Source: Public Orthodoxy
by the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess Board: AnnMarie Mecera, President; Caren Stayer, Ph.D.; Gust Mecera; Teva Regule, Ph.D.; Carrie Frederick Frost, Ph.D.; Helen Theodoropoulos, Ph.D.
Originally posted on April 17, 2018
The St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess advocates for the reinstitution of the ordained order of deaconesses for the benefit of the Orthodox Church today. We also appreciate that this is a significant issue that prompts a range of opinions, and we consider it to be part of our work to promote empirically grounded conversation.
Unfortunately, distortions and misrepresentations of the historical record, as well as fallacies about the interest in renewing the female diaconate, have been propagated by some of those opposed to deaconesses. Furthermore, when making their case, some detractors misunderstand and misrepresent the ecclesiology, history, and theology of the Church.
Correction of these errors is necessary for honest dialogue. By no means exhaustive, this article by the St. Phoebe Center Board provides solid historical and theological information about the diaconate by theme. We undertake this project with humility, knowing that while we offer up our own efforts, the Holy Spirit is also at work.
As the Church developed, women took on many roles in antiquity, including that of deaconess. In the Byzantine tradition, there is ample evidence that they were ordained to the major clergy—as was the case in the capital of the empire, Constantinople. The ordination rite for deaconesses is included in the earliest extant Euchologion (prayerbook) of the Church, the Barberini Codex Gr. 336 from the eighth century. A deaconess was ordained by the bishop, during the Liturgy, at the altar, she was presented with a stole and chalice, and received communion with the clergy. Her service was tied to the Eucharist as the source and summit of her ministry.
It is sometimes asserted that deaconesses exclusively helped with adult female baptism. This is simply not the case; deaconesses ministered to women much as male deacons ministered to men. Other responsibilities mentioned in Church texts include: catechetical instruction, pastoral care, taking communion to the infirm, supervision at liturgy, participating in processions, and serving as agents of the bishop entrusted with carrying out philanthropic and hospitality tasks. Not every deaconess performed each of these roles; their roles varied according to local need. We believe that much of this ministry is still needed today.
Detractors point out that deaconesses were never at one given moment universally present throughout the Church; their presence varied over time and place. This is true, but it is not an argument against deaconesses—instead, it is indicative of a principle of Orthodoxy that holds today: the local Church is able to minister to the particular needs of its community, as was seen in the 2017 consecration of deaconesses by the Synod of Alexandria to help with catechesis, services, and mission work.
If the universal Church did not see fit to prohibit a tradition on the ecumenical level, and, in fact, supported it at that level (as the Church did in its tacit approval of deaconess in the proceedings from two Ecumenical Councils), then, the local Church may make use of it, and this is true of the female diaconate.
Why then, was there a decline of the female diaconate, which notably paralleled the decline of the male diaconate? The reasons were complex, and included monastic influence on parish liturgical services, geopolitical pressures on the Byzantine empire, and, for women, the introduction into the Church of ideas of impurity connected with the female body.
Some detractors have recently suggested that the Church stopped ordaining women because it “came to its senses” and recognized that women should never be in authority over men. There is no evidence for this claim. Although there is not room here for a full treatment of authority with regard to men and women, we must clarify a critical point about the diaconate and authority: while all ordained orders bear the authority of the Church by their very nature, the work of the diaconate is service, and its characterization as one wherein one group exercises authority over another misconstrues and subverts this truth.
Furthermore, the Orthodox Church has never embraced the very modern notion that all change is progress, and, instead, has seen the value of restoring practices from the past when they are deemed helpful today. For example, frequent communion of the laity—seen as a good and beneficial practice nearly universally today—fell out of favor in the middle of the Church’s first millennium and was only revived in the past century. This revival was not prevented by the erroneous notion that frequent communion, while part of the history of the Church, did not belong to its tradition because it had not been linearly “handed down to us.”
Most references to deaconesses in canons from the Orthodox Church include regulations of their duties, their requirements, or the consequences if they betray the confidence of the Church, and these canons therefore stand as evidence of when and where deaconesses were present. Detractors point to canons that appear to ban or dismiss the idea of ordained deaconesses (such as those from Nîmes in 396; Orange in 441; Epaone in 517; Orleans in 533), but these local western councils are not part of the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, as asserted at the Quinisext Council, a Council that is recognized by the Orthodox Church as having ecumenical import.
Canons do point to restrictions around the requirements for deaconesses; such as their marital status (usually unmarried or widowed) and age (60 years in some, 40 in others), but there are more exceptions to these canons than there are canons: for example, Saint Epiphanius of Salamis of the 4th c writes that, “Deaconesses must be married to only one man.” In a reinstitution of the female diaconate today, the requirements for deaconesses would need to be considered based on local circumstances and need.
Praxis, Not Dogma
The question of reinstituting deaconesses is a matter of praxis; it is not a dogmatic issue, as some would assert, and this gets to the heart of how we understand the Church. Within the Orthodox Church, “dogma” is understood to be the truth of the Church that is of salvific importance, expressed in the Gospels, and articulated in Ecumenical councils. There are very few items that fall into this category, including: the Creed, the teaching about the Trinity, the understanding of the Incarnation, and the defense of icons. Orthodox dogma includes neither dogmatic teaching on deaconesses, nor dogmatic teaching on the meaning of man and woman that would preclude deaconesses. The reinstitution of deaconesses is about the practice of the Church, and is within the purview of each of the autocephalous, local churches.
“Change” in the Church
As the world around us changes at an alarming rate in terms of everything from technological advances to social mores, it is good for the Church to be circumspect about the influence of these changes. Fortunately, the Church has no record of rash response to pressures from the world. Those anxious about precipitous changes have either lost sight of, or never fully understood, all the safeguards that are organically in place in the Orthodox Church that prevent hasty change of any sort, as well as the very different and sturdy ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church that lacks the same weaknesses or fracture points as other communities.
The reinstitution of the female diaconate has been under consideration by bishops, theologians, and laity for some time across the Orthodox world—from late 19th century Russia, to 1980s Greece, to contemporary Africa. In the words of eminent theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “We should try to go ahead with the revival of the order of deaconess. That has been discussed for many years. Some people were already discussing it at the beginning of [the 20th]century in the Orthodox world. Nothing has yet been done. The order of deaconess was never abolished, it merely fell into disuse. Should we not revive it?” We at the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess believe that a renewed female diaconate will help meet the many ministerial needs of the Church today and build up the Body of Christ by enabling women to provide their service—their diakonia—with the protection, oversight, and sacramental blessing of the Church, and will do our part by promoting empirically grounded and respectful conversation on the matter.
For more information:
Chryssavgis, John. Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia: The Diaconate Yesterday and Today. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2009.
Deaconesses, the Ordination of Women and Orthodox Theology. Edited by Petros Vassiliadis, Niki Papageorgiou and Eleni Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi. Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.
Gryson, Roger. The Ministry of Women in the Early Church. Translated by Jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1976, 1980.
FitzGerald, Kyriaki Karidoyanes. Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church: Called to Holiness and Ministry. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998.
Karras, Valerie. “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church” in Church History, vol. 73, no. 2 (Jun., 2004): 272–316.
Theodorou, Evangelos. ‘H Cheirotonia ‘H Cheirothesia twn Diakoniswn [The “Ordination” or “Appointment” of Deaconesses]. Athens, 1954.
St. Phoebe Center Website, orthodoxdeaconess.org.
 This dedication to conversation with those who see the issue differently was exemplified by our presentation of positions for and against the female diaconate at our 2017 conference, Renewing the Male and Female Diaconate in the Orthodox Church.
 For examples of historical roles of deaconesses, see: Didascalia Apostolorum (3rd c), Apostolic Constitutions (4th c), and 7th c. Canon 40 of the Council of Trullo.
 First Council of Nicea, Canon 19 and Council of Chalcedon, Canon 15.
 Epiphanius of Salamis, Expos. fid. 21 PG, 824-825.
 “An Interview with Metropolitan Kallistos Ware” by Teva Regule, The St. Nina Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1997, http://www.stnina.org/print-journal/volume-1/volume-1-no-3-summer-1997/an-interview-bishop-kallistos-ware.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.
Amen. There’s no long-term future without female priests. Most Jews have abandoned the ancient Hebraic patriarchy; it’s long past time we do the same. Think about all the pious and energetic women you’ve known in your parish. We can’t ignore half the talent pool. No theological significance in the fact that Jesus peed standing up.
What a stupid & shallow statement; Newsflah: your Political-Correctness has no place in Orthodoxy —
do us all a favor, before you undermine our ecclesia: go join
the feckless Episcopalians.
Gee Steven, for 2000 years Orthodoxy has survived without female clergy…
so don’t worry about a future without them — IF these ambitious females are earnest about their faith, let them emulate our Panagia – the silent high priestess – a holy woman is pleased to reign supreme in her Inner realm —
Let the men rule in the Outer realm.
Steven, You just blew it for the moderates who have an open mind on this issue. The argument of incrementalism where you ordain to one ministry (diaconate) and gradually to the priesthood is the political path taken by the Episcopal Church. You see where it got them!
Steven Zaris, All I can say is Yia Yia would have washed your mouth with soap… Holy Scripture has a big problem with demeaning our Lord and God Jesus Christ. Anthony Carris
Thank You Anthony!
That Mr. Zaris guy wants to drag Lord Christ down to street level just like his pedestrian brainwashing.
If Elder Paisios heard that, he’d slap his face as he did other smartys.
Women’s Lib goes too far. Women have helped in ways so numerous, and continue to do so. Please remember humility when considering this. God created Women after Adam. As a helpmate, teachers, good works, prayer, etc.
This thinking is so disturbing. There would be continued women Decans IF God wanted them. There may be again. I hope not. We are very busy already.
This has nothing to do with women’s lib, wow!
Thanks Maria — if they start allowing female deaconesses you can be certain it’ll open a Pandora’s box for demands from other whining groups like non-Orthodox, like homosexuals & the mentally ill too.
Look at Episcopal Church — what an unholy MESS!
Bravo, well said. It IS women’s lib pushing for this, so obvious!
Mr. Carris, Christ was fully God and fully human, with all each nature entails. No intent on my part to demean and no intent to offend.
Steven, Christ is Risen…forget the soap and let’s break bread…Anthony
Truly He is risen! Appreciate the offer. When you’re next visiting family in the Midwest, let me know if you have a little time. (Like you, not hiding behind a cloak of anonymity like the one who calls me stupid, I’m easy to find)
Apples, 4/30, Christ is Risen! We and our Orthodox Church have when needed Ordained Woman Deaconese. A recent example is our beloved Saint Nektarios of Aegina who had one serve under him. The anchient Woman Deconeses were used for the caring of woman being baptized, and in physical/medical needs, this made sense at the time and now we need to carefully select Holy woman of our Church to do Gods bidding. Anthony Carris
Wrong Anthony — we are living in a time of such irreverence (your friend Steve is a prototype), of Political Correctness that IF allowed, will only backfire as it did in Anglican Church –
They became incapacitated to manage & it crashed & burned! Once they allowed women priests the Homosexual agenda grabbed on.
I know many folks who left Anglican or mainstream churches for Orthodoxy…
Steven you ARE stupid…
Take my advice, join the feckless Episcopalians … perfect together.
You’re only in Orthodox Church cause your Greek – NOT organic faith!
Bet you never read Philokalia or holy scripture or any Illumined, contemporary Elders from Mount Athos. Your too busy brainwashed by your dopey MSNBC & CNN.
In Boulder the new madness is about “Identity” (pronouns) ..or, what “Identity” one wishes to be addressed by… (not ‘he , or ‘she’ )…on more and more campuses ( to please the ignorant cupcakes) I ask, if they love Darwinian thinking so much to :identify with other animals or primates, why not ask society to call them “Monkey Girl “..or, better yet, call the Professors “Goat Man”… and, have special restrooms for that !… the hijacking of values , terms, languages and all standards has begun for what end?
I wish I knew how much “moderation” there was to be… if such censorship exists for we Orthodox… what is that kind of freedom will exists shortly
Regarding the first post “There’s no long term future without female priests”. Really !!! The Orthodox Church has existed 2000 years without female priests. From the Apostles perspective, we are already far in the future and have done just fine without female priests. The whole article has absolutely nothing to do with female Priests, only Deaconess. It is exactly this type of response that is so hurtful to the discussion. And since when do we do something just because parts of the Jewish community may do them? Perhaps we should reject Jesus as the Savior of the world because the Jewish community does? (no disrespect to Jews, whom I love). In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, a few chapters before the mention of Phoebe, we are told “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” Rom. 12:2. As another has stated, political correctness has no place influencing our Orthodox faith. Those who wish to undermine the Orthodox faith would be so much more at home in many other christian communions. Why not join one? Regarding the original article, I make no comment either for or against female deaconess in Orthodoxy but I’m open to hearing both sides if they are based on historical facts from Orthodox history and Holy Scripture, not political correctness. What is absolutely 100% clear and not open for discussion is female Priests. Period. This in no way diminishes women being absolutely equal with men in value before God and made in His image as Scripture says. They simply fulfill different roles. Women are free to do almost anything within or without the church when so gifted by God. They can start orphanages, monasteries, be missionaries ,evangelize nations, heal the sick, raise the dead, prophecy, cast out demons, teach Sunday school, be on all manner of church committees, and so on… The only thing that is not available to them (and to many men) is being a Priest or Bishop. Those who are ambitious for these offices and who would seek to fragment the Body of Christ in pursuing them are clearly not demonstrating the humility of Mary the God-bearer.
Women also took the eucharist to the homebound and in some cases had liturgical functions.
They never had Liturgical functions or were ordained. They were helpers because at the time, men could not go in places that they do now. Nobody does adult naked baptisms anymore.
Mariam, you are mistaken. Read David Fords book on women in the early church. Clearly women had liturgical functions and the actual prayer for the ordination of female deaconess is included in the book.