This will not be a post about why women can’t become priests. Although an interesting and underdeveloped topic, understanding the reason behind the Church having always maintained an all-male priesthood requires an in-depth investigation into the very nature of the priesthood, liturgical service, symbol and reality, prophecy and revelation, and the relationship between Christ and the Church, which is beyond the scope of this post. Rather, I wish to make a point about the creation of a false and unjustified male-female divide in so much of our liturgical life which, despite having no Biblical or patristic basis, has become part of Orthodox “general ignorance” (if I may borrow a QI-ism). Such things as entering the altar, preparing the censer, carrying candles or banners, reading the Epistle, holding the communion cloth while the priest distributes the Holy Gifts, are all regarded as “men’s jobs” from which women are prohibited. Indeed in many parishes, the sanctuary has become a gentlemen’s club, where the holy utterances of the priest are drowned out by continuous chatter about business, family, fishing, and, if it’s a Cypriot church, wild vegetables. When questioned on why this is so, well meaning and pious Orthodox, keen to defend what they believe to be Holy Tradition, resort to the most absurd feats of mental gymnastics when the answer is really quite simple: it isn’t supposed to be that way.
In addition to the three biblical orders of the priesthood - bishop, presbyter and deacon - the Church also has several ranks of lower clergy, in order that “all things be done decently and according to order,” as the holy Apostle instructs us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (14:40). Most commonly mentioned in the canons are the orders of chanter, reader and subdeacon. The chanters lead the people in the liturgical responses and sing those hymns not appropriate for lay participation (the Cheruvikon, for example). Readers, as the name suggests, read the appointed portions from the Holy Scriptures and other appropriate parts of the daily services. Today, the order for tonsuring a reader also incorporates that of appointing a taper-bearer, whose job it would be to hold candles during processions or the reading of the Gospel, what we might call an acolyte or altar-boy. Subdeacons serve in the sanctuary and may touch the holy altar and handle the sacred vessels when necessary. The modern practice of allowing laymen to do all these things is quite simply wrong.
Canon LXIX of the Quintisext Council is very clear on the matter: “It is not permitted to a layman to enter the sanctuary.” In other words, if you have not been tonsured/ordained to the appropriate office, the fact that you happen to have a penis is utterly irrelevant. Naturally there are situations when the akrivia, or strictness, of the canons cannot be adhered to and it is necessary for a layperson to fill in where needed (though in well-established parishes I can really see no good reason why this should be a frequent occurrence). One such example, of course, is the convent, where the nuns (i.e. women) will sing, read, carry candles, and even enter the altar when necessary. Now, in a parish setting it might make sense to delegate such responsibility to individuals who might be ordained to the appropriate rank in the future, and who must therefore be male, but to turn what is quite clearly a distinction between clergy and laity into one between men and women is both dishonest and harmful, as it unnecessarily reinforces false stereotypes of Orthodoxy as backward and misogynistic.
Now, just because I think greater importance should be placed on the roles of the minor orders in the Liturgy, this does mean I agree with the emphasis certain people, particularly in American convert circles, place on them outside a liturgical context. The teenage wannabe priests who wear their cassocks out on the street without being told to do so by their bishop or who introduce themselves to others as “Reader so-and-so” aren’t quite what I have in mind.