The Female Diaconate? Issues East and West

The First Deaconesses by Kostas Xenopoulos

Female deacons in the Roman Catholic Church?  Female deacons in the Orthodox Church? Historically, we know there were deaconesses in the early Christian church in both East and West until sometime in the Medieval period (with the presence and exercise of the order differing by locale.)  In the modern period, the question of ordaining women as deacons (again) in the Roman Catholic Church was raised as early as Vatican II, some fifty plus years ago.  In the Orthodox world, this question is over a hundred years old.  Notably, a pan-Orthodox consensus was reached to revive the order (although no action taken) at an international conference convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch (Demetrios I) in Rhodes, Greece in 1988. (For a list of calls for the revival of the female diaconate in the Orthodox Church in the modern era, see here.)

Lately, the topic has generated renewed interest.  In 2016, Pope Francis established a commission to study the issue of the female diaconate.  In the Orthodox world in 2017, the Patriarch of Alexandria took a small step towards ordaining women to the order by consecrating a few women as deaconesses to help with catechesis, services, and mission work in Africa.  And yet, in both cases, a more definitive “answer” to the question of the revival of the female diaconate remains elusive.

In the Roman Catholic world, the commission that Pope Francis set up to study this question did not reach an agreement on the question of female deacons.  According to the Vatican dispatch, one of the outstanding questions seems to be the “sacramental” nature of their ordination.  (I am unclear of the full implications of what that means or implies, so I will leave it for now.)  In the Byzantine world, the work of Evangelos Theodorou (Greece) more definitely answered the question of the ordination of the deaconess.  In his 1954 landmark study ‘H Cheirotonia ‘H Cheirothesia twn Diakoniswn [The “Ordination” or “Appointment” of Deaconesses] he showed that, according to Byzantine liturgical texts, the female deacon was ordained during the celebration of the Eucharist/Divine Liturgy and in the same place in the service as the male deacon.  The rite included two prayers, one of which called God’s divine grace upon the candidate. She was ordained at the altar by the bishop, received the orarion [stole], and later in the service, received Holy Communion at the altar with the other clergy.  All of these are marks of the higher order of clergy.

In the modern period, the question of ordaining women as deacons (again) in the Roman Catholic Church was raised as early as Vatican II, some fifty plus years ago. In the Orthodox world, this question is over hundred years old.

One of the outstanding questions surrounding the possible ordination of women to the diaconate is to what extent was the role of a female deacon interchangeable with that of a male deacon.  From early church documents, we know that the female deacon helped with the baptism of women and continued to minister to them, instructing those new to the faith, providing pastoral care to the faithful and taking communion to the infirm.  She also supervised at Liturgy, participated in processions and served as an agent of the bishop entrusted with carrying out philanthropic and hospitality tasks. (For more information, see: Didascalia Apostolorum, Apostolic Constitutions, and Canon 40 of the Council of Trullo.)  In general, she ministered to women much as the male deacon ministered to men in what was a highly segregated Byzantine society.  However, her ministry was relegated more to the private sphere as that was the arena in which women participated in society whereas the ministry of the male deacon was more public.

One of the outstanding questions surrounding the possible ordination of women to the diaconate is to what extent was the role of a female deacon interchangeable with that of a male deacon.

The question for today is, in a society that is more integrated in public life, would a future female deacon also exercise similar public functions, especially in the gathered assembly?  In some ways, the question is easier to answer in the Roman Catholic realm as women are already serving in many public capacities (e.g. lectors, presenters of the gifts, Eucharistic ministers) whereas in the Orthodox world, the participation of women in the liturgical assembly in public ministerial roles is not as ubiquitous and can be quite uneven.  Furthermore, presenting the gifts and distributing the Eucharist are limited to the clergy.

So, how can this question be “resolved”?  In general, I think there are two fundamental issues that need to be understood more fully to move this debate forward—the meaning of ordination, per se, and the role of the diaconate in the three-fold ministry of Christ, in particular.  In other words, what does an “ordination” mean and how is the diaconate different from the presbytery/episcopacy?  I would like to offer some initial thoughts on these questions.

What does an “Ordination” mean?

In general, an ordination is a setting aside someone for ministry, usually for a particular function within the church.  But is it just a functional designation or does it have ontological import?  Is it an objective designation or one that is more relational?  For the Orthodox Church, Metropolitan John Zizioulas has proposed a third way to understand ordination—between a purely functional understanding of ordination and one that confers an objective ontological change, emphasizing that an ordination establishes a new relationship within the community between the ordained and the community.[1]   On a more practical level, an ordination assumes that the (soon-to-be) ordained are trained to do their ministry.  It also sets up a reciprocal relationship between the Church and the ordained.  The ordained carries the authority (and support) of the Church, but they are also held accountable to Her. (i.e. There are  no “loose wheels.”)  Their gifts are enlivened by the descent of the Spirit during their ordination in the Eucharistic celebration and their ministry is tied to the Eucharist as its source and summit.  In other words, they connect people to the sacramental life of the Church.

The Diaconate

But, how does an ordination to the diaconate connect someone to the sacramental life of the church?  How is the diaconate fundamentally different than the presbytery?  Are deacons just “mini-priests,” merely “liturgical functionaries” and/or “exercisers of a nebulous, temporary ministry on the way to the priesthood/presbytery” or do they have a distinct (and, possibly, permanent) role within the three-fold ministry of Christ?  Historically, the diaconate was a ministry (often, permanent) that connected worship and service; it connected our cultic celebration with the liturgy of our lives more particularly.  (Only the ministries of the presbyter and bishop were and are sacerdotal.)  The duties of the deacon included pastoral care of the faithful, philanthropic outreach, reading the Scriptures (and, at times, preaching), and other forms of liturgical service (e.g. preparing the offering of the people, leading the petitions of the concerns of people, taking communion to the sick, etc.), as well as ecclesial administration.  In particular, it was grounded in the way the church meets the world.  However, if we only see male deacons today as “mini-priests,” “liturgical functionaries,” and/or, in many cases, exercising their ministry merely as training for becoming “priests,” it is hard for the faithful to imagine women in this role without the usual stumbling block questions/concerns—i.e. that ordaining women to the diaconate would automatically lead to ordaining them as presbyters, etc.

So, where do we go from here?  What can we in the Christian East and West learn from one another as we (hopefully) move forward on this issue?  I hope to examine this issue further in subsequent posts, but, in the interim, would welcome your suggestions.


[1] See: John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), pp. 209–246.


4 comments

  1. I suggest that it was a mistake for the Catholic Church to suppress the minor orders, so we should revive them. Then we can have an argument about whether it is appropriate for women to occupy those roles, and if so which, without confusing it with the question of the priesthood.
    My expectation is that there would be no doubt about porter and exorcist, since baptism involves exorcism. Some diehards might resist the liturgical roles of lector and acolyte, but in view of established practice I doubt that the hierarchy would support them. Then we move on to whether a lector can be permitted to preach …

  2. Teva, it might help, in a very practical way, to turn this around a bit. If we question the current reality of the ‘function’ of a priest in this society, I think that will shed light on our culture’s improper perception of the priesthood. Our expectations are that one man can and will function in every avenue of parish life….liturgical, financial, administrative, pastoral, sacramental, even be an expert on ethnicity….with the ‘help’ of a few male deacons who spot him through the liturgical services.

    That was never the intent of the Church. She recognizes the need for several ‘elders’ in the life of the community: the priests who prepare and celebrate the Eucharist; the confessors who listen and care for the spiritual growth of each soul; the deacons who offer their gifts pastorally; the councils who are diligent in civil and financial administration of the patish; the singers who offer prayers; the teachers who educate; the caregivers who cook and clean and preserve the temple; etc. We are all called to service, to meet the needs of the whole community.

    But in our ‘culture’ we have mistakenly confused priesthood with clericalism. That presents a psychological stumbling block for us. We need to rethink the purpose of a Christian community when we examine the diaconate by looking at the needs of our people and how best to serve them within the tradition of our Church. Too often we forget to see the bigger picture and instead parse definitions to the ‘nth’ degree.

    Ever discussion I read or hear about the diaconate stumbles on the sacramental ‘ordination’ like a ‘log’ in our eye, instead of concentrating on how we best use every member to ‘go forth and bring’. In many ways there are no Jews and Greeks, no males or females…instead, there are Christ followers who help each other along according to their gifts. A male clergyman offers life-giving Eucharist, a female believer is life-giving. Both are sacramental in nature, and exclusive. Both males and females can serve in every other capacity. IMHO.

    1. Diane:

      Dcn. John Chryssavgis (Deacon for the Ecumenical Patriarch) says something similar to what you say above. A video of his talk from a recent symposium on the (Female) Diaconate sponsored by the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (GOA-Philadelphia area) can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXjG6_wQq-c (His remarks begin at about 22’45” into the video.) His remarks are focused more broadly on the diaconate, in general. However, he does say that this is a ministry for both men and women.

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