church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

The St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess has published a file entitled, “Myth-busting:  The Truth about Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church”, presenting myths about the proposed creation of a new order of Deaconess and truths to counter those myths (accessed here).  This is an excellent idea, and I follow their pattern in what follows.

Myth: Women’s historical ordination to the diaconate is well-documented which proves that deaconesses were of apostolic provenance and were the female equivalent of deacons.

Truth:  The ritual of ordination by which women were ordained to the diaconate, though appearing in a tiny percentage of Byzantine service books, made it clear that deaconesses were a completely different order than deacons (see here for details).  Unlike deacons (who ministered to all the faithful), deaconesses had a limited and circumscribed function in ministering only to women. 

Myth:  There is no inevitable link between deaconesses and women priests. Each of the ordained orders—diaconate, presbyterate, episcopate—has its own, distinct expression and, therefore, we cannot draw foregone conclusions about any progression from deaconess to priest.

Truth:  In our current secular culture which opposes any prohibitions of women fulfilling any role they wish, the elimination of the prohibition of women functioning as deaconesses would certainly lead to the tearing down of the prohibition of women functioning as priests—as abundantly proven by the experience of the sacramental churches that have gone that route.  That is because secular culture is the real engine driving the move to ordaining women deacons.

Most people in any church are not motivated by theology, but by familiarity.  The former general opposition to women priests in the churches was not rooted in the laity’s theological grasp of Holy Orders, but by their lack of visual familiarity with women clergy.  Once they began to see women in clerical collars and in liturgical vestments functioning in the altar as deacons, their opposition to seeing them as priests in the altar simply vanished.   

It would be the same for Orthodox Church here in North America and in places experiencing the same secular cultural forces.  Our secular culture insists that women can be deacons, just as it insists that women can be priests.  It is this secularism that influences some in the Church, and it is this secularism which will insist that if women can be deacons, they can also be priests.  Imagining that Orthodoxy is somehow immune to the secular cultural pressures that affected that change in the other Christian groups is simply magical thinking. 

Myth: The St. Phoebe Center is entirely focused on renewing the historical order of deaconesses and not on the eventual ordination of women priests.

Truth:  As said above, the engine driving the whole project for women deacons is secularism—the same secularism that has resulted in women priests in other churches.  And even if this is not so, it is almost irrelevant, since when the laity see women functioning as vested clergy in the altar there will be no popular resistance to the renewed call for women priests, regardless of the original intentions of those who pushed for deaconesses.

The charge that the St. Phoebe Center is not secretly hoping for the ordination of women priests can be immediately and effectively met:  if the members of the St. Phoebe Center pushing for the ordination of deaconesses will publicly sign a document or openly state their opposition to any move to ordain women priests, their protestation that they have no secret agenda would gain some credibility.  I therefore ask:  if some bishop did ordain a woman priest, would the members of the St. Phoebe Center protest and refuse to recognize such an ordination?  Yes or no?

Their answers would be interesting given that the center’s current board chair (Dr. Frost) has written in her recent book, “we should welcome that conversation” on women priests and bishops, and that others like Valerie Karras have said many times they see no “theological” reason why women can’t be priests and bishops.

Myth: The role of deaconesses in the Early Church—though varied across time and space— was larger than baptism, and there are many needed roles for women as deaconesses today.

Truth:  St. Epiphanius in 379 described deaconesses in terms of which suggests their main role was ministering to women in a way that would preserve their modesty.  He wrote that the order of deaconesses “does not exist for the purpose of exercising priestly functions or for the purpose of confiding certain tasks to women [italics mine].  It exists for the purpose of preserving decency for the female sex, whether in connection with baptism or in connection with the examining of [women undergoing] sufferings or pain or whenever the bodies of women are required to be uncovered, so that they need not be exposed to the gaze of the men officiating, but instead be viewed only by the deaconess, who receives from the priest the order to take care of the women at the time of her nudity”.

As well as this limited role of assisting naked women at baptism and visiting sick women in their homes, deaconesses also kept order among the women’s section of the church during the services.

Currently there is no longer any need for such a ministry:  women are no longer baptized naked, men can visit women in their homes and in hospitals without scandal, and the women’s section of the nave no longer exists. These “needed roles” for deaconesses are no longer necessary.

Myth: Men and women advocate for the revival of deaconesses in the Orthodox Church not to gain “power,” but to restore service of women in this unique capacity as deaconesses.

Truth:  It is precisely for recognition (or “power”) that the ordination of women as deaconesses is sought.  The rare circumstances in which a female presence is required (such as in rape crisis counselling) can be done and is being done by women without ordination.  The St. Phoebe Center asserts that “lay ministry is very important, but it does not function in a sacramental capacity in the way that an ordained ministry does”.  This is true.  It is also true that women requiring counselling from another female do not thereby require ministry in such a sacramental capacity as could only be provided by ordained ministry.  The ministry to women in such crisis situations is a ministry of counsel and comfort, not of sacrament.  Women fulfilling this important ministry do not require ordination.  This strongly suggests that the motivation for demanding ordination is that of gaining recognition and status.

Myth: The movement to have deaconesses in the Church again is grounded in the standards of the Orthodox Church, not the standards of contemporary society nor any social movement.

Truth:  The movement to ordain women clergy is precisely grounded in modern cultural changes and in the feminist movement.  That is why after a lapse of centuries, it is only now, after the rise and triumph of secular feminism, that voices in some parts of the church are calling for women clergy.  If the movement for women deacons were truly grounded in the standards of the Orthodox Church, why did the movement only begin now and not hundreds of years ago?

Myth: The Orthodox Church will be not be divided but strengthened by ordained deaconesses today.

Truth:   The existence of women clergy here in the secularized West (such as North America) will instantly divide the Orthodox Church here, as proven by the experience of other churches which have undertaken this.  That is why there is already such pushback against the move to ordain “women deacons” (sometimes dismissively caricatured as the work of “keyboard warriors” by feminist supporters of the drive to ordain women clergy).  The churches which allowed such secularism and rejection of Tradition into their midst did not experience the promised revitalization, strength, and increase of numbers, but rather continual decline.

Myth:  Many women and men are leaving the Orthodox Church today because of issues around women.

Truth:  Those leaving the Orthodox Church in the West are leaving not because of issues around women, but for a number of other causes—chief of which is our failure to authoritatively proclaim the Gospel and to take a bold stand against the rising tide of secularism.  In many Orthodox churches, their public face is one of ethnicism and glory in their ethnic identity.  We are famous for our food festivals, and not a fearless spirit and our changeless Gospel. 

Indeed, the many people currently joining our own little church of St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C. say that they are coming to Orthodoxy precisely because Orthodoxy does not capitulate to secular norms, such as gay rights, support for abortion, or the ordination of women—the very things, in fact, which Archbishop Elpidophorus who blessed the St. Phoebe Center’s conference is becoming famous for. 

Those who find Orthodoxy’s stand regarding women clergy problematic are likely also to find problematic its stand regarding homosexuality and abortion.  Those who leave us because of our stand regarding women clergy, I suggest, object to larger issues also, and would not be pacified by the ordination of deaconesses.  The Episcopal Church might be a better fit for them.  One cannot help thinking of the apostolic observation in 1 John 2:19:  “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.”

 Next and finally:  The Need for Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church today.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.