Yesterday, at last, I got to hold in my hands a book that has been a long time coming!
A Communion in Faith and Love: Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s Ecclesiology arrives hot off Doxa and Praxis press. It’s one in a series of books on Eastern Christian theology underwritten by the World Council of Churches. They are beautiful books, as you can see in two other titles in the series.
The newest title, A Communion in Faith and Love, came about through the intervention of Pantelis Kalaitzidis, the brilliant (and incredibly busy!) Orthodox theologian who heads up the Volos Academy in Greece, a center for creative and challenging Eastern theology taking on neuralgic issues like church and state, ecumenism, and women and men in contemporary Orthodoxy. He heard about the conference on Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s ecclesiology that I hosted at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, back in 2011, and wanted to publish its findings.
This was really exciting. The conference felt a little bit like a secret meeting of the resistance. No surprise, I suppose: Elisabeth Behr-Sigel is best known for her theological defense of the ordination of women in the Orthodox churches. Needless to say, her proposal has not met with overwhelming support. Interestingly, though, it hasn’t really met with anything else, either. You find here and there a snide dismissal of her ideas, but no serious engagement with them by her opponents. My own feeling is that her argument is so compelling that it would be dangerous to take too seriously—it might call for real struggle and hard questions.
However, as so often happens to people associated with controversial ideas, pretty much everything else about her theological legacy has vanished from view. The conference intended to expand the range once again. Behr-Sigel in her very long life (1907–2005) dealt with all kinds of issues, from Russian spirituality to ecumenism to anti-torture activism to the nature of the church. Her ideas about women in the priesthood were most definitely embedded in a larger whole and grew organically out of those ideas. So we decided to turn our attention to her ecclesiology as the context for her theology of women and men.
The book begins with probably the most important contribution in terms of her biography, namely Elisabeth Parmentier’s essay on “Behr-Sigel’s Theological Education and Ministry in Strasbourg.” It’s long been known that Behr-Sigel (still only Sigel at the time, actually) had an eight-month ministry in two Protestant parishes in rural Alsace right after the First World War. The details about it are often confused, though, and Parmentier helps clear up the fog. Behr-Sigel had already converted to Orthodoxy. The Reformed leadership inferred as much and wanted her to take up the task anyway. The situation postwar was dire: there simply weren’t enough men left to shepherd the flocks, so women were asked to step in. Behr-Sigel was among the first women to earn a theological degree from the Protestant Faculty at the University of Strasbourg, and had come to living faith through the Protestant youth movement, so she was known and trusted. But here’s the funny thing: despite the long Protestant insistence on the good and right of married clergy, the Reformed Church in Alsace expected its new female “auxiliary pastors” to be single! Young Elisabeth was already engaged to be married, so there was an anticipated temporal limit to her service. Plus, while her Orthodox friends Sergius Bulgakov and Lev Gillet approved her ministry, other Orthodox didn’t, so she finally felt she had to make a clean break. But the end result was eight months of preaching and pastoral care (no sacraments: that was not yet granted to these female “auxiliary pastors”) that stayed with her throughout her life. Parmentier’s excellent history of the process of granting women leadership roles in the Reformed church sheds a great deal of light on this seminal period in Behr-Sigel’s life. It’s followed by official biographer Olga Lossky’s discussion of how Behr-Sigel fared in the Second World War, drawing sustenance from an ecumenical prayer and resistance group, despite constant fear (Behr-Sigel’s mother was a Jew, making her a prime target of suspicion or worse) and separation from her husband.
The next several essays take up aspects of Behr-Sigel’s theology that so far have been less explored. Michel Evdokimov (son of Behr-Sigel’s dear friend Paul Evdokimov, himself an author of seminal books on women in Orthodox thought) reflected on the impact of Russian ex-monk Alexander Bukharev on Behr-Sigel, especially her doctoral work on his little-known writings. Antoine Arjakovsky takes up sophiology and Teva Regule, ecclesiology. Two more delve into matters surrounding Behr-Sigel’s evolving view of sex and gender in Christian perspective: Valerie A. Karras takes up her use of patristic gender anthropology and Maria McDowell examines the interrelationship of iconography and ordination. Then Amal Dibo turns to Behr-Sigel’s constant cry to discern the signs of the times, while Heleen Zorgdrager gives voice to Behr-Sigel’s understanding of kenosis and suffering—views she earned by her own hard experience.
I made three contributions to the volume. The first is the introduction, offering an overview of the range of Behr-Sigel’s theological interests and the circumstances of the conference. The last is a translation of a short essay in Behr-Sigel’s Prière et Sainteté dans l’Eglise Russe (“Prayer and Holiness in the Russian Church”), the whole of which has never been translated into English. My selection was her piece on Juliana Lazarevskaya, an extraordinary Russian woman, wife and mother, whose holiness was so renowned that she was spontaneously acclaimed a saint on her death by those who knew her, although it took almost three hundred years for the official church to catch up with the vox populi.
In between the two is my essay “Behr-Sigel’s New Hagiography and Its Ecumenical Significance.” A lifelong interest of hers was the shape of human holiness; her master’s level work was on Russian saints, which led to her aforementioned book. She wrote essays throughout her life looking at the unexpected types of holiness emerging around her—most especially Mother Maria Skobtsova and Lev Gillet—but also, perhaps surprisingly, in the past. Sainthood is not as monolithic as one might think. And that’s the point of her “new” hagiography, matched by other Orthodox theologians like Michael Plekon as well as Catholic theologians like Robert Ellsberg and Lawrence S. Cunningham.
Behr-Sigel’s new hagiography has had a huge impact on me. At the end of my essay I explore what it might mean for Lutherans to take up a “new” hagiography of our own—we could call it “evangelical hagiography,” a practice not of glorifying human works (heaven forbid!) but recognizing and honoring the work of God even in earthen vessels. I’ve explored the theme at greater length in Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon, in an essay called “Ecclesiology Requires Hagiography,” as well as in “Saints for Sinners,” which I wrote to accompany the introduction of the Hagiography department in Lutheran Forum.
In fact, saints have become a major preoccupation of mine. And for the time being I’ll leave you with that not-so-subtle foreshadowing…!