Many times as a young girl attending liturgies at my local parish, as I witnessed the altar boys, my brother or my cousins, decorously draped in long golden robes, solemnly carrying the golden censors or candles, or standing at attention while the services were conducted at the center-most point in the entire church, I have thought, “Why can’t I do that?” Why did I have to be relegated to the back seats a quiet, although important, onlooker? I very much wanted to take part in the services. I wanted to carry the basket of prosphora and distribute them, to walk around the aisles of the church when the Holy Cup and Holy Book came out, to add incense to the censors. I too wanted to serve my Lord in attentive stillness, but donning the glorious robes of a thousand-year-old tradition in an official capacity. I have often heard the argument that women cannot preach and cannot be ordained to the priesthood. I can accept that. But why not be allowed to serve as deaconesses? It just seemed so unfair to my adolescent self that my brothers who were more immature and irresponsible had that privileged place in front of the altar while I was appointed to pick up crumbs off tables, wash dishes, bake and cook and perhaps lead a children’s Sunday school class. Now, as an adult with many years of faithful service and attendance in Orthodox Churches around the world, I want to make a case, as others (most notably Teva Regule, Dr. Valerie Karras and Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald) have done for reinstituting the practice of deaconesses in the ancient Church.
In her book, the definitive study of the subject, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, Dr. Karidoyanes FitzGerald outlines the historical practice. The female diaconate existed for over a thousand years in the early church. As she states:
According to Byzantine liturgical texts, the ordination of the woman deacon occurred as any other ordination to major orders. It took place during the celebration of the Eucharist and at the same point in the service that the male deacon was ordained. She was ordained at the altar by the bishop, and later in the service, received Holy Communion at the altar with the other clergy. Depending upon the need, location and situation in history, the deaconess ministered primarily to the women in the community in much the same way that the male deacon ministered to men…. [The order] was gradually de-emphasized sometime after the twelfth century. It should be noted, however, that there does not exist any canon or Church regulation that opposes or suppresses the order.”
St Paul most clearly makes reference to Phoebe, a deacon or diakonon, of the church of Cenchraea in his letters to the Romans. Due to the need of ministering to women, either in sickness or for baptism, women helpers were needed in the Church. In fact, church history records several female saints who served as deaconesses: Sts. Macrina, sister of Sts. Gregory and Basil (July 19), Nonna, wife of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (August 5), Olympias, friend and confidant of John Chrysostom (July 25), Xenia “the merciful” (Jan 24), and Irene of Chrysovalantou (July 28). We also have descriptions of the makeup of the clergy serving during the Liturgy at Hagia Sophia, including “forty deaconesses.” (Teva Regule, “Restoring the Diaconate of Women” www.incommunion.org/2008/12/10/restoring-the-diaconate-of-women/)
As Teva Regule outlines in her essay, after the 12th century, the service of deaconesses declined:
There were fewer adult baptisms so female deacons were no longer needed at initiation. In addition, in late Byzantium the rise of influence of Levitical rules, especially regarding women, led to the perception that the shedding of blood made a woman “unclean” and therefore, unable to enter the sanctuary or participate in the liturgical life of the Church, though this was in direct contradiction to the understanding of ‘uncleanness’ found in the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Constitutions. Chapter 26 of the Didascalia admonishes Christians to abandon the rabbinical rules of ‘uncleanness’: “Are they devoid of the Holy Spirit? For through baptism they receive the Holy Spirit, who is ever with those that work righteousness, and does not depart from them by reason of natural issues and the intercourse of marriage, but is ever and always with those who possess Him . . . With the rise of Islam and the subsequent fall of the Eastern part of the Roman empire to the Ottomans, the Church turned inward. It could no longer participate in many of the philanthropic aspects of its ministry. Moreover, many of the traditional duties of the male deacon were being assumed by the priest and by the growing number of those in the so-called “minor orders.” This led to the position of the d iaconate being perceived as more of a “transitional” one along the way to being ordained a presbyter. Although the male deacon retained his role in the liturgical assembly, the office had devolved greatly.
Teva Regule continues with a concise and precise historical overview of the attempts to restore the diaconate in modern times. As she states:
There have been numerous attempts for over 150 years to reinstitute the female diaconate. As early as 1855, the sister of Czar Nicholas I tried to restore the office. Other prominent Russians also lobbied for its restoration, including Aleksandr Gumilevsky and Mother Catherine (Countess Efimovsky). In 1905-06, several bishops, archbishops, and metropolitans of the Russian Orthodox Church encouraged the effort. This issue was to be a major topic at the Council of the Russian Church beginning in 1917, but due to the political turmoil in Russia at the time, the council’s work was not suspended. (Other items on the agenda included adopting the use of the vernacular in the liturgical services and the reinstitution of the married episcopacy.)
Other efforts were made in Greece. On Pentecost Sunday in 1911, Archbishop (now Saint) Nektarios ordained a nun to the diaconate to serve the needs of the monastery. A few years later, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Athens appointed ‘monastic ‘deaconesses,’ nuns in fact appointed to the subdiaconate.
More recently, the issue has been discussed at the international conferences for Orthodox women in Agapia, Romania in 1976 (at which its restoration was unanimously recommended), Sophia, Bulgaria in 1987, Rhodes, Greece in 1988), Crete in 1990, Damascus, Syria in 1996 and Istanbul in 1997.
In July of 2000, after over a year of careful review of the subject, a letter was sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch by more than a dozen members of the Orthodox community in Paris, among them Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy, Olivier Clément, and Nicolas Lossky. The letter notes that the Patriarch himself has stated that there is “no obstacle in canon law [that] stands in the way of the ordination of women to the diaconate. This institution of the early Church deserves to be revitalized.” It also states that the order should “involve more than a simple and archaeological reconstitution of the ancient ministry of the deaconesses … It is a question of its revitalization … in the context of the … present day.” (For the full text of this essay, see http://www.incommunion.org/2008/12/10/restoring-the-diaconate-of-women/)
A doctoral student of Columbia University and active member of the parish of Sts Constantine and Helen in Brooklyn, New York, as well as a long-standing participant in the Philoptochos Society, Nia Soumakis, senses that specifically for the Greek Orthodox Church in America, although there are stirrings among academic communities in the US and Greece, it is not on the agenda of the church hierarchy in the US now. As she recounts, “Back in the 1950s, Archbishop Michael talked about reinstituting the order of deaconesses but it never materialized. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the World Council of Churches sponsored a number of meetings to encourage Orthodox women from all over the world to discuss their roles and experiences within the church. In most, if not all of these meetings, reinstituting the order of deaconesses was discussed and supported. In 1988, when Patriarch Demetrios convened the meeting in Rhodes, Greece, the delegates expressed support for this practice although they firmly stressed that it could not be a step to the priesthood. While the discussions have been ongoing, they are not well publicized and the proceedings are not widely disseminated. And they have remained in the “we need to study this more” stage.” While The Church of Greece has ordained deaconesses in monastic communities, this has not been the case in the Americas.
Many of the critics of the practice bring up dogmatic arguments that delineate strict gender roles for members of the church. Others see acquiescing to female deacons as caving in to the rising feminist current that is overturning traditional practices in other denominations, most notably the Catholic Church. However, Nia Soumakis sees it a different way. In her words:
I think the arguments used to justify a church hierarchy based upon distinctions in gender distort the principles of our faith. Christianity represented a powerful counter-narrative to the dominant Greco-Roman cultural norms and ideologies. Women were called to lead and to follow in Christ’s time, and they have continued to do so throughout the centuries. A discussion focused on reinstituting the order of deaconesses necessitates a broader discussion on the role of women in our church as well as the future of our church. The presence of women at the altar today would inspire much-needed changes elsewhere in our church: changes in the rite celebrating the forty-day infant blessing which excludes infant girls from the altar, the presence of altar girls, an increased number of women at Orthodox schools of theology, the presence of Orthodox women faculty teaching key theology courses, the inclusion of courses on women in these schools, and access to leadership positions at the highest levels of the church. The last point- access to leadership/decision-making positions- is an important one. Orthodox women, so many of whom have risen to prominence in their fields, also need to be a visible part of the church’s ancillary organizations that directly shape the agenda of the church and represent Greek Orthodox interests on the domestic and international fronts. The church is missing out on their creative energies. The discussion to bring back female deaconesses needs to come from the women who are already active in the church and I believe the largest and most powerful Greek Orthodox women’s organization, the Philoptochos Society, is in a position where they can take the lead.
When prodded to answer the charge of critics of this practice that claim it is only an unholy usurping of traditional roles or a biting strain of feminism that is infiltrating from other more progressive groups such as Protestants, Soumakis explains:
No one is usurping anything- women have always served the church in many capacities- as followers of Christ, as deaconesses, as martyrs, as educators, as philanthropists, as social workers, etc. The order of deaconesses, which once existed to minister to the needs of women catechumens, fell into disuse. Today, we need deaconesses more than ever especially in our larger urban churches, which have evolved to meet multi-faceted needs which once did not exist but do now. Our churches have grown to become centers of worship, centers of education, centers of philanthropy, centers of fellowship. A perusal of any of the larger parish websites will reveal the wonderful ministries that our faithful engage in. An ordained deaconess can lead and guide the faithful in those ministries as well as become an ordained chaplain to minister to the needs of the sick in hospitals.
I think fear of changing the status quo on many levels (higher education, access to decision-making positions, visibility at the altar), fear of decrease in church membership, and competition for financial resources in terms of salaries are some of the underlying concerns. A woman who wishes to serve her church in this capacity should receive appropriate theological training but should also be paid for her services.
Changing the status quo is hard. Especially since our Church so vehemently loyal to tradition with a giant “T”, reinstating females in a liturgical function might register on first response as a flagrant threat to those sacred traditions. But on further analysis, it is not. Reinstating the female diaconate would be akin to returning to a time-honored tradition. Furthermore, it would be allowing women, such a staunch bedrock of the Church the world over, a more prominent place in that institution for which they can use their energies and talents. Let’s face it—women are not afraid of hard work; they jump right in. From officiating in the liturgy to ministering to the sick, the shut-ins, the lonely, the imprisoned, leading Bible studies, youth groups, leading bereavement groups, organizing feasts and festivals, and retreats; the list is endless. More so than this, allowing female deaconesses the power to minister dispenses the unique spiritual gifts women can communicate to others. It is the difference say, being taken care of when you are sick by your father versus your mother. Somehow mothers have a more delicate, more detail-oriented touch. The time has come to allow women a more egalitarian role in their churches so that all the faithful can benefit.