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, at which Dr. Carrie Frost gave the key-note address, entitled, “Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church Today:  the History, the Need, and the Future”.  A closer and more accurate look at the history can be found here. Today, in the promised third and final part of my response to the conference, I would like to speak to Dr. Frost’s declaration of the need for a new order of women clergy, (falsely) promoted as a revival of the ancient order of deaconess.

       Dr. Frost’s eloquent and impassioned declaration of the urgent pastoral need for this new order of women clergy basically consists of two parts:  a promise and an assertion.  That is, it is promised that the creation of this new order of women clergy will result in a revitalization of the Orthodox Church and in greater strength for the Church as it strives to fulfil its ministry in the world.  Also, Dr. Frost asserts that currently women’s needs are not being met in the Church, and can only be met by ordained women.  I deny the truth of both the promise and the assertion.

       Regarding the promise:  Dr. Frost said, “The Church needs the transformative outpouring of women’s gifts into its body and into the world that would result from the reinstitution of this order [of deaconess].”  Dr. Frost was, of course, “preaching to the choir” at this conference, and so she did not elaborate more on the benefits of accruing to the Church from this transformative outpouring of women’s gifts into its body.  My guess is she felt that the revitalization that would result from the ordination of women was too obvious to require more proof or sales-pitch.  This promised revitalization has, in fact, been a staple of feminist rhetoric in the churches for decades.

Indeed, over the past fifty years or so the various Protestant bodies have multiplied such promises during the times when the (then controversial) move to ordain women was being considered.  I remember it well, for I was there.  The decline and numerical woes then experienced by those churches were rehearsed in tear-jerking detail, with predictions that if the church did not ordain women clergy it would lose its “relevance” in the eyes of society (welcome to the 70s!)  

If only the church would take this step—a step their theologians assured them was in keeping with a true reading of the Scriptures (here Galatians 3:28 functioned as a kind of monotonous drum beat), then all would begin to be well—a  torrent of women’s gifts and Church potential would be unleashed, transforming the Church, increasing its power, adding to its numbers, and gaining for the Church, at long last, credibility in the eyes of the world.   Too long had the church been held back from fulfilling its calling by the dead hand of tradition (remember these were Protestants) and by controlling male clergy, men fearful of the future, men mistrusting of God’s guidance of the church, men longing to retain their monopoly of power.  There were needs to be met, and untapped potential to be harnessed.  Forward!

As a quick look at the past few decades reveals, the mainline churches that took this step forward did not, in fact, gain any of the benefits promised.  The “transformative outpouring of women’s gifts into their body” did produce change however.   In particular it helped change them from a church which had some numbers and a possible future to a church which had far fewer numbers and no real future at all.  Their numbers did not increase, but nose-dived.  Indeed, one researcher estimated in 2022 that the Anglican Church of Canada could run out of members by 2040—a big change indeed!

The dates predicted by those doleful researchers are not important; what is important is recognizing that junking Scripture and Tradition proved numerically and spiritually catastrophic for those churches, and is even now working not to revitalize them as promised, but to kill them off entirely.

It will be the same for the Orthodox Church if it proceeds along the same path, and it is simply magical thinking to imagine that treading the same path will produce a radically different and opposite result.  Pointing this out is not, as is often alleged, the fruit of a fearful and traumatized convert mind, but the fruit of a calm and dispassionate look at recent history, whether the historians be converts or not.  For let us be clear:  the true engine driving the push is not concern for women or women’s gifts; it is secularism. 

That is why the push for women clergy did not arise until after the rise of secularism in the churches.   But whatever the engine driving the push, it is willful blindness to imagine that ordaining deaconesses in parishes will unleash a revitalization of the church.  Ministry to women will remain more or less what is has always been, regardless of whether some deaconesses are ordained.  What will be unleased is division and a further push for women priests.

Regarding Dr. Frost’s assertion that currently women’s needs are not being met in the Church, and can only be met by ordained women, I suggest that this too is untrue.

Dr. Frost said, “The Church needs women’s gifts because women have different realities than men…which means they have different gifts to offer as women…Women or men can offer the expertise of the diaconal ministry, but only women can offer the gifts garnered through their realities and experience as women.  Women need women’s gifts.  They need woman-to-woman ministry.”

Allow me to list some of the gifts and ministries needed by both men and women in a parish, a list culled from an experience of pastoral ministry stretching back to 1979.  I have discovered that  parishioners need sermons, a weekly Eucharist, a functioning Parish Council, baptismal preparation and catechesis, baptisms, marriage preparation, the sacrament of matrimony, sacramental confession, visitation in their homes, sacramental anointing when sick, burial of their dead, periodic memorial services, some pastoral counselling in situations of stress such as when experiencing marriage difficulties or bereavement, and the ability to answer theological questions. 

None of these needs, please note, must be filled by women. In all my years of ministry I have never had to deal with a situation requiring rape crisis counselling or care of a woman in hospice that needed care that only a woman could give.  In my experience the women in my parish did not require “women’s gifts” any more than the men required “men’s gifts”.  What both required was a competent and compassionate priest.  I conclude from this that the situations in which a specifically female ministry in a parish setting are required are quite rare.

It is true that on those rare occasions a woman counsellor can sometimes be more helpful than that of a man.  But in those situations the woman counsellor does not need to be ordained.  That is why, where these needs currently exist, they can and are being met by lay women in the parishes, whether that woman be the priest’s wife or some other mature sister in Christ.

Presenting emotionalized examples of male clergy failing in such situations (if indeed they did; such judgments are impossible to make at a distance) is hardly helpful.  One can certainly sympathize with the example Dr. Frost presented of her mother being told by her priest after her bearing a stillborn child that there was nothing he could do and of the pain that the mother then experienced.  But Dr. Frost’s assertion that no woman cleric would similarly fail is unwarranted, since mistakes in judgment and insensitivity can, sadly, be found in persons of either gender.   Her example, though heart-breaking (as intended), is therefore irrelevant. 

 What such examples however do reveal is the spirit behind the rhetoric—namely the classic and well-worn feminist denigration of men—or, if not denigration, at least a spirit of competition and rivalry between men and women, the paradigm of power struggle between the sexes that suffuses classic feminist rhetoric.   Dr. Frost insists that the Church’s discussion of (for example) church authority must necessarily be defective unless ordained women are at the table.  (We ask in passing:  was Church’s teaching for the last millennium therefore defective in the absence of such women clergy?  If so, it does not suggest a very robust faith in the ability of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church.)

For the issue under discussion is not listening to the voices of women; it is listening to the voices of ordained women.  Ordination and power, not inclusion, are the real issue.  As Dr. Frost said, though the presence of women’s voices in the Church now “is wonderful, it does not reflect the way in which women’s gifts would be truly infused into the Church if women were ordained as deaconesses and thus had the sacramental blessing of this ministry connecting their gifts and their diaconal service to the sacramental life of the Church”.  We see from this that her insistence is not simply that women’s voices and work be included, but that those women be ordained.

       In the very few instances in parish life where a female presence would be essential (for example in cases of rape crisis counselling) what counts is the counsellor’s gender, not her status as lay or clerical.  This suggests that the true engine driving the push for deaconesses is not the meeting of rare pastoral need, but the distress among certain women at the thought that they are being excluded from ordained ministry.

       In short, there is no real pastoral need to ordain women as deaconesses at the present time.  Such ordination would not serve to revitalize the Church, but would represent a capitulation to the spirit of the age.  The ordination of deaconesses, though a part of the Church’s history, was never a part of her Tradition.  That office, having ceased to serve any pastoral need, was allowed to die out.  There is no need to create a new order of women clergy which borrows the old title while representing a completely different clerical order.



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.