Since I am both a deacon and a professional theologian, I get asked to give my opinion on the prospect and possibility of women deacons. I tend to think uninformed opinions asymptotically approach zero in their value, so I thought I’d read up on the question a bit, starting with the recent translation of Cipriano Vagaggini’s lengthy essay “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Traditions” (in Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches, Phyllis Zagano, ed., Liturgical Press 2013). Vagaggini is somewhat cautiously in favor of ordaining women to the diaconate. But he is also a careful historian who does not want to overstate the historical evidence for doing so. His essay prompted me to reflect on the difficulties posed in mounting historical arguments of either side in the debate, and what counts as sufficient historical precedent in changing Church practice.
One thing that Vagaggini’s essay shows is that both those who say “In Romans Paul identifies Phoebe as a deacon, therefore it is clear that the early Church had women deacons” and those who say, “It is clear that deaconesses were not admitted to the sacrament of orders, but were a non-ordained ministry oriented solely to assisting women at baptism” have not really reckoned with what a messy place the past is. Trying to take account of the messiness of the past, I offer the following remarks:
- The definition of what a sacrament is was extraordinarily slow in developing. As is well know, it is really only with Peter Lombard (d. 1160) that the West identified the seven sacraments as we know them today, and began to define how these differed from other “sacramental” rites and objects (the East was even slower in doing this, and did so largely in order to have some way of talking with folks in the West). Thus, in arguing that the setting apart of deaconess either was or was not the sacrament of holy orders, we are not going to get any direct evidence from our sources. They simply do not use “sacrament” in that way.
- The record is also remarkably varied geographically. In some places there seems to have been no tradition of deaconesses; in other places they seem to exercise a ministry that is radically different in kind from bishops, presbyters, and (male) deacons; in yet other places, their ministry seems to more closely approach that of (male) deacons. Vagaggini’s essay focuses on a single tradition—the Byzantine—which happens to be one in which the ministry of deaconess in some ways closely approaches that of the deacon (though not as close as one might find in the Armenian Church). One might ask, whatever one decides about what the Byzantines thought they were doing, is this is a broad enough sample of the tradition to count as a precedent?
- Since our sources do not use the category of “sacrament” in the way that later scholastics would (and that we would today), we must look for other sorts of evidence that would allow us to make the retrospective judgement that the admission of women to the diaconate was admission to the sacrament of Holy Orders. Vagaggini notes that the Byzantine tradition uses two terms to describe the setting apart of ministries: cheirotonia, which we might translate as “ordination,” and cheirothesia, which we might translate as “blessing.” It also sets some ministries apart by the laying on of hands, whereas others do not involve this ritual. While deaconesses (along with bishops, presbyters, and deacons) are set apart by cheirotonia and the laying on of hands, so too are subdeacons and lectors, whom we today do not understand to have received the sacrament of orders. This, therefore, is not in itself clear evidence for the sacramentality of the ordination of deaconesses. However, there is also a clear distinction between those ministries that are set apart by cheirotonia inside the sanctuary, and those that are set apart by cheirotonia outside the sanctuary. The ministry of deaconesses falls into the former category, as do those of bishops, presbyters, and (male) deacons; subdeacons and lectors fall into the latter category, ordained outside the sanctuary. Vagaggini draws upon the writings the Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) as evidence for the Eastern belief that cheirotonia within the sanctuary was reserved for those orders that were of divine institution, with the setting apart of those orders that were of human institution taking place outside of the sanctuary. Vagaggini cites other elements in the ordination of deaconesses that indicate that their order was understood to be more like that of deacons and less like that of subdeacons and lectors, but the heart of his argument rests on the place where the rite takes place.
- Vagaggini’s argument might seem at first glance to be pretty shaky in some ways, particularly in how it tries to use evidence from the past to answer a question that was not asked at that time (was the ordination of deaconesses sacramental in the same sense that the ordination of male deacons was?), and might not have even made sense at the time. On the other hand, all inquiry into the past is somewhat like this. Historians of philosophy sometimes distinguish between “historical reconstruction” of a philosopher’s views (i.e. determining the actual views held by a philosopher of the past) and “rational reconstruction” of those views (i.e. what would a past philosopher have thought, had he or she known what we now know or been posed a question that we now pose). So, we can ask if Aristotle’s philosophy might be able to accommodate or be adapted to the evolution of species or a heliocentric planetary system. So, mutatis mutandis, we might say that it is not illegitimate to seek to determine, if early Byzantine theologians has been using the developed scholastic notion of sacrament (which is what we today more or less use), whether they would have considered it a sacrament. Vagaggini’s argument, while not a knock-down-argument, does give some basis for answering this question with a “yes,” at least for the Byzantine tradition.
- Even if one agrees that Vagaggini’s case allows for a “yes,” the historical precedent does not give us all that we may want or need. So, for example, even if the Byzantine tradition treats deaconesses as being within the ambit of Holy Orders, it also pretty clearly treats deaconesses as belonging to a distinct order from deacons, an order that is far more restricted in its powers and duties (e.g. lacking any liturgical role apart from assisting at the baptism of women). If we let ourselves be ruled by the Byzantine historical precedent, would this mean establishing the deaconess as a fourth “grade” of Holy Orders, beneath the deacon? Would it call for a distinct ordination rite? Would it mean giving them a similarly restricted liturgical role? Would such a separate-but-equal solution not be worse than our current situation?
- Of course, one might also argue that the Byzantine precedent is sufficient simply to establish the possibility of women receiving Holy Orders in some (non-priestly) capacity, and need not be followed in any of its particulars. It would therefore allow for women to enter the diaconate as full and equal members along with men, unrestricted in their fulfillment of any diaconal roles. However, this would have to be done with the frank acknowledgement that something quite new is being done, something that is without past precedent, even if it is a development that might be seen as related in some way to past precedent. Such a threading of the historical needle would call for remarkably steady hands—as well as trust in the Spirit’s guidance of the Church in this historical moment.