A Reflection of a Lifetime as the Second Sex in the Orthodox Church

Marianne Boules on Women and Men

Here is the third in our series of blog posts by women from different jurisdictions in anticipation of a webinar on July 30 by Carrie Frederick Frost  speaking about her new book, Church of Our Granddaughters. The webinar will focus especially on menstruation. (You can register for that event here.) This post comes to us from Marianne Boules, who runs a social-impact consulting firm in California:

Many, many years ago, while still in high school, I asked a younger girl why she thought men get to take communion first. Her answer: “Because God is a man. That’s why only priests and deacons can be men, and that’s why men take communion first.”

I make for a poor debater, so I was completely bereft of a rebuttal. I myself didn’t fully understand why men got to take communion first while the women and children had to wait for our turn, but I knew that God transcended sex and gender. How could I answer her?

Reading Chapter 1 of “Church of Our Granddaughters” by Carrie Frederick Frost had me reflecting on this memory. This little girl was a daughter of our Coptic Orthodox Church. She, like me, had seen what I had seen: a patriarchy that clearly, without a doubt, put women on a lower rung of the ladder. So, my young friend was left to her own devices to justify an explanation. 

When explaining sex differentiation through a theological lens, Carrie Frederick Frost tells us about two traditional philosophies; both created by men and both seeming to benefit men. The first is “Edenic Essentialism,” which I believe my Coptic Orthodox Church subscribes to. That uses a “separate but equal” approach which involves “the subordination of women to men based on a hierarchical understanding of humanity,” which is then “used to justify limited roles and opportunities for women.” (p.22). 

The number of examples I can use here is endless. At the top of my mind are the difficult-to-justify wedding vows that we perform, where the Priest directs women to “submit to your husbands, and husbands to love your wives.” I’ve attended many sermons where priests and servant leaders struggle with explanations like: in fact, loving your wife is harder than submitting to your husband; God asks women to submit specifically because it’s so hard for us; and other explanations that involve bending over backward to try to fit into that separate-but-equal framework. But the fact of the matter is the same: it’s not the same. 

The Edenic Essentialist approach focuses on the “beginning” of things when Eve and Adam were created. It avers that women and men have different, sexed characteristics. Also interestingly, this view leads to the sexing of God as a male, further justifying the patriarchy we’ve created and named as Holy. Looking back on my young friend, then, she was actually quite smart. Left to her own devices, she came to the same justification that many older adult members in our church harbor subconsciously.

An opposing way to view women and men comes from the “Eschatological” approach, which focuses on the “end” of things. Whereas the Edenic view states that women and men have different characteristics due to their genders and sex, the Eschatological view states that in the grand scheme of things, there is no difference. We will all die at the end, and we probably won’t have sex or gender in the afterlife, anyway. While I initially liked this view as an alternative to the Edenic view, Dr. Frost notes some important caveats. 

First, this approach puts celibacy and monasticism as “objectively superior to the state of married women and men” (p. 25). Secondly, if sex and sex differentiation don’t matter, then this philosophy could be used to dismiss women when they report suffering certain experiences because of their womanhood.

In that sense, the Eschatological view reminds me of the “color blind” approach some people take toward to racism in the modern age. It’s well-meaning, but saying that one’s skin color doesn’t matter (which it doesn’t in the grand scheme of things) means you can ignore someone’s suffering in the everyday, small part of life. After all, we don’t live in the grand scheme of things; we live in the tiny moments that make up our lives. 

This takes me to Dr. Frost’s’s final point; an alternative view that focuses neither on the beginning of all things through an Edenic view or the end of all things through an Eschatological view: She suggests that we should focus on the middle of all things by taking an Incarnational view

As Dr. Frost writes, our reality is an “Incarnational reality,” one where our species has witnessed Christ and understands what it means to be fully human. The Incarnational view knows that there are certain differences relevant to the experiences of your gender and sex, but it does not try to pigeonhole your whole person into either/or. Rather, it asks you to be who you are, fully as yourself: mind, body, and spirit.  

This view comes as a breath of fresh air. Instead of trying to define the sexes by looking to the past or future, we are tasked with trying to live in the present. It reminds me of something C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters: “For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which [God] has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.”

I will be honest; before reading Dr. Frost’s book, I had little hope for the Orthodox Church (least of all the Coptic Church) ever changing to view women more positively. Don’t get me wrong; women are revered–as long as they are “Holy” in the way our culture thinks female holiness should look like: quiet, submissive, gentle. None of these are bad traits, but it does get frustrating when that’s all you are allowed to be.

However, I will say that my husband and I found an amazing American Coptic Orthodox church near our home. It seems to be an outlier to most parishes I’ve attended. For example, in our new church, women and men sit down together and all take communion together. There are deaconesses who chant at the front. It  also enforces a strict “no judgment of crying babies” policy, which counters the “glare at the young new mother when her baby cries” culture that I am used to. I also get the sense that little girls can dress how they want here, which goes against the shame complex I and other Coptic girls developed when we dared to go sleeveless in 110-degree heat. 

In this new parish, I became a Sunday school teacher again and started making friends again, even though I feel a tinge of survivor’s guilt for all the women and girls who don’t go to a parish like mine. I also told all my other girlfriends who have abandoned the church that this parish is the exception to the rule, and that was that. I decided that, as long as there was one church I could depend on, I could be happy. 

But Dr. Frost makes a strong and scary statement: that for the last 2,000 years, our church has never actually lived out its mission to be one body in Christ. As long as women are not completely integrated into it, we will never live out the full vision of the Orthodox Church. It is only when we start to be like Christ and live incarnationally among one another–instead of assuming that it is normal for one gender to be subdued by the other— that we will be able to fulfill the vision of Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Marianne Boules is California-born and -raised American Copt. She is the CEO and Founder of Boules Consulting, a social impact consulting firm helping social enterprises prepare for, obtain, and implement funding through grant and contract readiness, writing, and management. Marianne lives in Orange County, California, with her husband Tony and her corgi Lady Gwendolyn Wigglebutt. When not writing, Marianne enjoys going on long walks and spending time with her family. 

Marianne Boules headshot