church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

I remember once when a friend was sharing with me his distress at the liberalism afflicting his Protestant denomination, and the fact that many of their clergy were denying such things as the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ.  While murmuring sympathetically, I mentioned that such denials were not the same problem in the Orthodox Church.  He then asked me what sort of things we did argue about.  When I replied, “Well, things like whether or not a woman can receive Holy Communion while she is menstruating”, he looked at me funny.  He didn’t ask, “What planet are you guys on?”, but I could tell he was thinking it.  Loudly.

       So, why is the question of whether or not women can commune while menstruating an issue for us?  And what can we say about it?

       In most discussions of the issue, the combatants with opposite opinions are left staring at each other across an abyss, and each can hardly imagine how the other could be so stupid.  One group says, “Of course such women can commune!  What’s the problem? Menstruation is perfectly natural and is not sinful.”  The other group says, “Of course such women cannot commune!  How could anyone imagine that one could approach the Body and Blood of Christ while unclean?”  After this there is not often much debate between the two.  Both parties usually go their way shaking their heads.

       The debate is worth having since it involves more than simply the issue of communing during menstruation.  In particular it involves the larger question of how the Church makes up its mind about controversial issues and the weight that should be given to individual episcopal opinions or to popular practice.  In the wise words of one Orthodox writer (about a different issue) “not everything in our history can be considered a part of Tradition”.

       The belief that menstruation (as well as other things, such as giving birth, touching a dead body, and seminal emission) causes uncleanness is rooted in almost all religions.  It is certainly found in Judaism (see Leviticus 15:19f, 12:1f, 21:1f, 15:16f).  This impurity is entirely ritual in nature—that is, it renders the affected person unable to enter the realm of the holy (so that they cannot eat a sacrifice or enter a holy place), but it does not imply that the affected person has sinned.  Ritual impurity is therefore ethically neutral and entirely natural in this life.   

Dealing with such uncleanness in the form of washing and waiting until a certain amount of time has passed (compare Leviticus 15:16f) was a normal part of pious Jewish life, (as we observe in the behaviour of the Theotokos who, after giving birth to Jesus, waited until the time of her ritual impurity had passed before going to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice; see Luke 2:22.) 

One further notes that although ritual impurity could be contracted by many things (such as touching a dead body), the uncleanness contracted through menstruation presented an added social dimension.  That is, in the days before modern feminine hygiene products, physical mobility during this time could be problematic.  That is why, for example, Rachel explained to her father Laban that she could not rise in his presence “for the way of women is upon me” (Genesis 31:35).  Given this, it is self-evident that many women would not go anywhere much during the times of their menstruation.  The situation is different today, at least here in the modern West, and problems with mobility are no longer a concern.

       This concern over contracting ritual impurity persisted in the church.  Thus we note that in 247 A.D. Dionysius bishop of Alexandria was asked a liturgical question by a brother bishop about whether or not a woman might commune while menstruating.  He replied that in his personal opinion, “I think it superfluous even to put the question.  For I opine, not even they themselves, being faithful and pious, would dare when in this state either to approach the Holy Table or to touch the Body and Blood of Christ…If one is not wholly clean both in soul and body, he shall be prevented from coming to the Holies of Holies”.

       This attitude persists in many places in the Orthodox Church today.  A concern for ritual purity is also why a woman returning to church forty days after giving birth is expected to be “churched”—i.e. to be welcomed back into communion with a prayer that asks that God “wash away her bodily uncleanness and the stains of her soul in the fulfilling of the forty days”.  Note:  the “uncleanness” here is simply ritual uncleanness, since by then physical problems formerly attending feminine uncleanness are no longer of concern.  Given this understanding of ritual uncleanness, such women were excluded from receiving Communion even if such hygiene products make their presence in church physically unproblematic.

       What can we say about all this?  Two things, one historical and the other theological.

       Historically speaking, the view of the bishop of Alexandria was not the only one held.  In the Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum written in about the late third century (i.e. near the time of Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria) we find a completely different approach.  There the author says that women may indeed receive Holy Communion while menstruating “since the Holy Spirit is always in you.”  

In particular the author writes, “Now think about it and recognize that prayer is heard through the Holy Spirit; and the Eucharist is received and consecrated through the Holy Spirit; and the Scriptures are words of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore if the Holy Spirit is within you, why do you isolate your soul and not approach the works of the Holy Spirit?”  His pastoral directive to bishops is:  “you shall not separate those who have their period, for even the woman with the issue of blood was not reprimanded when she touched the edge of our Saviour’s garment; she was rather deemed worthy to receive forgiveness of all her sins…Therefore flee and avoid such [legalistic] observances, for you have received release that you should no more bind yourselves, and do not load yourselves again with that [yoke of the Jewish Law] which our Lord and Saviour has lifted from you.  Do not observe these things, nor think them uncleanness, and do not refrain yourselves on their account, nor seek…purification for these things”.

This was not the only voice allowing menstruating women to commune. In 601 A.D. the missionary Augustine of Canterbury wrote to Pope Gregory the Great (known in the East as “St. Gregory the Dialogist”) asking for instruction about communing women during their monthly times.  The bishop of Rome wrote back as follows:  “A woman should not be forbidden to go to church.  After all, she suffers this involuntarily.  She cannot be blamed for that superfluous matter that nature excretes…She is also not to be forbidden to receive Holy Communion at this time.  If, however, a woman does not dare to receive, for great trepidation, she should be praised.  But if she does receive, she should not be judged.  Pious people see sin even there, where there is none.”

In other words, the view of Bishop Dionysius was not the only one in the Church of his time and later—and therefore cannot be said to represent the consensus of the Church of his time or of the Church’s Tradition.  Some voices said women may not commune during their monthly times, and other voices said they could.

So:  which of the two views should one now adopt?  I suggest that the answer and choice can be found in the theological teaching of the New Testament.

In the New Testament, concepts such as the distinctions between clean and unclean, lay and priestly, holy day and common day, sacred space and secular space were cited as examples of στοιχεῖα/stoicheia—the elemental principles governing all religions.  These formed the basis of Mosaic religion and pagan religions as well—but were not a part of the Christian faith.  St. Paul was clear that our union with Christ involved a liberation from this world with its religious stoicheia

St. Paul taught that under the Law the Jews were subservient to the stoicheia of the world, but Christ had set them free from the stoicheia this age (Galatians 4:3f).  Pagans too were subject to the stoicheia of the world (Colossians 2:8), but Christ set both Jews and Gentiles free from such elemental principles of religion.  The Christian faith is therefore (as Fr. Schmemann once said) “the end of religion” with its principles governing this age, and is instead our participation in the powers of the age to come.

That is why St. Paul declared that Christians were no longer subject to religious categories such as “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Colossians 2:20f), for these were categories rooted in the stocheia of this age.  In Christ Christians transcended such this-worldly categories.  If Christianity were a religion of this age and if it partook of its this-worldly stocheia, then such categories of clean-unclean, lay-priestly, sacred space-secular space would indeed apply.  But in fact Christianity is not such a religion, but transcends this age with its categories.  The stoicheia of religion (such as the distinction between clean-unclean) therefore no longer apply to us.

This means that the category of ritual impurity (such as we find in the Levitical Law) no longer applies to Christians—which also means that the strictures regarding menstrual uncleanness cannot bind Christian women.  This latter non-application has nothing to do with modern feminine hygiene products, nor with the fact that menstruation is “natural”.  Religions (such as Judaism and paganism) are rooted in in natural realities of this age, and so partake of “natural” categories such as those of the stoicheia, but in Christ we transcend nature and are rooted in the eschaton, the age to come.

That is, I suggest, what the Didascalia Apostolorum was getting at with its relentless emphasis on the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit within us is the ἀρραβών/ arrabon, the down payment and pledge of the Spirit, a tiny participation in this age of what we will fully receive in the age to come.  If the Spirit is within us, we are not subject to the categories of this age, such as those found in Judaism.  An insistence upon retaining such categories as clean-unclean involves forsaking the freedom which Christ won for us.  We may, as Pope Gregory said, praise the unthinking humility and piety of women who refrain from the Eucharist during their monthly times.  But their theology should still be corrected.  St. Paul would have nothing less.

Such practical matters were never dealt with authoritatively in the early church, which is why there could exist such a diversity of opinion and practice.  The Church never did thoughtfully consider and debate the question, nor did it issue an authoritative ruling, as it did (for example) on the question of icons.  Dionysius’ opinions about this and other questions, though later arranged and presented as “canons”, remain his personal opinion—one that later became dominant, but merely one man’s personal opinion nonetheless.

The historical reality, sad to report, is that shortly after those times the Church suffered a lamentable decline in lay communion, with the result that the whole question of whether or not menstruating women could commune weekly became moot.  That is why, I suggest, the question was never seriously considered or authoritatively resolved.  Throughout much of the Church’s subsequent history, the Eucharist was served mostly without any lay communicants, the faithful choosing to commune about once a year.  Even now, in many parts of the Orthodox world, such infrequent communion remains the norm, with some laity feeling that they need “a blessing” from their priest or spiritual father to receive the Eucharist.

The decline in Eucharistic reception represents the effective de-sacralization of the laity.  Formerly the baptized were considered to be Spirit-filled through baptism, and as Spirit-filled Christians who had receive the arrabon of the Spirit and who were rooted in the age to come, of course they approached “the works of the Spirit” and communed every Sunday. 

With the de-sacralization of the laity (and the corresponding growth of clericalism which tended to reserve all sanctity to the clergy), the laity felt themselves in need of sacralization through the sacraments—which sacraments were now considered a “means of grace” to sanctify them and remedy their de-sacralized state.  As Schmemann wrote about this new post-Constantinian situation, “The basic idea in this liturgical piety was the distinction between the profane and the sacred and, consequently, the understanding of the cult as primarily a system of ceremonies and ritual which transmits sacredness to the profane and establishes between the two the possibility of communion and communication.  The pagan mystery was basically just such a consecrating and sanctifying act” (from his Introduction to Liturgical Theology).  In other words, the Christian faith came to be seen as a religion again—the true religion, but a religion nonetheless.  In this state the religious notion of ritual impurity again found a natural home.

It is, I believe, just this larger question of the laity as needing sacralization in a way that clergy do not that needs to be addressed.  The Church is not a religion, and the stoicheia and categories of religion in this age find no place in it.  Christians are Christians because they are filled with the Spirit through baptism and so participate in the powers of the age to come through the Eucharist and the other sacraments of the Church.  If the Church recovers a sense of itself as eschatological and as having transcended the categories of this age, the question of communion during menstruation will resolve itself.


Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.