In my experience, when feminists look for sticks with which to beat the Orthodox Church as old, outdated, and misogynistic, as well as making reference to our well-known refusal to ordain women to Holy Orders, they often also refer to our prohibition against women entering the altar (i.e. the area behind the icon-screen, the space containing the Holy Table). “Not only can women not be ordained in your church,” they say, “they can’t even enter the altar area.” By making this observation the feminists are really asking the question, “What’s wrong with you guys anyway?” In a day when almost all other churches have women clergy who stand at the altar table and preside as priests, our prohibition against women even entering the altar area utterly mystifies them. So, what’s the deal? What does the customary prohibition against women in the altar mean?
Admittedly some Orthodox attitudes about women in the altar do make Orthodoxy something of a hard sell with the world. I think of a story of one clergyman saying that a female iconographer working in his church could paint the icons in the altar area, but only after the Tabernacle containing the Reserved Gifts was removed, and of a story of clergy forbidding women to enter the altar anytime for any reason whatsoever, even to clean it on a Friday afternoon. Is it true that women, as women, have always been absolutely forbidden to enter the altar area for fear that their presence there would somehow defile it?
Well, no actually. In the early church from about the third century anyway, deaconesses were ordained for their specifically feminine ministry, and they were ordained at the altar. The early church therefore had no problem with a woman being in the altar, provided she had a reason to be there. St. Gregory the Theologian even praised his mother, St. Nonna, for having ended her earthly life, “clinging to the altar table”. (This last example was cited by the OCA Department of Religious Education publication, Women and Men in the Church, in 1980.)
So where does the prohibition come from? In part at least, it comes from canon 44 of the Council of Laodicea, held in about the mid-fourth century. Said canon simply reads: “Women may not go the altar”, without giving any reason or rationale for the prohibition. Presumably everyone at Laodicea then knew the context and therefore the rationale for the decision so that it didn’t need to be spelled out. A hint about what that reason might have been can be gathered from canon 69 of the so-called “Quinisext” Council—i.e. the canons appended in 692 A.D. to the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils held earlier. That canon reads, “It is not permitted to a layman to enter the holy altar, though in accordance with a certain ancient tradition, the Imperial power and authority is by no means prohibited from this when he wishes to offer his gifts to the Creator.” This canon prohibits any laity from entering the altar, though it makes an exception for the Emperor, who customarily entered to altar to make his own gift. (Being Emperor clearly had its privileges.)
It would seem that certain people from the laity were in the habit of entering the altar area, probably because they felt that such a public show would add to their prestige. Canon 69 forbids this, and says that no one should enter the altar area during the service unless there is a liturgical reason to do so. (We note in passing that the ordination of deaconesses at the altar, in places where deaconesses existed, would have constituted such a liturgical reason.) Consistent with this, I suggest that in Laodicea, certain women were also in the habit of entering the altar area for reasons of prestige. Human nature being what it is, I suspect that these were rich women who wanted to enter the altar to flaunt their wealthy and important status, and the canon 44 of Laodicea forbids it because the desire to flaunt one’s importance is not a valid reason to enter the place set apart for liturgical worship.
So, the abiding teaching of the Church seems to be that no one, man or woman, may enter the altar during Liturgy unless there is a valid and liturgical reason for doing so. Women in Laodicea then and universally now, not having a liturgical function of serving at the altar, have no reason to enter it during Liturgy. This interpretation of the prohibition is consistent with the present custom of women monastics helping the priest in the altar during Liturgy when the priest serves in a women’s monastery: there being only women in a women’s monastery, sometimes nuns serve with the priest to hand him the censer, prepare the zeon, and perform other duties. (I am told that they do so unvested—i.e. not dressed as subdeacons or acolytes in a stichar, but simply in their usual monastic habit.) This shows that the canonical custom is less about women as women, as it is about function and necessity. In all this, the Church’s concern is not to keep down the women out of a spirit of misogyny, but rather to preserve the dignity of the altar as a place of liturgy and prayer.