
Dr Jennifer Wasmuth Photo: Kenneth Appold

Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue on the Ordination of Women

(LWI) – From 8 to 13 May 2014, the Joint Commission for theological dialogue between The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Orthodox Church met in Tallinn, Estonia. The meeting took place on the invitation of the LWF and the Estonian Evangelical-Lutheran Church in St Bridget’s Convent in Pirita. Its purpose was to prepare for the 16th Joint Commission Plenary, and the meeting focused on the ordination of women. In this interview, Dr Jennifer Wasmuth, a theologian at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, talks about common and church-dividing standpoints and the difference between the universal and special priesthood.

Why did you choose such a controversial topic for your discussion?

Our dialogue with the representatives of the Orthodox churches from the start focused on certain issues and one of them is the question of ordained ministry. At earlier talks in Sibiu, Romania, we noted that the ordination of women is an important aspect of that topic, so we agreed to dedicate a separate preparatory meeting to it.

Where are the greatest differences in the issue of ordaining women?

The simple and crucial difference is that ordaining women is not recognized in Orthodox churches, while in most Lutheran churches it is not only recognized but already practiced.

What are the reasons for that?

That is a really interesting question. Men and women are created equal according to the Orthodox understanding as well—that was shown by the dialogue in Tallinn. While there are also other viewpoints on the Orthodox side, Metropolitan Isaias expressly distanced himself from them in his paper.

Basically it is about different understandings of ministry: the Orthodox churches underline the holiness of ordained ministry. It is exercised by consecrated priests and they are successors of the twelve apostles called by Christ—all male. The Lutheran churches appeal to the priesthood of all baptized believers. While the ministry instituted by God has a special position in our churches it is fundamentally open to all, men and women. Both churches, Orthodox and Lutheran, have a universal and a special priesthood. The difference is that, on the Orthodox side, the two understandings of ministry contrast with one another while, from the Lutheran angle, one is derived from, or understood in light of the other.

Where do you see starting points for a dialogue?

I see two different starting points: the first concerns the understanding of the universal and special priesthood that is present in both churches.

On the Orthodox side, it would be important to explain more exactly why the special priesthood may not be filled by women. In the conversation in Tallinn the historical fact was underlined that only men were called to be apostles. Dogmatically, the relationship was raised between Christology and theotokotology (the teaching of Mary as the God-bearer -theotokos). It seemed to me that both these arguments called for more explanation: why is gender made the condition for following in the footsteps of the apostles today? For Paul and the Twelve Apostles it was just as essential to be of Jewish origin. Dogmatically we should ask whether Christ and the mother of God do not fundamentally change the gender relationship between Adam and Eve. Also, in Tallinn we did not talk about what in my opinion is also part of the Orthodox background, namely an Old Testament understanding of priesthood and the related idea of cultic purity.

On the Lutheran side we have to clarify why the historical fact that only men were sent out as Apostles is no longer important to us. In addition, we should explain what constitutes the nature of apostolic ministry in the Lutheran understanding. We should also make it clear that, by contrast with the then “pagan” religions in which there were also priestesses, probably the only reason men were called to be apostles was that the early Christian congregations were of Jewish origin.

The second starting point is the ministry of woman deacon. In Tallinn, Father Chrysostomos gave a paper on this, explaining that the historical findings are by no means unambiguous. We must deepen our historical knowledge about the topic, on both sides, since the early church ministry of deacon, which women exercised as a sacred office, seems to be the closest point of contact with the Lutheran understanding of the ordination of women.

What was the outcome of the dialogue?

The outcome of the dialogue in Tallinn was sobering, as it is difficult to come closer on substantive issues. The question of women’s ordination is regarded as church-dividing, at least from the Orthodox angle. The Orthodox side did not even dare to make an affirming statement about restoring the early church ministry of woman deacon. They continue to be rooted in the cultural and social situation in their own churches. Consequently I think we on the Lutheran side have to think about whether progress in dialogue is to be expected at all.

On the other hand, there was an extremely friendly, even family feeling about the meeting of representatives of the two churches. The church-dividing factor of women’s ordination was not evident at all, not even when it came to the Orthodox attendance at morning prayers on Saturday and the Lutheran service on Sunday, both occasions on which women played a “priestly” role. Consequently, although there was no ‘church fellowship’ in the strict sense, the encounter in Tallinn was filled with spiritual community which, in my opinion, was the most important thing. In the dialogue between the LWF and Panorthodoxy we should reflect on how to enable more of these ecumenical experiences in the Orthodox and Lutheran churches in future.

What agreement do you hope the 16th plenary of the Joint Commission will bring?

I hope that we from the Lutheran side will be able to present our position more clearly and understandably—naturally referring to the Orthodox arguments. Furthermore I hope that we will again experience the spiritual community that characterized our last meeting—even though the number of participants will be greater this time.