Dear Fr Christopher, your blessing!
What is the purpose of the gynaeceum that we see in Christian churches?
Couldn’t the separation of women from the rest of the community be
considered an act of discrimination? Is this the reason why women were
allowed to stand at the left side of the church in recent times?
With love in Christ,
Answer to Question 60.
With the advent of Christianity it was only natural that the first
Christian gatherings, which comprised mainly of converts from the Jewish
faith, adapted their form of worship from the worship of Jewish
Synagogues. As the Church grew it developed its own identity, but much
of what was borrowed from the Jewish faith remained and continued as
part of Christian worship. This should not surprise us as Christianity
is the fulfilment of the Jewish faith and expectation. The Christian
Church is the New Jerusalem. The segregation of men and women in
Orthodox Churches today has its roots in Jewish law (custom) which
demands that men and women must be separated during prayer. (See
Zechariah 12:12-13) This was usually achieved by a wall or curtain
called a mechitzah or by placing women in a second floor balcony. As
women were highly respected in the Jewish faith this was not an act of
discrimination against women, but a practical necessity to assist
prayer. There were in fact two reasons for this separation: 1) to help
keep the mind on prayer and not on the pretty girl if she was standing
next to a man - a case of “out of sight out of mind” and 2) many pagan
religious ceremonies at the time Judaism was founded involved sexual
activity and orgies, and the separation prevented or at least
discouraged this. Interestingly, men were not to see women during
prayer, but women were permitted to see men during prayer. This seems to
reflect the opinion that women are stronger than men and better able to
concentrate on prayer without being obstructed by the opposite sex.
This time honoured tradition has come down from those times, but with
some variation. In many places the men stand on the right and the women
on the left to correspond with the Icons of Christ and the Mother of God
on the Iconostasis. With this arrangement it is emphasized that we are
all equal before God (equal distance from the altar), and that the man
is not superior to the woman.
In Cyprus there exists a custom closer to the Jewish tradition which can
still be seen in most Churches, but especially noticeable in small
villages. The men sit in front and the women behind and in the
Gynaeconite if the Church has one. This reflects another understanding
to the segregation of the sexes. St. Paul says: “the head of every man
is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ
is God” (1 Cor.11:3) “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as
Christ is the head of the Church.” Eph. (5:23) “For a man...is the image
and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.” (1 Cor.11:7)
Man therefore, being in the image and glory of God and as the head of
the woman, has first place of honour. Honour should not be mistaken for
superiority for in the Church man and woman are equal. Being the head
does not give a man any kind of dictatorial, tyrannical, arbitrary, or
absolute authority over woman.
With St. Paul’s teaching on marriage we see that husbands and wives are
co-workers in God. In Christ all are equal; there is neither male nor
female. In fact, marriage is a partnership of equals. They are
absolutely equal as members of the Kingdom of God and inheritors of
eternal life. But even though there is equality as members of the
kingdom of heaven, there is a difference between them determined by
their nature and role for which they were created. Each has his or her
role in marriage, but these roles are not meant to suppress the other
into doing the other’s bidding. Love is the criteria by which all things
are determined and if “the husband is the head of the wife, even as
Christ is the head of the Church” then the husband must show the same
love to his wife as Christ does the Church. From a Christian standpoint,
love means sacrifice, and self-denial. A husband must take as much care,
concern, thoughtfulness, attention, regard and precautions for his wife
as Christ takes for the Church.
The honour given to man can be misinterpreted and among the older
generation, who were mostly uneducated, I have seen many men who believe
that they are superior to women and treat their wives like slaves. This
of course is not the Church’s teaching, but a result of man’s lack of
respect and love for his partner.
Saint John Chrysostom says: “A servant, indeed, one will be able perhaps
to bind down by fear; nay, not even for him, for he will soon leave you.
But the partner of one's life, the mother of one's children, the
foundation of one's every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and
threats, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that,
where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will
the husband have if he dwells with his wife as with a slave? Yea, even
though you suffer everything on her account, do not scold her; for
neither did Christ do this to the Church.”
In the village Church where I serve on Sundays, this honour, given to
man, can be seen not only in the seating arrangement, but in other
things during the service e.g. during Mattins when the Gospel Book is
brought out for veneration, the men come first and then the women and
during the distribution of the Antidoron again the men come first to
receive and then the woman.
In general far more women attend Church than men and so need more
seating area than men. The back of the Church is more suitable for this
as there are usually more seats available than the front as well as the
second floor balcony (Gynaeconites). The Gynaeconites is also known as
the Catechumena (Κατηχούμενα). It received its name from the times when
Churches had a separate Narthex, which was used by the Catechumen,
penitents and women who were on their menses. As the Narthexes
disappeared and penitents were no longer separated from the rest of the
congregation, the balcony became the area for any Catechumen and for
women who couldn’t approach for Holy Communion. When the order of
Catechumen also disappeared then the balcony was used exclusively by
women and thus it became the Gynaeconites.
Today, in modern large city Churches, the rules for where men and women
sit are not observed as strictly as in past generations and we see many
families standing together. This is especially so on Great Feast days
where great numbers attend church and stand where they can find a place.
With love in Christ