In persona Ecclesiae

While the contemporary Eastern Orthodox fixation on the bishop runs just as deeply as the Roman Catholic tradition, there are differences in the iterative understanding of the episcopal role in the Lord's Supper. The modern Eastern tradition shares the understanding of the bishop's privilege in the Eucharist found in St. Ignatius' writings. But a fundamental difference remains within Orthodox theology that could open the possibility of women celebrants: the rejection of the doctrine of Eucharistic celebrant acting in persona Christi.

Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia acknowledges the same passages from Ignatius' writings in which the priest is seen as the representative of Christ. However, he also points out that Ignatius likens deacons to Christ as well, thus contradicting any one set scheme of representative power residing exclusively in the bishop.[1] Kallistos goes on to explain important differences in the Orthodox understanding of the celebrant's role within the Eucharist:

"In the medieval west, as in most Roman Catholic thinking today, the priest is understood as acting in persona Christi. When, that is to say, the celebrant recites the Words of Institution, 'This is my Body… This is my Blood,' he speaks these words as if he were himself Christ; or rather, at this moment Christ himself is understood to be speaking these words through the priest."[2]

This explanation is consistent with Jean Luc Marion's insistence that the theologian abandons any personal theological discourse, allowing himself to be spoken instead by the Word.[3] Kallistos continues:

"In the Byzantine rite, on the other hand, throughout the consecratory anaphora the celebrant speaks not in persona Christi but in persona Ecclesiae, as the representative not of Christ but of the Church." [4]

In this context, the utterances "This is my Body… This is my Blood," are understood as part of the thanksgiving narrative. These words are a citation from the original Eucharistic event rather than as a performative utterance. Thus the Byzantine rite provides an alternative translation to the in persona Christi model.

Mystical Supper

Of course, Orthodoxy is fraught with its own long tradition concerning the role of women in the priesthood. Here, surprisingly, Kallistos adds a breath of fresh air (inspiration of the Holy Spirit?) to the conversation. Tradition, he reminds us, is not the mere repetition of the past:

"In the words of Vladimir Lossky, Tradition is 'the critical spirit of the Church.' It is not simply a protective, conservative principle, but primarily a principle of growth and regeneration. It is not merely a collection of documents, the record of what others have said before us, handed down automatically and repeated mechanically; but it involves a living response to God's voice at the present moment, a direct and personal meeting on our part, here and now, with Christ and the Spirit."[5]

Tradition in the Orthodox understanding is compatible with Derrida's idea of iterability in this important way: it is more than mere repetition, but also entails the possibility for alterity. And like Derrida's idea of a relevant translation, it seeks to convey the essence of a text.

"Authentic traditionalism, then, is not slavish imitation of the past, but a courageous effort to discriminate between the transitory and the essential."[6]

Kallistos WareTaking his own words seriously, Kallistos has revised his statement from the 1982 edition of Women and the Priesthood to a new position in 1999. Having examined the biblical evidence and finding no reason to exclude women from the priesthood (and by extension, the celebration of the Eucharist), he advises further, cautious exploration of the question with open mind and open heart, waiting on the Holy Spirit for answers.[7]

A warning to Western readers: such a declaration from an Orthodox bishop has a completely different sensibility from the hectic pace of our own lives. Perhaps in 500 years consensus may open the way for the ordination of female priests within the Eastern Orthodox churches, citing Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia as a Church father who laid part of the groundwork for the move of the Spirit. Next entry >


[1] Letter to the Magnesians 6.1, as cited in Bishop of Diokleia Kallistos, "Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ," in Women and the Priesthood, ed. Thomas Hopko (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1999), 46-47.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Marion, God Without Being: 144.

[4] Kallistos, "Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ," 47-48.

[5] Ibid., 25-26.

[6] Ibid., 26.

[7] Ibid., 52-53.

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