Deaconesses: Wait and See

Social media and news sites are buzzing with the headline from the Patriarchate of Alexandria that the order of deaconess will be restored. I have two initial responses to this news:

First, my guess is that this is definitely ordination at the altar with the laying-on-of-hands, not the creation of lay deaconesses. The Orthodox Church has been wrestling with this question for a long time. Some Orthodox people are hung up on gender, but Orthodox also honor their history. So there is a good chance that the envisioned restoration would be a real ordination.

Second, the deferral of the deaconess decision to a committee of bishops makes me hesitate to draw instant conclusions. Who knows when that committee will meet? Who knows how long this decision might sit with no action?

Also, what will the order of deaconess look like today? The Orthodox Church in Greece authorized female deaconesses in 2004, but very little happened. The Orthodox Church needs imaginative discussion on how to proceed, and it should involve the entire Orthodox Church.

Moving forward, here is what I’d like to see happen with this surprising and welcome development.

The Orthodox Churches should univocally commit to restoring the female diaconate throughout the Church. Diaconal ministry performed by some women in Orthodoxy is well-established by history. The primary motivation for prohibiting the revival of the order of deaconess is fear that women serving as deaconesses is a Trojan Horse for raising the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood. This fear is particularly strong in North American Orthodoxy. Shutting down discussion of ordaining women to the diaconate is a way of politicizing gender in deliberation of legitimate questions of Church order. The question posed to Orthodoxy concerns the exercise of ministry in orders known and recognized by the Church, not the invention of something new. The Orthodox Churches gathered for a Holy and Great Council in Crete in 2016. While it is not necessary for a council composed of bishops representing all of the Churches to resolve this matter, it would be healthy for the local Churches to cooperate with one another in deliberating the details.

The discussions on the order of deaconess should not occur in isolation. Orthodoxy needs to continue to discuss the exercise of ministry by all orders, so the order of deaconess should be imagined in terms of compatibility with the episcopacy, priesthood, and male diaconate in Orthodoxy. This means that an emergent female diaconate should not be a mere copy of the male diaconate. To be sure, there is plenty of work to be done in the Lord’s vineyard, so the Church has plenty of motivation to begin the process of granting women access to ordained ministry through the order of deaconess.

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