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Question 60.
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.

Dear Constantine,

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 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
Fr. Christopher