church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

On November 10-12 Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston hosted a conference of the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, an event sponsored in part by the Greek “archons” of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.  The conference had the blessing of Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Elpidophorus, bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.

       As expected, the one hundred or so participants at the symposium were keen to move forward with the ordination of “women deacons” in America.  It is claimed by the St. Phoebe Center that such deaconesses were the sacramental equivalent of male deacons, and that ordaining them again is a matter of justice and urgency since as one participant, said Dr. Carrie Frost said, “Women need women’s gifts”.

       A number of arguments were made in support of this, which at first sight seemed very impressive.  It was argued that deaconesses were the sacramental equivalent to male deacons because “they were ordained by the bishop, during the Liturgy, at the altar” and were “presented with a stole and chalice, and received communion with the clergy” (this and the following quotes are from the St. Phoebe Center’s document Towards a Reasoned and Respectful Conversation About Deaconesses). 

It was also claimed that as well as helping to officiate at the baptism of female candidates, they had other functions such as “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”.

It was admitted that deaconesses were never universal in the church, and that eventually the order died out.  Their decline and death, it was claimed, had many causes, “which 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”.

It was admitted that in the canons of the Church a deaconess had to be celibate and not married, and could not be made deaconess earlier than 60 years of age (thus the Theodosian code, assimilating deaconesses to widows; see 1 Timothy 5:9), later reduced later to 40 years of age (see canon 15 of Chalcedon).  The requirement of celibacy, it was claimed, could be waived today since St. Epiphanius “writes that Deaconesses must be married to only one man.” 

What can be said about these arguments and claims of the St. Phoebe Center regarding the history and role of deaconesses?  I will write about the phenomenon of the urgent call for women deacons elsewhere; here I would only like to respond to their scholarly arguments regarding its history.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I would like us to look more closely at the man (or the scholarly arguments) behind the curtain of such Orthodox feminism.  Whether the ritual by which deaconesses were made is described as a cheirotonia (i.e. an ordination) or a cheirothesia (i.e. a blessing) is irrelevant (and in fact canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon uses the two terms synonymously).  The question is:  were deaconesses really regarded by the ancient church as the female equivalent of male deacons?

It is argued that they were equivalent because both the male deacon and the deaconess were ordained by the bishop, during the Liturgy, at the altar, and both were ordained with two prayers (compare the ordination of a subdeacon, which involved a single prayer).  But we must look closer at this argument, because the ordination rituals themselves were decidedly different—not surprisingly, because the offices were decidedly different. 

For example, the deacon was presented with a stole which he wore over his left shoulder.  The deaconess wore her stole differently—under her maphorion or hooded mantle, with the two ends hanging down together in front (and since it was under her maphorion, it would have been largely invisible).  Stoles were honourific items and should not be regarded as the decisive marker of major orders:  despite the prohibition of giving the stole to subdeacons at the Council of Laodicea (canon 22), the practice rapidly spread anyway.  Apparently back then people liked stoles.

Further, the deacon knelt on one knee during his ordination, resting his head on the altar table (a priest knelt on both knees when ordained, resting his head on the table).  By contrast, the deaconess did not kneel or rest her head on the altar table, but merely stood upright and bowed her head.

Also, after ordination, the deacon was given a fan with which he was fan the Eucharistic gifts, since his ministry was centered on the Eucharist.  The fan was not given to the deaconess, since her ministry did not center on the Eucharist. 

Also, although the deaconess received Communion from the chalice at the time of her ordination, after communing she returned the chalice immediately to the table, and did not help distribute Communion.  This is in stark contrast to the deacon:  after the deacon received Communion from the chalice, he retained it and went out to help distribute Communion to the faithful.

Not much significance should be attached to the fact that at the service the deaconess was made with the laying on of hands or a triple signing with the cross, since this act was common to all ordinations in the Byzantine rite, such as the ordination of subdeacons and readers.

Of greatest significance is the fact that radically different prayers were used for the two ordinations.  This reveals conclusively that there was no such thing as single unified diaconate in the ancient church.  Instead, the office of a deaconess was entirely different from that of a deacon.

In the prayer for ordaining a deacon the bishop prays, “Lord our God, who send down the abundance of Your Holy Spirit on those destined by Your unsearchable power to be ministers to serve at Your immaculate mysteries, keep this man also whom You are pleased should be appointed through me to the ministry of the diaconate…”  Reference is made to St. Stephen as the original Biblical paradigm.

The prayer for ordaining deaconesses is entirely different.  In part it reads, “Lord, Lord, who do not reject women offering themselves and wishing to minister in Your holy houses in accordance with what is fitting, but receive them in an order of ministers:  bestow the grace of Your Holy Spirit also on this Your servant who wishes to offer herself to you, and fill her with the grace of the diaconate as You gave the grace of Your diaconate to Phoebe… Grant to her, O God, to persevere blamelessly in Your holy temples, to cultivate domestic conduct, and especially moderation, and make Your servant perfect…”.

The Biblical paradigm mentioned is not Stephen, but Phoebe, and instead of the ministry finding its center in the “immaculate mysteries” and the sacramental service of the altar, the emphasis is on female virtue (“domestic conduct”) and “especially moderation”—i.e., an ethical and not a liturgical focus.  Given that one of her regular liturgical roles was preserving order in the women’s section (or perhaps within the nunnery, since the office later become a merely honourary one for women nuns), this was to be expected.

All these differences in detail in the ritual making both deacons and deaconesses clearly reveal that the two offices were regarded as entirely different from one another.  In our present ecclesiastical context, called a deaconess “a female deacon” is misleading in the extreme.

This is also clear from the functions that each office fulfilled.  The St. Phoebe Center described these functions as “catechetical instruction, pastoral care, taking communion to the infirm, supervision at liturgy, and serving as agents of the bishop entrusted with carrying out philanthropic and hospitality tasks”.  In fact, the reality of their ministry was much simpler, humbler, and more circumscribed.

What these tasks actually involved was visiting sick women and taking Communion to them in places and at times where male clergy could not decently attend them.  These “philanthropic and hospitality tasks” were largely confined to women.

Their role at the Liturgy was keeping order among the women section of the nave—described by the St. Phoebe Center as “supervision at Liturgy”, a description that fails to mention the limited and circumscribed nature of the supervision.  By contrast, the deacon’s role consisted of chanting the litanies at the Liturgy, and helping to commune all the faithful, whether men or women.  His role was not circumscribed as was the role of deaconesses.

It is true that the deaconess “participated in processions”—i.e., joined in the processions around the city at a stational Liturgy—along with the entirety of the faithful.  This was hardly unique to her role as deaconess and has no relevance to the discussion.

The main liturgical task of deaconesses, one which in some places (but not all) was felt could not be performed by a deacon, was assisting women at baptism, since all baptismal candidates were baptized naked.  Some felt that it was inappropriate for a man to approach, anoint, and baptize a naked woman, and so this task was relegated to the deaconess.  This limited baptismal ministry is, in fact, how St. Epiphanius sums up their ministry.

Given this, we may now see why the ministry of deaconess declined and died:  with the growth of infant baptism and the rarity of adult female baptisms, the main reason for the ministry of such women largely ceased to exist.  Contrary to the assertions of the St. Phoebe Center, the “ideas of impurity connected with the female body” had little to do with its decline, since this notion of impurity connected with monthly menstruation existed well before the decline of the role of deaconesses. 

The St. Phoebe Center also suggested that the requirement that modern deaconesses need not be celibate as formerly, but that women currently married and sexually active, could function as deaconesses, since St. Epiphanius held that married women—i.e., women currently married and sexually active—could function as deaconesses.  Their argument from St. Epiphanius is invalid, since Epiphanius clearly meant that women formerly married and now widowed and celibate might be candidates for the office.  The willingness to waive the ancient requirement for celibacy (along presumably with the age requirements?) reveals that what is contemplated is not the revival of the ancient order, but the creation of a new one with the same name. 

Dr. Carrie Frost admitted as much; in her new book The Church of our Granddaughters, she wrote that history “will not be determinative; deaconesses for the twenty-first century will be different from deaconesses in the ancient church”.  If this is their intention, then the St. Phoebe Center should at once drop all pretense and talk of “reviving” the ancient order of deaconess and admit that what is intended is the creation of a new order of women clergy.

The eventual decline and extinction of the ancient office reveals something of its nature:  it is unthinkable that the Church would allow the apostolic offices of bishop, presbyter or deacon to lapse, since these existed and were attested to as far back as St. Ignatius who died in the early second century.  But the Church did allow such orders as door-keeper and exorcist to lapse—and that of deaconess.  This alone suggests that a deaconess was not the sacramental equivalent of a deacon.

The role of deaconesses was never universal in the Church, and its apostolic provenance is doubtful.  Every church had deacons; most churches did not have deaconesses.  Indeed, it was not until the fourth century that deaconesses are definitely known to have existed in the Orthodox Church, and most of them were confined to Syria, Asia Minor, and Constantinople.  This what one would expect if the office was not apostolic, but arose in Syria as an innovation in around the third century. Indeed, if the office were of apostolic provenance, we should expect to find it everywhere we find deacons in the ancient church—i.e. everywhere, whereas this is not the case.

To sum up our findings thus far:  despite the assertions of the St. Phoebe Center that a scholarly review of history supports the claim that deaconesses were the female equivalent of deacons, we have seen that this is not so.  A brief peak behind the curtain of Oz reveals this assertion to be false.  Deaconesses were entirely different than deacons, and were created in places solely to meet a need that no longer exists.  The desire for a revival of the office—or rather actually the creation of an entirely new office of women clergy under the name “deaconess”—is clearly driven not by historical precedent, but by other concerns.

A final bibliographical note for those wishing to pursue the historical question further.  Such inquirers are referred to Protodeacon Patrick’s slim but brilliant volume The Disappearing Deaconess, and somewhat heftier book Deaconesses: An Historical Study by Georges Martimort. 

This last volume is described by the St. Phoebe Center as “sometimes skewed by his adherence to modern official Roman Catholic teaching on women and ordination”, but this is not true.  Martimort simply relates the historical facts, and facts are facts, whether reported by historians who are Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or atheist.  But then the St. Phoebe Center is less interested in facts than in agenda, as their recent conference has amply demonstrated.

 Next:  Myth-busting: The Real Truth about Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church




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.