Once There Were Deaconesses

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16 Now I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is also a minister [diakonos] of the assembly in Cenchrae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and assist her regarding whatever thing she may need from you; for she has been a leader [prostatis] of many, myself included.

Thus spake none other than St Paul, in a Letter to the Romans. He spake also of Priscilla, Mariam, Jounia, Tryphania, Tryphosa, Persis and Julia, “who have labored in the Lord.” Of Jounia he added that  she was “of note among the apostles.” Apostle! The highest title of authority and honour in the early church.  The 4th century theologian and archbishop of Constantinople,  St John Chrysostom, said of his friend and correspondent,  the abbess and deaconess Olympias, that he was honoured as a man “that there are such women among us.” These were women neither silent nor submissive in those early assemblies whose leadership was acknowledged….and then are heard from no more. 

But, when I was reading about the history of Byzantium and the early church (research for The Prodigal Daughter) , I came across their descendants – from the late 4th to late 7th centuries – there, in the churches of Constantinople, their ordination as deaconesses provided for by liturgical manuals and analogous to the rite for male deacons. They presented themselves at the altar, bent their heads for the Bishop’s hands, received the prayers of consecration, and received communion. At the time of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century,  the staff of St Sophia consisted of sixty priests, one hundred deacons, forty deaconesses and ninety subdeacons. As late as the 12th century, Emperor Alexis I Comnenos concerned himself that “the work of the deaconesses be carefully organized” in the Church of St Paul, according to his daughter-biographer, Anna Comnena.

And so began my brief life as a fantasist of Byzantium: a deaconess in the great church, Hagia Sophia [Holy Wisdom], vested in embroidered tunic and orarion (stole), making  the circuit of its stupendous interior while I cense all the icons, clouds of burning frankincense billowing around me as I swing the gold censer in a fragrant arc. Then I step into the sanctuary, escorted by candle-bearers and fan-bearers and more incense, to hand the priest the bread for communion and  pour warm water into the chalice of wine for communion. The Divine Liturgy begins and I chant the long petitions of the Litanies, read the Gospel as worshippers crowd around me, help distribute communion, command the people, “Let us bow our heads to the Lord,” and dismiss them: “Let us go forth in peace.”

(Not so fast, Myrna.)

I wrote my book, became a member of the parish of St Elias Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Edmonton, and had entirely forgotten my fantasy until I wandered into a meeting of the St Phoebe Center for the History of the Deaconess one winter afternoon in New York City in 2014. It was their Women and Diaconal Ministry conference and I sat enthralled as I heard a succession of Orthodox women – a nun, a tonsured chanter, a couple of PhDs, a sophomore, a parish council president – speak of the possibilities of a revived “apostolic order of deaconesses” in the 21st century.

Never mind that the order disappeared  in the eastern church by the 12th century (in part because of a theological dictum that forbade women to approach the altar and carry out any service there during menstruation). Never mind that the role of deaconess never did include any of my fantasy: we did not fan the Holy Gifts nor distribute them to laity, we did not wear that lovely tunic – only the stole – nor participate in liturgical processions. We Orthodox have a long memory. For more than a thousand years deaconesses did serve, at adult baptisms, visiting the bedridden, chanting Matins, as educators. And here were women speaking of what deaconesses could do if the Order were restored (a petition, by the way, made of the Russian Orthodox Church back in 1855 by the sister of Tsar Nicholas I, of all people). Chaplaincy, spiritual direction, Ministry of the Word, Ministry of Philanthropic Outreach. A woman “learned Orthodoxy” by attending Liturgy and then joining the chanters in an Antiochian church. Another said that “as an ordained deacon I would have the Bishop’s blessing for what I already do: serve the poor in my neighbourhood. The deacon is the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman with the flow of blood, the Myrrh-Bearers at the tomb, and Phoebe.” A chaplain described the experience of praying the Lord’s Prayer over a woman in such pain that she could not  stop moving. “After the prayer, she fell asleep.” A nun gives spiritual direction to young people who approach her at the monastery, “becoming open to the transcendent.”

And so it went. What’s not to love about such women and their desire?

Yet they are a scandal to the Church.

I shall leave aside the crippling misogyny of early Church apologists such as Tertullian of Carthage – “Woman is a temple built over a sewer” – and repress the memory of my indignation when, as a secular feminist, I first encountered such texts, in order rather to take up the issue of current hostility to the idea of a revived female diaconate. The women and men of the St Phoebe Center are serious scholars who challenge “distortions and misrepresentations of the historical record,” “fallacies,” “detractors,” and “errors.” They retaliate by citing Byzantine traditions, 8th century Codeces, Ecumenical Councils, Canons,  Apostolic Constitutions, just to mention one of their published papers.They reference recommendations in 1976, 1980, 1988, 1997, 1999 and 2016 that call for” full restoration of the order of women deacons.”

It would not be correct to say they are met with resounding silence: they are met with vociferous argument. Holy Tradition has no place for deaconesses; God’s intended  “natural order of male and female” requires female subordination to men; the very idea is a plot by secular feminists to carry Orthodoxy down the slippery slope of female ordination, after which come acceptance of gay marriage, calling God “She,” ordaining LGBTQ priests and… schism. After all, look at those Anglicans and Protestants: you start with women who serve  liturgically, they are cross-bearers and candle-bearers, they help distribute the bread and wine, they read the Epistles, and before you know it they’re ordained deacons, then priests, then bishops (for example, Anglican Bishop Jane Alexander of Edmonton).

In the meanwhile, our Orthodox churches are bleeding members, (male) priests, and finances. “We can do so much more as a Christian community,” writes Valerie Karras, ThD, PhD, “if we do not shackle the talents of fully half of our body, if we do not ignore the spiritual gifts which the Holy Spirit bestows on women as well as men.”

There have been times when I have been deeply grateful for the Eastern Church’s treasury of her own antiquity. I think of the fragments of third-century mystical wisdom, of desert Mothers and Fathers, of the first hymnography and Christological theology. Of the icons and festal memory of women-equal-to-the-apostles such as Mary Magdalene. All of Christianity’s first texts, first liturgies, first councils and creeds are remembered and are even part of Sunday worship. Now I ask, with increasing bewilderment and impatience, why the Church doesn’t remember its own wisdom about the equal gifts that women and men represent in church life? Talk about selective memory! Here’s St Basil the Great in the 4th century, who wrote in The Human Condition of men and women, that “the natures are alike of equal honour, the virtues are equal, the struggle equal, the judgement alike.”

Because objections raised to the revival of the Order of deaconesses may hide their authors’ misogyny behind pious reverence of  man-made “tradition,” I’d rather remember the tradition of St Gregory of Nazianzus who railed against the hypocrisy of men who lay down laws directed against women but leave themselves unscathed. (Discourse 37

Carrie Frederick Frost, a scholar of Orthodox theology, makes an argument, in “Women’s Gifts and the Diaconate,” familiar from suffrage movements in the early twentieth century. She writes approvingly: “Even within the context of the Church’s conviction of the essential equality of women and men, there is no sense that the Church understands women and men to be perfectly equivalent” [her emphasis]. Suffrage rights had been claimed for women on the basis of women’s “essential” difference from men: Give us a broom and we’ll sweep the Augean stables clean of men’s disorder. We have babes in our arms: we will stop wars. Women are nurturing, pacific, family-fused, tenderly sentimental creatures. Frost’s case for the female diaconate in Orthodoxy similarly rests on the “incarnational reality” of women – by which I assume she means our embodied lives as females of the species . And so we have “a different perspective on authority, its judicious use, its abuse,” and because of our lived experience, as females, of violence, abuse and assault, “a different view of child-rearing, marriage and family life.” These are the “gifts” from which the church would benefit, if only women could be “theologically and pastorally trained”  into the diaconate. I can’t help wonder if their “different perspectives” might not eventually be trained on the Church itself, as an abusive institution that upholds patriarchy at the expense of so many women’s bodies and souls.

On a happier note: in 2017, His Beatitude Patriarch Theodoros and the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria reinstituted the Order of Deaconess within the borders of the Patriarchate, the entire continent of Africa, revitalizing “a once functional, vibrant, and effectual ministry.” Note the Patriarch’s hand on the woman’s head: what’s not to love?


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Betty Corlett
Betty Corlett
5 years ago

Fabulous blog entry Myrna. I know you will be first in line when this happens.

Heather Devine
Heather Devine
5 years ago

I will admit that my knowledge of religious history is sketchy, at best, but what really struck me after reading this essay was how effective the Orthodox / Christian establishment has been in not only marginalizing women’s place in church governance and ceremony, but actually suppressing the history of women’s former rominence. I remember years ago viewing Judy Chicago’s THE DINNER PARTY when it was installed at the Glenbow in the early 1980s, and being surprised to see a plate representing a female pope ! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who learned something new that day…….

Stephen Berg
5 years ago

Thank you Myrna. The ecclesiology of the Church (not only Orthodox) appears moribund. But I applaud your efforts. May you keep speaking these truths, asking these questions, shine the light of your insight upon the abuses and grievous wrongs of patriarchy.

John-Paul Himka
John-Paul Himka
5 years ago

I had the great pleasure — it must have been about 1965 — of meeting a woman ordained as a deaconess by the Ethiopian Orthodox church. She was an African-American and had picked up the idea to become ordained in Ethiopia from her husband, a West Indian and a follower of Marcus Garvey (Back to Africa movement). She had a storefront-style church, and the services were not like the liturgies of the East. I eventually gave her a text of the actual Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy in English translation. I don’t know if she ever made use of it, but I was very happy to have made her and her husband’s acquaintance.

Ruth McMonagle
Ruth McMonagle
5 years ago

Non-Orthodox, I came with very interested eyes to this discussion. What is the ministry goal of the establishment of deaconesses and how would that change the lives of believers? Would the establishment of women in this role, “theologically and pastorally trained”, make the meaning of Christ’s life in us clearer or more real to people? The institutional structure is like a cup which holds the spiritual realities (wine) available to all. Would believers be more joyful, more loving, more blessed?