Taking Women Seriously

by David J. Dunn

On the sixth of October 2016, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America sent a letter to the clergy of his former diocese of the West, informing them that a man convicted of sexual assault would be their new interim bishop. Over a decade ago, Bishop Demetri (Khoury) of Toledo was arrested for grabbing a woman’s breast in a casino. He confessed, was convicted, and retired from active ministry (see here and here). There are unconfirmed reports that His Eminence is reconsidering this appointment, but the fact that it could have been made in the first place is proof that we have a problem. Decisions like this are what happens when the church does not take women seriously.

Let me be the first to say what I do not know. I do not know the full circumstances of Bishop Demetri’s arrest and conviction. He attributed this episode partly to alcohol and medication problems. He expressed remorse, sought treatment, and as far as I know no other incidents have occurred before or since. I most certainly do not know the difficult decisions that go into church governance and ministry. I lack the insight, wisdom, and experience of Metr. Joseph (and pretty much every other spiritual leader I have met). Yet there are some implications of this decision that His Eminence may have failed to consider.

If nothing else, this decision was poorly timed, especially given the reaction provoked by the Republican candidate’s comments on how to treat women, together with the multiple accusations of sexual assault that have since been leveled against him.

His Eminence might also not have considered that few women would feel comfortable in the presence of any man who has committed any kind of sexual assault. Knowing how rarely such incidents get reported, many would wonder how safe they truly were in Bishop Demetri’s presence. Trust, once broken, is never fully restored. Perhaps it should be, but the fact is that it isn’t. His Grace’s past would have a negative effect on his present ministry.

Women are assaulted daily by men. They are assaulted by our eyes, our words, our hands, and worse. They are assaulted when unwanted advances turn into threats and insults. They are assaulted when the images we perpetuate as a society make them squirm in their own skin. They are perhaps most assaulted when we minimize these experiences, even if we do not mean to. As a man, I have no frame of reference for what that must feel like. I have never had women shout lewd things at me or call me names for not smiling back at them; I have never been groped on a subway or had to plan a walk so that I would not get raped. These things do happen to men, of course, but so rarely that most males can only understand this constant assault as a kind of make-believe.

Human beings, of all God’s creatures, are perhaps most adept at not taking seriously what they have never experienced first-hand. Our church cares about and honors women, but we also care about and honor children. There is a difference between honoring someone and taking them seriously. The Antiochian Archdiocese establishes one month out of the year to highlight the importance of women in the church, but there is a difference between such gestures and giving women a stake in the decisions that will end up affecting them.

Studies show that corporations with women executives are more profitable than companies led mostly by men. The church is not a business, but it does make important decisions like a business, and the evidence suggests that the church would make better decisions if women helped make more of them. If His Eminence is reconsidering the appointment of Bishop Demetri (which I hope he is), then I am willing to bet feedback from women has played a role in his second thoughts. Would it not have been preferable to seek their counsel ahead of time?

I cannot really speak to what that might look like at the level of practice and polity. Some kind of special advisory council to the hierarchs seems like a conservative, common sense first step. Another would be to reinstate the office of the deaconess, which existed to attend to women’s spiritual needs (and not just for modesty). We need to hear women’s voices in parish council meetings, on committees that go beyond baking and floral arrangements, and even behind the pulpit. Like any good organization, the church can only benefit from women in positions of leadership.

It is one thing to celebrate “Women’s Month” and quite another to give women a formal role in the decision making processes of the church. Not only would it help the church to make sounder decisions, but it would also convey that the Orthodox Church does not just value women in principle; it values them in practice. The experiences of women give them a wisdom that our male leadership cannot possess. Let us be attentive.

David J. Dunn is an independent scholar who writes on Orthodoxy and religion and politics.