The Priest’s Wife

It is hard to explain to the non-Orthodox the position and role of a priest’s wife. As a convert priest, my family life extends to both Protestant and Orthodox experience.  I have been married for 40 years and ordained for 35 of those years. I cannot imagine my life or my ministry without my wife. 

Despite the experience of married priests, the canons of the Church in the West began to insist on priestly celibacy. The matter of married priests in the East was settled firmly by the seventh century. Priestly celibacy was a continual debate in the West and only came to be insisted upon around the 11th century. Priests in England, for example, were married until the Norman invasion in 1066 when the canonical rule of celibacy began to be enforced.

One of the first things that occurred in the Reformation was the abolition of priestly celibacy. Martin Luther had been a Catholic priest and a monk. He married a former nun and had a family and children. His example was quite common. Thomas Cranmer secretly smuggled his wife into England even before the Reformation. I have great sympathies with the Reformers in this matter. However, when you read about this return of married clergy you get the distinct impression that it was about the question of sex (it’s ok, even for clergy). But you do not get any clear sense that the Church now knew what to make of his wife. And here, Orthodox experience is different. 

Married priests are normative in Orthodox parishes. The canons governing marriage and priesthood simply state that a man must be married before he is ordained and that the woman he marries cannot have been married before. And this marriage is the only marriage for the priest. If his priest’s wife dies, he does not remarry. It is an extremely literal interpretation of “the husband of one wife” (Titus 1:6). There are celibate priests and monks, of course, who serve in parishes, but they are relatively rare. 

Orthodoxy thus has an experience of priest wives that is 2,000 years old. It is not a novelty or an
mrOlgainnovation nor is it seen as an accommodation to human needs. I found after my conversion, that the wife of a priest was herself surrounded by custom and tradition and held a place unlike any I had seen before. Those traditions and customs are simply the expression of the Church’s inner life. For example, the wife of a priest has a title. In Greek, she is called, “Presvytera” (the feminine form of “presbyter” or “elder”). In Russian she is called, “Matushka,” which is a diminutive of the word for mother. She is thus, “Our beloved mother.” Other Orthodox languages have similar titles that have evolved.
 

The fact that there is a title points to a role and an honor that surrounds the role. A priest’s wife is not ordained and does not carry out liturgical functions, but she is considered deeply important in a parish’s life. Different women have different gifts and they get expressed in various ways. But just as in a household with two parents, the Presvytera is not just a “companion.” To a degree, as the priest is a spiritual father in a congregation, so his wife is a spiritual mother. And like mothers and fathers elsewhere, those roles get expressed in different ways. But rarely is the Presvytera absent in the life of the parish. She is important and normative. 

Over the years of my ministry, I have made very few decisions (especially important ones) that were not a product of much thought and conversation with my wife. After all, the consequences of my ministry are consequences in her life as well. Her wisdom is essential. She not only knows the parish, but knows me, and can point out my errors far more effectively and accurately than anyone else.

I have often thought that the lack of veneration for the Mother of God in Protestantism contributes to their confusion regarding the role of women and of women who are married to ministers. In my Anglican years there was an increasing tendency to professionalize the priesthood, in which my wife was just a “corporate spouse,” someone for whom the Church was “none of her business.” I did not like it. But the veneration of the Mother of God opens the heart to something that gets neglected otherwise. I see it in my parish though I have a hard time putting it into words.

There is a priest wife in Alaska, Matushka Olga, who is venerated as a saint. Her case has not been brought before the Holy Synod, as of yet, but will undoubtedly move forward. She was a midwife within the nearby villages, well-known for her radical generosity and even for miracles associated with her prayers. The miracles continue. I eagerly await her canonization.

This week I received the news of the falling asleep of Matushka Sissy Yerger, whose husband is the priest of the OCA parish in Clinton, Mississippi. My wife and I met her several years before we became Orthodox. Together with her husband, she was a living example of a gentle, Southern Orthodoxy that we had not imagined to exist. The soft drawl of her dialect and the warmth of her hospitality made Orthodoxy native to this part of the world. She was beloved by all who knew her and will be deeply missed. I too often think in terms of doctrine and speak of “my journey” into Orthodoxy. But the truth of it is that, like all things in my life, my conversion was “our conversion.” The witness of women like Matushka Sissy was essential in knowing that we were headed towards greater sanity. 

All across the world of Orthodoxy there are such women who bring a wholeness to the life of a parish. We often speak of the “parish family.” The role of mother is certainly as essential as the role of father. I have realized, with reflection, that I have never thought of my brother priest, Fr. Paul Yerger, without his wife. I will not begin to do so now. I mourn for my brothers and sisters in Clinton. They have lost a dear friend and a true mother. May the Lord comfort them!

May her memory be eternal!

40 comments:

  1. Dear father Stephen,

    May her memory be eternal.

    I am blessed to have as my Godmother a very special person. The wife of the priest in my mission parish. Coming from a catholic background I had to learn plenty of new things, but it has been a true blessing. She is the person that never gets tired of serving others and she does it with a genuine smile. I am so blessed by God, and this small family who is a true testimony of Orthodoxy.

  2. This is beautifully expressed. As an Anglican priest’s wife, I have deeply struggled to find my particular vocation within the parish, and the title of this post caught my attention.

    About seven years ago, my husband and I took some classes at Reformed Theological Seminary in Clinton, MS, down the street from, I believe, that OCA parish. At the time, I didn’t even know what the Orthodox Church was, but later the same year I stumbled onto the works of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and since then, life hasn’t been the same. May the Lord comfort you and your dear friends in Clinton. Thank you for your thoughtful posts, I always contemplate them.

  3. This is good article. I wish to have more like this to keep educating our people.being a Catholic country under spanish rule for 400yrs, people were and are led to believe that only a celibate priest is a real priest and worst people think only a celibate priest is a holy priest. I am Eastern Orthodox under Mar Addai II and Metropolitan Mar Mikhael of Edessa, O.S.J.

  4. Greetings Fr. Stephen,
    As a Lay Reader in the Anglican Church, I found your blog about the priest’s wife very informative, both historically and present perspective. Another reason why I am enjoying my journey into Orthodoxy through the resources of Ancient Faith Radio App and mentoring support of two priests of different Orthodox traditions.

  5. Our parish priest for over 25 years, now retired, is still living at age 91. His wife, our presvytera is also still living and requiring care. She was indeed “our” mother when I returned to Orthodoxy. Together they ministered to our parish, both in spiritual and physical needs of the parishoners. Thus I fully appreciate your article on The Priest’s
    Wife. Thank you.

  6. May the Lord grant Mat. Sissy memory eternal!

    Where would we be without all the wonderful Matushkas and their amazing gifts and talents. I love my spiritual father, but his wonderful wife is just as dear to me. Together they are certainly one of the greatest blessings I have ever experienced.

  7. May her memory be eternal, Father! May God’s Grace and Mercy comfort Fr. Yeager and those around him as well.

    A question, Father. Does the title Matushka or Presvytera also extend to a Deacon’s wife?

  8. The wives of Protestant pastors do not normally have any special title (although I have seen ads where the pastor of a black church and his wife were named as “Bishop ” and “First Lady “), but the pastor’s wife has often been expected to teach Sunday School and play the piano.

    I have heard the title “Diakonissa” for the wife of a Deacon.

  9. Thank you, Father Stephen for this. Sissy has been my friend for over 40 years, Fr. Paul since we were six in Greenville, Mississippi. I cannot come to grips yet that the bright light of her presence will no longer be with us physically.

  10. Byron,
    Yes, in Greek my wife is called Diakonisa. I can’t imagine doing anything without her either. It is our ministry. Deacon john vaporis

  11. She will be deeply missed. I loved Matushka. She made my conversion to Orthodoxy easier for me. She was my friend and like a second mother to all of us at Holy Resurrection.

  12. Another related question: Where does the accent (stress) go on matuschka and presvitera? I keep hearing two different versions (Not a big deal, of course. Just curious)

    Another question: why the priest gets a familiar English term–father–while the wife is referred to, respectfully but somewhat artificially I think, in the language of the jurisdiction? I recall being told that the tradition is for liturgies to be in the language of the people. I suppose the customary Russian or Greek titles grew up among immigrant parishes, but I read recently about how the term “diaspora” is incorrectly applied and that the goal is to have an American Orthodox church here while other national groups preserve their own linguistic practices in their countries.

    P. S. A complication : I know the word “mother” would carry stronger connotations than “father” and I think I know why, but still it might seem a bit awkward to introduce my wife and children (not Orthidox) to Matuschka Freeman–or would I use her first name with the title? Or just Matuschka?

    These are questions I never asked, thinking maybe I should concentrate on more important things. Now however, since our little church has attracted more ethnic members, we are hearing conversations about having more church Slavonic in the liturgies, which would likely result in lack on interest among potential converts. It’s a puzzle for me, because initially I was attracted to what seemed exotic elements in the church service. Now that I know more, IIhave a different–but still conflicted–view.

  13. Your blessing, Father!
    Memory eternal! The work and spiritual support of the priests’ wives is of paramount importance in the life of an orthodox community.

    Two observations: I have often been corrected (in Greek) for the use of “canonisation” when it comes to “classifying someone among the Saints”. Is this an appropriate term in Orthodoxy? The Greek word would be “αγιοκατάταξις” (aghiokatátaxis).

    @Albert: The stress goes as follows: “PresvytEra”. The confusion might lie with the male use of the word: “PresvYtairos”, meaning elder.

    I cannot advise on the Russian word, I have heard both versions of MAtushka and MatUshka.

  14. Albert,

    the accent (stress) is on the te on presvitera.

    I guess that the closest in English is always Mother (first name). Those countries obviously have a tradition still lacking in English. We even kiss their hands just like those of a priest…

  15. I worked with Sissy at the United Way in Jackson, MS. We were both married to Orthodox priests. She was my closest friend and confidant in all things “Presvytera.” Since we were both converts to Orthodoxy, we had many things in common.
    Likewise, Fr. Paul was a close friend and colleague of my husband, Fr. Mark. We spent many enjoyable evenings together sharing a good meal and each other’s company. I will always cherish our time together. My heart goes out to Fr. Paul and his family.
    Memory Eternal Sissy!

  16. Albert, et al.
    My wife is affectionately known and addressed as “Mother Beth.” It’s a common appellation here in the OCA. I don’t know about others. I like the word “Matushka” because of its very soft meaning. It is sometimes used for a nun as well. Priests, in Russian, can be affectionately addressed as “Batiushka” – which is closer to “dear grandfather.” The Tsar was also addressed this way by his people.

    Bishops, in Russian, are affectionately addressed as “Vladyka.” [Vla – DEE – ka]. It means “dear master” and is quite endearing. Sometimes there is no easy equivalent in English. English can be a very formal, even stiff, language, rooted in the class system of our English past. It’s interesting that Orthodoxy, particularly Russian, coming out of a system with royalty, nevertheless has evolved such sweet terms. It just says that royalty doesn’t have to mean formality and distance.

    Albert – We use many “foreign” words in English for many things. A plate is a “paten,” a Cup is a “chalice,” etc. It’s just that we think Latin and Greek words are not too foreign – unless they recently came off the boat.

    There is, properly, a sort of Orthodox vocabulary in America (that varies). It’s one of the great strengths of English.

  17. Thomas,
    You are correct about “canonization.” “Glorification” is the proper term. The Russian is definitely “MA tushka” accent on the first syllable. There other is common but is an Americanism. English naturally likes to put the emphasis on the penultimate syllable.

  18. Fr. Stephen,

    What advice would you give to those in a parish, particularly a mission parish, who struggle with their relationship to their priest’s wife? What if she’s generally not supportive of his ministry, rarely comes to services, etc?

  19. If anyone mentioned the custom in Antiochian parishes, I missed it. The wives of the Antiochian Orthodox priests I know are all given the title “Khouria” (abbreviated “Kh.”), which seems to be the Arabic version of the Greek “Kuria” (= “Lady,” the feminine of “Kurios” = “Lord). However, our parishioners of Russian background tend to call them “Matushka” (stress on the first syllable), as in the Old Country.

    I have never seen anyone kiss the hand of our priest’s wife.

    As many Orthodox priests (and maybe an increasing number?) are “bivocational” these days, their wives may also be employed outside the home. How does/will this affect the perception of the priest’s wife as “mother”?

  20. Alan,
    My second daughter is a Khouria. The word is similar to the Greek formation. Priest is “Khoury.” I think the perception varies, but I have not found that my wife’s work changes the perception. Other than that we all perceive her to be really busy. I don’t know how she does all that she does.

  21. Father, I have heard it said that the wife of the priest-to-be must agree to his ordination, or else it will not go forward. Is this the case?

  22. Sissy was my soul sister since the 1970s when she and her husband became our first Orthodox friends while we were still on our journey to Orthodoxy. We shared many experiences, including a pilgrimage to Greece in 2007, visits to each other in hospital beds, writing icons together at a workshop, and listening to each other’s dark nights of the soul. My heart is broken. My reflections are here: http://susancushman.com/faith-on-friday-memory-eternal/.

  23. Dear Father Stephen

    It has been long since I saw you and now I am nearby in NC where I serve Grace Lower Stone Reformed Church. My dear wife Melody Claire has received your column via her Orthodox mother Vera Turton. It was a very pleasant surprise how you touched both Vera and my wife and I had the privilege of knowing you from my Oak Ridge days. I would be pleased to see you so and let you meet my wife when we are in Oak Ridge. I hope that we may be able to do this.

  24. I know in some parts of the OCA, “Mother” is used but I always cringe at that. I much prefer Matushka, as does Fr. Stephen. One refers to a clergy wife, normally, as “Matushka and first name, or Mother, Presvytera, Pani, Kouria, depending on the ethnic roots of the various jurisdictions. Matushka Sissy was/is a beloved friend and sister in Christ. She has been a bright light to so many. May God bless Fr. Paul and the entire family and church family in Clinton. May her memory be eternal!

  25. Antiochian priests are often called Abouna. Every so often our priest will holds a sit down event called “Ask Abouna” Questions are put in a hat and the priest draws them out and answers them.

    Informal, fun and instructive. The parishes I have been in the Khouria has not been real visible but still a presence.

  26. You didn’t mention the title of the priest’s wife in an Antiochian Parish. We call her Kohreah. I’m not sure of the spelling. Our choir would be lost without her, and she is truly a spiritual mother to us all. She has corrected my thought several times. She is younger than me. I lost my own mother two years ago and a hug from Kh. Pam can easily make me feel better when I feel motherless. I value your articles, and am reading your book at present.

  27. We had been Lutheran for many years when I began serving on the staff of Lutheran seminary, and on the governing body of our Lutheran denomination. In addition to seeing how the sausage was made, my wife and I became acquainted with a wide number of Lutheran pastors and professors. My wife was hurt by the rhetoric and became convinced that they really didn’t like women.

  28. What a joy to read this reflection on a topic which is so important but often overlooked. I am confident your ministry is strengthened by your wife.
    And may I also join in the prayers for Fr Paul and the entire parish on the death of a truly amazing woman, wife, & Matushka – Sissy.
    Memory Eternal to Sissy and all those who have shared the love of Christ & beauty of Orthodoxy with others.

  29. Kristofer,
    Our experience in the Episcopal Church was that the advent of women priests also marginalized and dismissed priest wives. Their ministry was treated as unnecessary and an embarrassment…sort of “go get a real job.” Family support began to disappear. I do not mean any antipathy towards women in ministry – though, as Orthodox – I do not believe in the ordination of women to the priesthood. My experience as an Anglican only confirmed it.

    There is such a dysfunctional view of women in our culture, and in most denominations, that it’s almost impossible for anyone to get it right. There’s an equally dysfunctional view of men. Modernity sees almost nothing correctly and has poison and deluded the minds of a number of generations. The problems of the destruction of the family continue to multiply and modernity’s answer is more of the same.

  30. My dad is a deacon, so that makes my mom a shamassey in the antiochian tradition. But we don’t live in the Middle East, we live in Tennessee. I agree that we should honor the wives of clergy, but this has always seemed weird to me.

  31. I am admittedly jealous of the time that others got to share with this sweet and very joyful soul. She was only in my life for a brief moment but I will always cherish our time together. Memory Eternal Matushka

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