Essay series, part VII: What is distinctive about the way that Orthodox Theologians conceive of their task with reference to the work of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.
“Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s work “has constantly involved constructive dialogue with Western theological trends… and has also been at the forefront of renewed thinking in the past twenty years on questions of gender.”1 She thought that grappling with the role of women in the church was key to the success or failure of the ecumenical movement and that Orthodoxy had an important role to play in reinterpreting the Tradition and exposing falsified dogma.
“The customs I mentioned earlier are, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so forcefully said, “an insult to women.” They are customs that do not spring from the teachings of Christ but are leftover from the Old Testament, archaic beliefs. When confronted with these beliefs and practices, I have always been pulled in two directions: I have always been pulled in two directions: one is a longing to fight them in the name of the authentic Tradition which, as Vladimir Lossky said, is the ‘critical spirit of the Church.’ The other is just to give up, pretend to accept them in order not ‘to scandalise the weak ones.’ In doing this, however, I run the risk of scandalising other ‘weak ones’ who may draw back and run away from the Church as fast as they can.”2
In a text on the full value of womanhood, Behr-Sigel models the distinct Orthodox theological method by first locating the relevant Scripture – Genesis, chapter one – then reviewing the Church Fathers to examine how these texts might be understood. Has little ‘t’ tradition been mistaken? She asserts that though they concluded men and women are equal, they also concluded that women and men should hold different positions in the church. “How can this apparent inconsequence be explained?” Behr-Sigel asks.3 “The time seems to have come to undertake a serious theological examination and clarification of all these complex factors [that influenced the Church Father's practice of a male clergy], and to do it in the spirit of the Fathers: e.g. not the spirit of a sclerosed conservatism, but the spirit of creative faithfulness, e.g. the dynamic authenticity of Tradition.”4
She goes on to make a careful distinction between what the Church Fathers said about Scripture, and what the Church Fathers said about their own context. The former Behr-Sigel takes as authoritative, the latter she takes with greater latitude: for it is not the Church Fathers on their own in which the Tradition resides, but the Church Father’s interpretation and application of Scripture in Sobornost. Behr-Sigel receives the biblical principles first observed by the early Church Fathers, that Scripture instructs us to believe men and women are equal in essence, in their humanity, and in their capacity for God. Then she asks: How does that now play out in our culture, as opposed to theirs? This opens up a new way of faithfulness to the Tradition.
Behr-Sigel fostered great hope that twentieth century Orthodox theology might provide a meeting place of East and West in a post-Enlightenment moment. She recalls that when first converted she and her friends “all hoped that Orthodoxy would open up and somehow become the matrix of a unified Christianity, faithful to tradition and at the same time open to the modern world.”5 For herself, she perceived that “I hesitated before making my decision. Finally, I decided I wasn’t giving up any of the positive aspects of Protestantism that I prized – like the respect for one’s freedom of conscience – but would gain roots in an extremely rich tradition, that of una sancta catholica apostolica, one holy catholic church.”6
The work of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel demonstrates the unique contribution that Orthodox theology has to offer in the twentieth and twenty-first century theological debates. In a century where old borderlines eroded with the cultural and intellectual end of the Modern era, Orthodoxy has become a constructive critical voice for a Western hermeneutic. This influence is summarised by the unique understanding of Tradition as the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church. But underlying this beautiful simplicity lies a distinct intellectual heritage – non-dualistic, Trinitarian, spiritual and discerned through the practice of prayer and worship.
1 Williams (2005) p.584
2 Behr-Sigel (1991) p.9
3 Behr-Sigel (1982) p.374
4 Behr-Sigel (1982) p.374-5
5 Behr-Sigel (1990) p.14
6 Behr-Sigel (1990) p.15
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