Scholars Not Priests

by George Demacopoulos

In a seminal essay in 1990, the eminent scholar of early Christianity, Elizabeth Clark, demonstrated that Christianity grew rapidly, in large part, because women served as the community’s earliest financial benefactors—they were “Patrons not Priests.”[1] According to Clark, female patronage was not only a matter of Christian piety, it was also a consequence of broader social and cultural changes for women in the Greco-Roman world. At precisely the same time that Roman society was restricting women from serving as patrons for civic events, a small but determined group of female aristocrats turned their patronage toward Christianity. And the rest, so to speak, is history.

I would like to suggest that there is a parallel sociological phenomenon in the Orthodox Church in the United States today. While women are still unable to become priests, they are increasingly becoming scholars of Christianity. And this is having a profound, positive impact on the Church.

Already, there are female scholars of Orthodox Christianity at Ivy League institutions. Many teach at private and state research universities. Others teach in small liberal arts colleges and seminaries (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox). Academic disciplines that were once the exclusive domain of men—especially theology—are increasingly more balanced. So too are the boards of elite academic journals and academic societies. While the increase of women in these fields mirrors broader trends in American academic life, the sea change for American Orthodoxy is distinctive in many ways.

Indeed, one need look no further that the situation in ROCOR  (the Russian Church Outside of Russia). While it had always been the case that the sons of Russian priests were well educated, daughters born to American ROCOR priests in the 1960s and 70s went on to earn PhDs in Church-related fields at a rate statistically unprecedented. At the time, ROCOR was both insular and marginal with respect to the broader American Orthodox scene.  But today, these women are some of the most prominent and influential Orthodox scholars in their fields.

ROCOR priest-daughters offer just one example. Orthodox women from every ethnic jurisdiction, as well as a large number of adult converts, are transforming the Orthodox academic landscape. In part, this is because many of these women are publishing peer-reviewed material at a rate that well exceeds their Orthodox male counterparts, especially their male counterparts at Orthodox seminaries.

Why is this happening? There are likely many reasons for the boon in female professorships, not the least of which is broader demographic changes in the US labor force. But let me propose an explanation specific to the Orthodox community that might, at first, appear counter-intuitive.

I believe that there is something sociologically potent about the fact that our parishes can often stifle the theological curiosity of young women in a way that they do not for young men. Edward Said once observed that the task of the scholar is to stand apart, to embrace an exilic condition, not only so that one might ask the questions that no one else thinks to ask but to be prepared for the scorn that will come from having the audacity to imagine the question. Is it possible that the overly-gendered conventions operative in some of our parishes actually prepare women for a life in academia?  Is there an American Orthodox setting where a smart young woman can ask a difficult or probing question in a public context without social repercussion?

In other words, I’d like to suggest that the lazy, patriarchal patronizing that often passes for the maintenance of tradition in our communities (and especially online) might actually be preparing a subset of women from a young age to withstand the relentless threat of self-doubt that will accompany them throughout a lifetime of scholarly peer review.

The infusion of female scholars has already changed Orthodox Christian Studies, in part, by reconfiguring the types of research questions that we ask of our tradition.  For example, it is only in the last thirty years that scholars have bothered to look carefully at female saints’ lives to understand the wide variety of ways in which Orthodox Christians have historically understood the potential for female sanctity. Similarly, it is only recently that we have begun to uncover the long-silenced female voices from Christian antiquity or the Byzantine middle ages. More recently, Orthodox women scholars have begun to investigate the late medieval contexts in which new (theologically inconsistent) purification rites related to motherhood and the female body were introduced into liturgical practice. The pioneering work of women in these fields has led to a revolution in the broader academy, such that every college student in a theology or religious studies course in the United States now explores these aspects of the Christian tradition.

To be sure, many female Orthodox scholars pursue topics that have no explicit connection to what might be characterized as Women’s Studies or Gender Studies. Conversely, many men now work within these fields and with some fascinating results.

The more significant point is that the research produced by female scholars is typically of excellent quality and that it is improving the nature of higher education for Orthodox and non-Orthodox students alike. My sense is that we are only at the tip of an iceberg. And this transformation has broad implications for the future of Orthodox education and, therefore, the Church.

Even if the appointment of women to Orthodox seminary faculties lags broader trends in Orthodox Christian Studies at research universities, there is little doubt that the scholarly output of Orthodox women scholars will become an important component of every seminary curriculum.  This will manifest itself, most significantly, in the sermons and pastoral work of future priests.  And the rest, so to speak, will be history.


George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.