Weaver, “Shifting Agency”

Weaver, Dorothy C. 2011. Shifting Agency: Male Clergy, Female Believers, and the Role of Icons.Material Religion 7(3):394-419.

Abstract: In Eastern Orthodox traditions, an icon is a religious image, a depiction of a saint or a significant event. Icons are deployed by believers as symbols, teaching tools, and aids to concentration, but they can also function as social agents that decentralize authority normally concentrated in jurisdictional hierarchies. In the Russian Orthodox Church, all but the lowest formal positions are held exclusively by men, even though women make up the majority of the parishioners. Even among male believers, lay men and junior priests are subject to the power of a very few senior priests, abbots, and bishops. But while Church hierarchies control wealth, real estate, assignments, seminaries, and so on, they do not monopolize spiritual power. Heavenly authority supersedes the clergy’s, and, discursively, heavenly participation by means of miraculous icons can limit hierarchs’ power. When parishioners choose to address their problems by appealing to an icon directly rather than submitting a request that it be included in a formal service, they are bypassing the formal Church structure. Priests, monks, and bishops can ask for miracles, but they can not make them. Icons act as leveling mechanisms shifting power from (masculine) authorities to the (predominantly feminine) laity.