Orthodox Women – Receiving Communion III

Myrrhbearing women at the tomb

This is the third in a series of posts dealing with the issue of Orthodox women receiving communion during the time of their monthly period. We have just read the two canons which are used to provide authority for the prohibition of such participation on the basis of some form of ritual impurity which is attributed by these two sources to someone experiencing their period. Now we must look more closely at the wider implication of such a presumed ritual impurity in the context of these two texts themselves.

Those who use the canon of Dionysius of Alexandria as a robust platform for insisting that Orthodox women should not commune at this time often insist that his restriction applies to men as much as women. They suggest that he objects to married couples receiving communion if they have engaged in sexual relations, and that he also objects to males receiving communion if they have experienced an emission. This is reasonably intended to show that Dionysius had a wider sense of ritual impurity which was not directed only at women, and also included blameless activities and emissions among married couples and males.

But in fact the letter to Basilides in which the advice of Dionysius is found says no such thing. There are two other canons or instructions which Dionysius provides. The first of these other passages refers to the issue of married couples approaching the sacred mysteries after having shared in sexual relations. We would expect, and many of those using Dionysius as a source suggest that this was his intent, that he would consider that they were also unprepared in soul and body to receive communion. But this is in fact what he writes…

Persons who are self-sufficient and married ought to be judges of themselves. For we are told in writing by St. Paul that it is fitting that they should abstain from each other by agreement for a time, in order that they may indulge in prayer, and again come together (1 Cor. 7:5).

In this passage he is providing his opinion about how those who are married should be regulated when they attend the Liturgy after sexual relations. We would expect him to insist that they should wait a while until they are also purified, but on the contrary, he leaves it entirely to their judgement. It is fitting, he says, meaning that it is best and good that a couple refrain from sexual relations to give themselves to prayer, in this context he means the eucharist itself. But he makes no mention of their being un-prepared in soul and body, as he did in the case of the woman experiencing her monthly period. Nor does he, in this case, speak as though it were obvious to all that some particular prohibition should apply. He states very clearly indeed that the married ought to be judges of themselves. Those who use Dionysius as an absolute rule usually state that he opposes the communion of those who have had sexual relations. But the text shows quite clearly that this is not so. There is no mention of ritual impurity and the judgement about receiving communion or not is left to the married couple themselves, though quite clearly he is encouraging married couples to abstain from such relations in preparation for the liturgy.

In the other passage that is relevant, his fourth canon or instruction, he turns to speaking about the case of an Orthodox male who has had an emission, through one cause or another, before attendance at the liturgy and receiving communion. This is also a instance where those who wish to simply apply the advice of Dionysius as a universally applicable rule will also insist that he considers such male emissions as a cause of ritual impurity. But once again, the text itself shows that this is not the case.

As for those men who involuntarily become victims of nocturnal emission, let them too be guided by their own conscience as to whether to indulge or not, and decide for themselves, whether they have any doubt about this matter or not, as also in the case of foods, “he that hath any doubt is damned if he eat” (Rom. 14:23). And let everyone be conscientious in these matters, and outspoken, in accordance with his own inclination, when he approaches God.

Quite clearly, as we consider this passage, he has in mind those male emissions which are due to no sinful thought whatsoever. They may be considered, in some sense but not entirely so, to be analogous to the loss of blood during the monthly period. Here we would expect Dionysius to apply the same thinking. We would expect him to say that every faithful and devout male would know that he should not approach the mysteries at such a time. But far from this, he says that the male should be guided by his own conscience and should decide for himself whether or not he is in a fit state to commune. Even if we follow his logic that the male in question is able to judge whether he is prepared in soul, it seems reasonable to ask why a male who has had an emission is to be considered prepared in body, while a woman who has her monthly period is to be considered as being unprepared in body, if not also in soul.

It would be understandable if Dionysius of Alexandria simply taught that the monthly period of a woman, the sexual activity of a married couple, and the blameless emission of a man, were all to be considered as effecting a ritual impurity. That would make sense. It would also make sense that those who wanted to use the Second Canon of Dionysius to imply a general sense of ritual impurity might find in the prohibition on women receiving communion at this time just one aspect of a prohibition that applied to males as well. But as we have seen, the letter of Dionysius to Basilides does not support these views at all. His prohibition is directed only and uniquely to women who are experiencing their monthly period. Both married couples and males are to judge for themselves if they receive communion, and there is no sense at all in the words of Dionysius that he considers either sexual relations in marriage or a male emission to be creating a ritual impurity at all.

The question that comes to mind is why it is only the case of the woman’s monthly period which causes Dionysius such horror? Why is it only in this case that he says it is obvious that a person should not receive communion? It seems to me that this must indicate a strong cultural component in his response, and in due course other patristic sources will be applied to his views. But for now it is enough to note that he does not provide a general rule of ritual impurity applying to men and women. Rather he applies his ideas of not being prepared in body and soul only to women during their monthly period. This means, at least, that when it is said that Dionysius applies his ideas or unpreparedness to both men and women, it must be insisted that he does no such thing, and in every other case applies a rule of personal responsibility.

What about the questions and answers of Timothy of Alexandria, the 22nd Archbishop of Alexandria. In his answer to the question about a woman receiving communion during her monthly period he was definite. She ought not to come to the mysteries on that day until she was purified. We see again the sense that the monthly period creates a ritual impurity in the thinking of this Father. But he also speaks about the case of the married couple engaging in sexual relations before the Liturgy, and also the case of a male having an emission.

In the case of the married couple he answers twice, which reasonably indicates that he is responding to a list of questions that have been provided for him, rather than producing answers to issues he is thinking of himself. What does he say to the married couple?

Q: If a woman has coition with her husband during the night, or, as likely as not, a man with his wife, and a church meeting ensues, ought they to partake of communion, or not!

A: They ought not to do so, because the Apostle says emphatically: “Deprive yourselves not of each other, unless it be for a time by agreement, that ye may give yourselves leisure to pray, and then come ye again together, to avoid having Satan tempt you on account of your failure to mingle” (I Cor. 7:5).

Now this is different to the instruction which Dionysius gave. Timothy makes no mention of the married couple having any scope for taking responsibility themselves for their receiving communion. He does not use the words of St Paul to commend certain behaviour, as Dionysius did, but insists that that St Paul’s teaching is an emphatic instruction. He returns to the same question a little later saying…

Q: What days of the week ought to be assigned to those who are conjoined in marriage for them to abstain from communion with each other? And on what days ought they to have it!

A: Though I have already answered this question, I will answer now once more. The Apostle says. “Deprive ye not yourselves of each other, unless it be for a time by agreement, in order that ye may have leisure to pray” (I Cor. 7:5). And again: “Come ye together again, that Satan tempt you not on account of your failure to mingle” (ibid.). But one must necessarily abstain on Saturday and Sunday, on account of the fact that on these days the spiritual sacrifice is being offered to the Lord.

Again, Timothy allows none of the discretion which Dionysius left to the responsibility of the married couple. In his mind there is a clear matter of necessity. There must be no sexual relations on Saturday and Sunday, that would be Friday and Saturday evenings we may suppose, because of the reception of communion on the next day. What we can also see from these passages is that in regard to sexual relations between a married couple Timothy, as Dionysius before him, does not speak of these relations in terms of ritual impurity, though he prohibits them, but he does use the language of purity in regard to a woman experiencing her monthly period.

Timothy also speaks about the case of a male emission, saying…

Q: If a layman who has had a wet dream ask a Clergyman to let him partake of communion, ought the Clergyman to administer communion to him, or not?

A: If it is a case of desiring a woman, he ought not. But if it was Satan tempting him in order to provide an excuse for excluding him from communion of the divine Mysteries, the Clergyman ought to administer communion to him, since the tempter will not cease attacking during the time when he ought to partake of communion.

This response remains much in line with the instruction of Dionysius, though again we see the responsibility is taken from the male Christian and belongs to the priest. The male should not receive communion if he has had an emission due to sinful thoughts, but if it was blameless in such regard then he may receive communion. Once again, there is no use of any language at all relating to ritual purity in considering a male emission. There is a prohibition on receiving communion only if such an emission is accompanied by sinful thoughts. But even so, the emission does not produce any ritual impurity.

This rather detailed examination of the actual texts used to support the practice of prohibiting Orthodox women from receiving communion during their period shows quite clearly I believe that the idea that males are also subject to ritual impurity is false, at least as far as these sources are concerned. Neither Dionysius nor Timothy speak of impurity or a lack of preparedness in the case of any male emission or in the case of married sexual relations. Such language is only used in the context of the female experiencing her monthly period and it is only this monthly period which is considered by these two Fathers as a source of impurity.

Once again, it must be repeated. To reflect on these texts in this manner does not require or demand any change at all in our practice as an Orthodox community. But it does, hopefully, provide a small and unfolding contribution to the conversation which the Church always conducts at the intersection between our Tradition and the variety of cultures in which Orthodox Christians live and preach the Good News.

The next section in this study will begin to look at the writings of other Fathers as they are relevant to this reflection.

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