On Saturday, August 25th, Feast of Saints Bartholomew and Titus, the community of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, celebrated the Divine Liturgy, with their Archbishop Alexander (of Dallas) presiding and ordaining Deacon Daniel Greeson to the Presbyterate.
I had the privilege of teaching Dan in the course of his earning a Master of Theological Studies degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School, before he went on to complete the Master of Divinity degree at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Receiving the invitation to Dan’s ordination, I anticipated with joy attending along with a few of our mutual friends, former Vanderbilt Divinity and Religion students. The entire day, both the morning liturgy and early afternoon luncheon, did not disappoint.
Profoundly edifying to me, ever since I learned of it earlier this summer during the Liturgical Studies Week at St Serge, Paris, is the symbolic posture of the ordinand in the Orthodox ritual. In conjunction with the Offertory Rite, the candidate kneels close to the altar table, placing his forehead against the edge of its surface. The bishop then places hands on the man’s head and procedes with the prayers. To this Roman Catholic theologian, that posture comprises such an apposite symbol, joining the ancient ecclesial identification of the altar table with Christ–both true host and true gift in the eucharistic sacrifice–to the person of the presbyter in his sacramental ministry to the sacred mystery of salvation.
That salvation is for us and for the whole world, making the church the sacrament of Christ, his embodiment in historical time and places. To my experience, the community of St. Anne Orthodox Church exuded a practical, liturgical and communal, ecclesiology of their corporate baptismal identity as “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) through not only their robust engagement in the Divine Liturgy but also their affective, and thus effective, hospitality to us friends of Dan and his wife Chelsea.
During the rite of Holy Communion, a member took care to be sure we shared in the Antidoron, blessed bread made available toward the back of the nave, while those faithful partaking of the sacrament, “the Gifts,” processed toward the front to receive them from the ministering priests and deacons. Mirroring that warm hospitality was the great care extended to us visitors at the ensuing luncheon, as one of the women, recognizing us as strangers, took us in hand, leading us to the front of the food-service line, explaining to all along the way, “These are our guests; we must serve them first.”
But I mentioned Chelsea, above. As the wife of the priest (presbyter), she was also entering into a special role within the community, as their spiritual mother. While in the Greek Church her title would be Presbytera, the Russian Church’s traditional title for the presbyter’s wife is Matushka, a diminutive form of mother in Russian, as in “our beloved Mother” or “our dear Mom.” As Fr. Stephen Freeman, Rector at St. Anne, explains in his blog essay, “The Priest’s Wife“:
The fact that there is a title points to a role and an honor that surrounds the role. A priest’s wife is not ordained and does not carry out liturgical functions, but she is considered deeply important in a parish’s life. Different women have different gifts and they get expressed in various ways. But just as in a household with two parents, the Presvytera is not just a “companion.” To a degree, as the priest is a spiritual father in a congregation, so his wife is a spiritual mother. And like mothers and fathers elsewhere, those roles get expressed in different ways. But rarely is the Presvytera absent in the life of the parish. She is important and normative.
Something of the unique gifts and blessing Chelsea brings to the St. Anne community is captured in a photo parishioner Olivia Morfas took during the ordination rite. Scooting along the floor with her two little children, Chelsea helps them peek around the doorway of the iconostasis to see what’s happening to their dad. Community in southern parishes of the Orthodox Church of America, Fr. Freeman attests, have a warm, familial quality characteristic of the regional culture. The image of Chelsea and the two kids in an “unofficial” posture complementing the official one of their husband and father at the altar was a comforting, if not healing, sight to the sore eyes and heart of this Roman Catholic priest. I have long held the conviction that one key, albeit only one, to unlocking the shackles of the clericalism mortally afflicting our church would be the recovery of ordaining married men for parish priesthood.