Orthodox group calls for “rejuvenating” the ministry of ordained deaconess

“Catherine’s Vision,” an international, pan-Orthodox fellowship, issued a call to Patriarch Bartholomew and the council of the Orthodox Church about a year ago:

A Call for the Rejuvenation of the Ministry of the Ordained Deaconess

This is the first I’ve heard of it, but it may be that others are aware of it. Are there any updates on how it has been received? It has been issued in advance of a planned Synod in 2016, so it may be food for study and prayer at this point, and too early for responses. It is interesting, at any rate, that the Orthodox are discussing this.

The statement is amply documented and well worth a read.

This summary of examples from history was particularly interesting:

In offering these observations, we call to mind the many deaconesses and their ministries that the Church honors and commemorates. We especially remember: St Phoebe (1st century), “a deacon (diakonon) of the Church of Cenchreae” and “Equal to the Apostles” 6 Limouris, p. 31-32. 7 Syriac Didascalia, III: 12. 4 whom Saint Paul referred to as “a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16 1-2); St. Olympias (4th century), abbess, evangelist, friend and confidant of St. John Chrysostom whom he highly respected; St. Nonna (4th century), the wife of “the elder” St. Gregory of Nazianzus, parents of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Gorgonia, who was also a deaconess. St. Gorgonia is praised for her love of Christ, study of Scriptures, love of psalmody, and after raising her family, developed a ministry to the needy by opening her home to the poor. St. Theosevia (4th century), devoted wife of St. Gregory of Nyssa, was ordained to the diaconate right after her husband was consecrated a bishop in 371 and remained with him thereafter. Also St. Irene of Chrysovalantou (9th century), abbess, spiritual mother, intercessor and wonder-worker. Before installing her as abbess of her monastery, St. Methodios the confessor for the faith and Patriarch of Constantinople, enthusiastically “ordained (cheirotonein) Irene as a deacon (diakonon) of the Great Church of St. Sophia.”

A veritable cloud of witnesses. There are modern examples too.


  1. On the open questions in a Catholic contexts regarding Deaconesses, being their relationship to male Deacons and the Unity of Holy Orders given their inability to be ordained priests / bishops, this document is interesting.

    It appears following a Professor Theodorou, it asserts Deaconesses are fully the same as male Deacons, and also fully a part of the three-fold priesthood. It then notes the 1988 Rhode Consultation, which seems to preclude women priests / bishops on the basis they have never been ordained as such.

    However these two ideas don’t seem to work together, as if a Deaconess is fully a part of the Unity of Holy Orders then it seems they have been appointed to the fullness of Holy Orders, and it becomes hard to see why they could not be ordained priests / bishops (unless there is another distinguishing factor I am missing).

    Therefore these reflections don’t seem to help solve the key doctrinal questions the Catholic Church needs to address before it revives any order of Deaconesses.

    1. @Scott Smith:

      I have a question about your first post. Are you sure that Professor Theodorou asserts that deaconesses (and deacons) share in a “three-fold priesthood”?

      Catholic sacramental theology holds that deacons receive the sacrament of holy orders but that they do not share in the ministerial priesthood, which is two-fold: presbyters and bishops.

      1. @Fr. Ron Krisman:

        That is what the document linked to in the post indicates. Three fold priesthood is the quote it uses. If the Professor has been accurately represented in this regard or not, I do not know.

    2. @Scott Smith:
      As someone else has commented, it is a three-fold ministry, not priesthood. A key point in this debate is that only the bishop has the fullness of the sacrament of ordination (as clarified at Vatican II). He delegates his power to loose and to bind to his priests but not to his deacons. So deacons do not have any juridicial power. So women can be deacons without contradicting the teachings of St Paul.

      1. @jane Coll:

        It is three-fold ministry from a Catholic perspective, but that it not the terminology used in the Eastern Orthodox document linked in the Post.

        It uses three-fold priesthood, as you will see if you click through and read it. Which is why I brought it up – To highlight a potential difference between our understanding and that of the document.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:

      I know you have a very narrow view of faith and morals Todd, but to be honest, I am not sure what discipline has to do with deaconesses.

      The question “what IS a deaconess?” has nothing to do with discipline. It relates entirely the question of the nature of Holy Orders and their relationship to deaconesses. And the Church has doctrines, matters of belief, in relation to that question.

      Discipline does not become relevant until we ask what can / should a deaconess DO? Which is also a good, and as yet unanswered, question.

      1. @Scott Smith:
        You state that the question of what deaconesses can/should do has not been answered. However several well-known writers in this field have done just that. Try Phyllis Zagano “Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church” My own book, which has my bishop’s Imprimatur is not at all well known but gives a detailed analysis of the role of women in the Church and concludes that they could be ordained as deacons. Its title is “Handmaids of the Lord:Women Deacons in the Catholic Church”

      2. @jane Coll:

        You state that the question of what deaconesses can/should do has not been answered.

        Nor has it been answered by the Church. Which is why it is an open question, to which contributions can be made, such as your book.

  2. I’m interested to know the etymological difference between διακονία (grammatical female form for the word ‘deacon’) and διάκονος (the grammatically male form). In this letter from SCV, both forms are used to describe women deacons. Perhaps reading through the footnotes would clarify the use of nouns. My question probably just shows my patristics blind-spot.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      The word used in both the rite of ordination and the bishop’s letter is “διακονισσα” (“διακονία” is the diaconate or, more properly, the office of service offered by the deacon/deaconess). The grammatical form is typical of the way that Greek distinguishes between male and female office holders (c.f. “Βασιλευς” – King and “βασίλισσα”).

  3. Do we have any detailed descriptions of what deaconesses did? Obviously they ministered to women when a male deacon doing so would have been imprudent or cause for scandal, but other than that what was their ministry? I am surprised that Phyllis Zagano’s research does not seem to appear anywhere in the document

  4. The Church has long maintained a distinction between ordination to “a ministry of service” (diaconate) and ordination to priesthood (presbyterate and episcopate) while still maintaining the unity of the Sacrament. Recall the words of the Didascalia, cited in Lumen gentium 29.

    This was most recently brought out by Pope Benedict XVI when he appended the Code of Canon Law in Omnium in Mentem (2009).

    Canon 1009 §3 now reads: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity”.

    Distinction within unity – which allows for consideration of ordination of women to the diaconate.

    I would also note that the distinction is NOT in acting in the person of Christ, but in the person of Christ THE HEAD….

    1. Frank and Alexander,

      I understand the distinctions you draw are the basis of one possible orthodox understanding of female deacons from a Catholic perspective (another might be drawing a distinction between male and female deacons).

      I merely note these distinctions do not seem to appear in the document linked in the post, which would seem to be relevant to its ability to contribute to the Catholic discussion.

  5. Keep in mind that, in the western Church, we have the permanent diaconate that was restored after Vatican II. This understanding of the Order is that it is NOT a step(minor order) toward the ordained priesthood, unless, of course, his wife dies and that he chooses to be considered for the priesthood. While this is true for Catholics and Anglicans, I do not know the theological understanding of this Order is in the Orthodox tradition.
    In my studies in Church history and sacramental theology, I do not see any theological reason why woman can not be ordained to the permanent diacontate in either Church.

  6. A couple of thoughts:
    1) It is interesting and informative to know whether or not the early Church ordained women as deacons; however, we cannot be bound by that historical fact, or lack thereof. The principle that the Church can only do that which it has done before is a fallacy. The Spirit moving through the Body can and will do completely new things. (And why do folks who get so caught up in the validating witness of the first Christians not propose getting rid of infant baptism?)
    2) The historical Jesus of Nazareth had many external physical characteristics; an early disagreement – circumcision – had this component in play, even when it was ostensibly about a ritual practice. We’re at another juncture of trying to determine whether some external physical attributes of the pre-resurrected Jesus (gender and genitalia) are, or should be, determinative of who can be part of the diaconate or presbyterate or episcopacy. As the saying goes, if you think women can’t manifest the true Body of Christ, stop baptizing them into it.

    1. @Alan Hommerding:

      Alan: “1) It is interesting and informative to know whether or not the early Church ordained women as deacons; however, we cannot be bound by that historical fact, or lack thereof.

      Yet, the reformation of the medieval liturgy by constitution and the dictates of the Consilium unabashedly derived inspiration from pre-carolingian models in great quantity and quality. It is difficult to recognize ressourcement as the motor behind liturgical reform, and then place within this ressourced liturgy a new Order which is not necessarily ressourced but considered an imperative and sole charism of the Holy Spirit. Is the reformed liturgy predominately charismatic in genesis? If not, then a model congruent with ressourcement inclusive of charism should guide the expansion of the major Orders. After all, are not the reformed ordination rites a product of ressourcement to some degree? Would not the ordination of women deacons follow the liturgy for the ordination of male deacons, and therefore place all deacons within liturgical reformation?

      @Thomas Dalby:

      Thanks very much Thomas for the clarification. The -σσ- infix is attested in the Greek New Testament. See Philip and the eunuch, Acts 8:26-40:

      καὶ ἰδοὺ ἀνὴρ Αἰθίοψ εὐνοῦχος δυνάστης Κανδάκης βασιλίσσης [Candacis reginae] Αἰθιόπων […]

      The scriptural use of this declension lends credence to the antiquity of an office of women deacons, given that scriptural koine is used to this day to describe deacons.

  7. Frank +1

    It’s essential to note that all the baptized have the capacity to act in persona Christi…and should…in a multitude of discipleship activities.

    Only priests and bishops act in persona Christi CAPITIS, and I would even add ECCLESIAE to be even more clear about the relationship. They act in the person of Christ the head of the Church.

    Words mean something…

  8. This may be unfair, because the bishop in question is now dead, but in a conversation with this man who was initially reluctant to ordain permanent deacons in any case, he told me he was in favor women deacons. And I said, but the theology has changed since so that anyone who could be ordained a deacon coul d be ordained a priest. And his answer:’That’s right.” and then discreet silence. I swear it is true and that the bishop was otherwise extremely rigid conservative. But history is history.

  9. #14 & #9…

    So if there is a distinction between In Persona Christi and In Persona Christi Capitis (Ecclesiae), then that would beg the question …did Christ ever act as non Capitis (Ecclesiae) or is In Persona Christi Capitis really a redundant phrase?

    If the ordination of deaconesses were only about historical practices, then it would have been resolved years ago. This issue of what kind of Christ we’re talking about here is being used to create division rather than unity.

    If the Church does not ordain women because it believes women cannot preach or show charity In Persona Christi Capitis, then Alan H’s second point in #11 might be the real reason women are not allowed ordination in the Catholic Church.

  10. The distinctions (see Canons 1008-1009 as modified by Benedict XVI): deacons act in persona Christi servi; priests/bishops in persona Christi capitis ecclesiae. The only person named in Scripture as deacon (not deaconess) is Phoebe. The deacon (male or female) is and has been ordained with the laying on of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit; the priest is so ordained and also anointed on the hands; the bishops is so ordained and also anointed on the head. All diaconal liturgies through history are virtually identical, while diaconal ministries evolved culturally. Women deacons have always ministered to women. Who ministers to women now? Women deacons were on the roster of clerics. What woman can now fully obtain an office requiring the clerical state now? For example, with Francis’ motu proprio regarding annulments, there is just one judge and no second instance. That judge must be a cleric, effectively removing women from any participation in this ministry to men and women. See: http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/summerautumn2015/ordain-catholic-women-deacons

  11. From the Orthodox perspective, an admittedly minority view: there has been much discussion on restoring the order of deaconess and it was actually approved by the Church of Greece in 2004, though it was a matter of exercising ministry in extremely remote parishes and monasteries.

    The issue was on the proverbial radar of the Orthodox Church before the Bolshevik Revolution and in some academic/ecclesial circles since then, but it has not led to concrete and decisive action. My own sense is that many Orthodox fear what would come after the ordination of deaconesses and thus attempt to dismiss such discussions.

    As for me, I think there should be an international commission devoted to studying this issue in Orthodoxy, with representatives form all the Orthodox Churches participating. For now, the topic should be the diaconate, or the order of deacon – it might be best to redefine the order as a whole since there are still many parishes without deacons, and the deacon’s role has been reduced to vocal performance and ceremony in many places. (John Chryssavgis wrote a study on the diaconate; I have not read it, but hear that it is quite good).

    As for the 2016 synod, I would not invest any hope at all that the synod will do anything of theological or even pastoral substance. It will be much more interesting to see what Orthodox academics publish in advance of the synod. I will literally fall out of my chair with joy if the synod discusses the diaconate. It’s going to occupy itself with autocephaly, Syria, Ukraine, the Church in the Czech Republic, Jerusalem and Antioch – internal fissures within Orthodoxy that threaten the actualization of the synod’s proposed gathering.

  12. To me there is one decisive question. Is the ordination of the deaconess Apostolic Tradition traceable to Romans chapter 16 or a later corruption? This is one aspect that would no doubt be difficult to prove. For example, where is the hard biographical evidence that St. Nonna was ordained?

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