Source: Orthodox Christian Laity
Originally published in OCL’s “THE FORUM,” Summer-Autumn 1993.
WOMEN’S ROLE IN THE CHURCH – THE RESTORATION OF THE DIACONATE
Women in the church is not one issue but is a topic comprised of many facets. Let us begin with women in the New Testament and Early Church and proceed to their role as saints and their service in the women’s diaconate.
Women were the first to hear of Christ’s Resurrection, and these women disciples were told to “go and proclaim” the Resurrection. Christ first identified Himself to the Woman of Samaria. She is known as Photine, the Woman at the Well.
Many women traveled with Jesus during His ministry. Some women opened their homes to Him, others were teachers and preachers. St Junia is credited with teaching Apollos about Christianity and bringing him to Christ We can read about her in the New Testament.
Unfortunately; she is often referred to as Junius, the male form of Junia. Likewise, St Nina, the Evangelizer of Georgia and Equal to the Apostles is often called Nino,·and both women are referred to as him not her.
Prisca or Pricilla, the wife of Aquila, is mentioned before him in the Bible, thus denoting her status in the Christian community. Mary Magdalene was a follower of Christ and a disciple of His Word. The Gospel bears witness to Jesus’ chastisement of Martha when she came to Him, angry that her sister Mary was not tending”to the things of the house”.
DISTORTION OF WOMEN IN CHURCH HISTORY
Women in Early Church history were seen to be given an equal share. So unlike prior Hebrew tradition, the Church was egalitarian. This history of women’s ministry from the New Testament and Early Church should be proclaimed by the Orthodox, yet examples of Junia/Junius, and Nina/ Nino only serve as a testament to the distortion of women in Church history.
One woman who stands out in the New Testament is Phoebe, a worker with St Paul, who was the first woman deacon. She was called both diakonos and prostatis, which in those days denoted someone in authority. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, women deacons were common. St John Chrysostom was an advocate of the female diaconate, and letters between him and female deacons have survived.
Tombstones serve as another reference. Many can be found bearing witness to female deacons and their ministry. One such example is a tombstone on the Mt. of Olives which bears the inscription: “here lies Sophia the Deacon, a second Phoebe.”
Several female deacons became saints. Among them are: St. Macrina, the sister of Sts. Gregory and Basil; St. Nonna, the wife of St. Gregory Nazianzus; St. Theosebia, the wife of St. Gregory of Nyssa; St. Gorgonia, the daughter of St. Gregory the Theologian; St. Melania, St. Susanna, St. Appolonia, St. Olympia, and St. Xenia.
The icon of St Tatiana shows her wearing the diaconal stole with the words “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Slavonic as is the custom for Russian deacons. She is wearing cuffs as do our male priests and deacons, and
she is holding the censor in one hand, a cross in the other.
In the year 535, forty female deacons were employed and serving at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
SIMILARITIES OF FEMALE AND MALE DEACONS
Women deacons took Communion from the hands of the bishop in the altar, as do our male priests and deacons today. The female deacons took the chalice from the altar and replaced it on the prothesis table after Communion, as do our male deacons today.
Ancient service books attest to the ordination of women deacons, showing the order of ordination, litanies and ordination prayers. Women deacons were ordained right before the Lord’s prayer as male deacons are.
The female diaconate peaked in the Early Qmrch, declined in the Eighth Century, and virtually disappeared by the Twelfth Century, although individual women, especially nuns, have been ordained throughout the ages. In 1911, St Nektarios, then a bishop in Greece, ordained a female monastic as a deacon. A few years later, Chrysostomos, Archbishop of Athens did likewise.
In 1957, a college for women deacons opened in Greece. While most assume no graduates have ever been ordained, rumors persist that somewhere in Greece, a woman was ordained a deacon this past summer.
The restoration of the female diaconate received a lot of press in pre revolutionary Russia, winning support from several bis ops. The Revolution interrupted the Synod which had on its agenda, the restoration of this order.
Many contemporary women and men feel that the restoration of this order is not a stepping stone to the priesthood, but a viable women’s ministry, and that it is long overdue in the Orthodox Church.
Matushka Ellen Gvosdev
Matushka Ellen Gvosdov is the granddaughter and wife of a priest, and a native of San Francisco, California. Her husband, Father Kirrill was pastor of St Nicholas Orthodox Church (OCA) in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She has involved much of her life in researching and perpetuating the role of ‘Women in the Church”.
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