Thursday, March 9, 2017

Puff piece cheerleads for a female diaconate that never was

Let me make my position clear: I am ardently against a "ginned up" female diaconate that breaks from the tradition of deaconesses before they ceased to exist. Female empowerment via major orders would be a travesty; bringing in more problems than supporters think it would solve.

(RNS) - Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald was an 18-year-old theology student when a priest at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School in Brookline, Mass., thrust a book into her hands. To her surprise, it was on ancient female deacons.

“The priest told me, ‘You’re going to translate these (books),’” FitzGerald recalled of the volumes by a prominent Orthodox theologian who studied the history of ordained women.

FitzGerald, now a professor at Holy Cross, has carved a niche studying the role of women deacons in particular and has worked tirelessly for the right of women to be ordained.

That prospect may now be a giant step closer to reality, since the Patriarch of Alexandria, who presides over the entire Orthodox Church in Africa, followed up on his 2016 decision to reintroduce women deacons and last month appointed six nuns to be subdeaconesses within the church.

In a symbolic ceremony, the patriarch blessed the women and used other religious symbols to effectively restore women’s ordination within Orthodoxy. The move follows years of discussions within different branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstitute women deacons, and it comes at a time of growing interest around the issue within the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox denomination in the U.S.

James Skedros, dean of Holy Cross seminary and professor of Orthodox history, believes appointing female deacons will have a positive impact by showing people that “there are plenty of ministries in the church that women can and should participate in.”

“When we see that happening to a woman, even if it’s in Alexandria, that’s a powerful image for us Orthodox.”

While women in several Protestant denominations have succeeded in becoming ordained ministers, their sisters in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church continue to push for recognition and acceptance. While the Orthodox Church says its theology has not changed in centuries, the role of women members is now in flux.

As the executive director of Saint Catherine’s Vision, a religious organization dedicated to women’s ordination, FitzGerald has awaited this moment for almost 40 years. So, she's unbiased obviously.

For decades, she has teamed up with other Orthodox Christians to serve the community, hoping they will one day succeed in reopening the door to women deacons.

A deaconess is the female equivalent of a deacon, who assists the priest and the bishop during church services. No, she doesn't nor has she ever done so.

Unlike a priest or a bishop, who presides over worship and Communion, a deacon cannot lead. A priest or bishop must bless deacons before they can lead collective prayers, read from sacred writings in the Bible or give Communion.

According to Skedros, the African appointment is not technically an ordination but it may be a step in that direction.

“It’s very significant because the Church of Alexandria has identified particular ministries in their church for women,” Skedros said. “It’s a big step – not historically but culturally.”

FitzGerald and other supporters of women’s ordination point to ancient women as a precedent. Some became saints and others, such as St. Phoebe, were revered as apostles.

“They could be teaching catechism or assisting in baptisms,” Skedros said of possible future deaconesses. Most importantly, though, he emphasized that the Church of Alexandria has found its specific ministerial need for subdeaconesses.

Other branches of Orthodoxy have yet to tackle whether they should reinstate an old practice or create a new one, said Chris Kolentsas, priest in training at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. So, he said, the debate continues today among church leaders in America.
The church would have to clarify the purpose of women’s deacons before the position could be reintroduced, and that role does not have to be the same as that of the deaconesses in Alexandria.

Marilyn Rouvelas, chair of Orthodox Deacons, a women’s ordination ministry in Virginia, said deaconesses are desperately needed in the U.S.

“It’s hard for a priest to serve an entire community,” said Rouvelas. “They’re already overworked.” The solution is not then to make up a ministry, but to work within two thousand years of solutions for priests who need additional help with their parish responsibilities.

But each branch of Orthodoxy doesn’t necessarily recognize that need. Rouvelas has monitored and contributed to the discussions since 1992. She said women couldn’t be ordained unless the synod of bishops agrees to it.

“It’s a very arduous ladder to climb to convince bishops that the needs of the church are very great and women can help with that need and serve in those capacities,” she said.

It’s taken almost 30 years to get to this point since the Rhodes Conference, which declared that the order of female deacons should be revived.

“It’s sort of like whack-a-mole,” Rouvelas said with a laugh. “We get going with the issue, and they keep whacking us down.”

Part of the issue is that in Orthodoxy becoming a deacon is considered a steppingstone to becoming a priest. But for the most part, the divisiveness arises from confusion over what to do next.

As the talks continue, FitzGerald emphasizes that women’s ordination can only be rejuvenated within the Orthodox Church if it is an organic – not a political – movement. On this we agree.

“The way to do it is with love so the church knows in her bones and being (that female ordination) is right,” FitzGerald said. On this we don't.

Even though discussions seem to be at an impasse, FitzGerald added: “The critical mass is coming. We’re not going back.” Moving forward is a compelling slogan used for all manner of bad ideas. If we change, it should be in ways that make us a closer icon of He who is changeless.


  1. The problem is no one really knows what did the females deacons do and how it changed over time? It's all just wishful thinking from both sides with no proofs.

    1. Indeed. It's all scholarly conjecture. Which means - to me at least - tread very lightly instead of apply this as a concocted solution to a perceived problem.

    2. It means also your downgrading assumptions also may not be true

    3. JF is only advocating caution, especially in the face of blatant feminist activism. I didn't see him making any downgrading assumptions.

    4. He claims female deacons did not have any liturgical role. And that is an assumption.

    5. Even Valerie Karras, the strongest scholarly proponent of modern Deaconesses, acknowledges this "assumption." It's about as certain as the historical record can be on this topic, short of a Time Machine.

    6. Unless you can point me to something that said "... and the deaconess raises the/hands over the/reads the [insert liturgical]" I'd say any conjecture that they had such a role is wishful thinking with heaping ladles of agenda poured on.

    7. One can argue they had no stricte liturgical role because there is no solid evidence for it. One can argue they had because their ordination rites waere very similar and to the ones of male deacons anf since the ordinations were similar their roles should have been as well. One had to also remember their role in the IV century may not have been any close to the one in VIII century because such things evolve. One can also look for comparison to the role of male deacons who also did not start as a liturgical function.

  2. Which of our American cities has six young nuns who might be chosen to serve as subdeaconesses? Is this really the fault of our bishops?

  3. "Moving forward is a compelling slogan used for all manner of bad ideas."


  4. Fr. Lawrence Farley’s discussion of the purported existence of “women deacons” in Church history, and the question of reviving the (actual) order of deaconesses, deserves reading and reflection. He addresses the issue in his book *Feminism and Tradition: Quiet Reflections on Ordination and Communion*, as well as in this article:

    And in this interview:

    Finally, the research of the Roman Catholic scholar Fr. Aime Martimort into the existence of deaconesses throughout the ancient Church (not only in the Patriarchate of Constantinople) is briefly summarized in this article:

    -Protodcn. Jeremiah

  5. Glad people are responding to the progressive non-sense of deaconess being the same as "female deacons" (a complete fiction in antiquity, but made up and used by heretical groups now).

    Thanks for the above articles which show that Bishops (through various canons) and liturgical commenters addressed this non-sense consistently over the centuries.

    Not only did they say Absolutely not, but they also explained that its absurd to introduce the completely unheard practice of "ordaining" women. They refute the idea by stating only men can be ordained and that this is the One Apostolic practice of the Church.

    Sadly, some people fooled by made up "research" and driven by non-Christian ideology are pushing for a "re-insitution" of a ministry in the Church that never existed. This idea is supposedly re-inforced by the ambiguity of the ministry of real and actual historical deaconess. Even more painful is that, absent this ideology and false information, deaconess could have been systematically (and properly) re-instituted. But alas, I suppose we'll have to wait (though, the need is there).

  6. Please people look at the ordination service for a deaconess and compare it to the service for a deacon.
    Also note that in the Armenian Orthodox Church the ordination of deaconesses never died out.
    Look at this video of an Armenian Orthodox deaconess, vested and chanting the Gospel at Ortakoy Holy Mother of God Armenian Church, Istanbul, May 2016

    1. And it is to be remembered that the Armenians do quite a few things we don't do and we do many things they don't as well.

  7. Before conjecture about what a deaconess did centuries ago, remember an utterly undeniable fact of the late 20th - early 2st century: there is no more obvious sign that a nominally Christian organization has lost its theological integrity than when it decides to ordain women. Zero exceptions. Zero. If you think modern Orthodox would fare better I got a Holy and great Council to sell you.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Then we did that 1700 years ago

  8. "Then we did that 1700 years ago"

    No mike, not at all. In fact your assertion has a certain childlike quality - an all too easy equivalence that has everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with reality.

    Bob's central point is that the current drive (which is mostly top down - Bishops and clergy, particularly their seminary educated wives) are agitating for "women deacons" precisely because they suffer from the same disease that has killed mainline Protestantism. This disease is what Augusto Del Noce (among others) identifies as a "secularizing theology". These men and women are much more secularized than they themselves and even most Faithful realize.

    I am actually quite pessimistic. I would not at all be surprised to see a women ordained as deacons (in the full sense - no pretense of a "restoration" of anything) within my lifetime (I am 48). I also expect that this will cause a schism, but that most of "cannonical Orthodoxy" will be spineless and go along with it. I think most cognizant Faithful including the current clergy are fooling themselves as to the real level of support there is for this among the English speaking bishops.

    So don't worry mike - you will get your overt heresy (which is simply an outward expression of the secularized heart) soon enough...

  9. After I posted the above reply to mike I thought I should add something to it - I am also optimistic. I am optimistic because I think now that western civilization is fully "post-christian" secularizing theology has run its course. The EP, GOA, most of bishops in NA and Europe - these guys are the dead burying the dead. Their intellectual/theological project of rapprochement and compromise with secularism (which is itself a Christian heresy) is yet more of the same "culture of death" that western civ has been suffering from for quite a while now.

    Orthodoxy's encounter with the modern world is relatively new (really only about 100 years or so) but as the EPatriarchate has shown us these last 100 years is that being corrupted is easy and rapid. Rod Dreher's (and others) central insight is that only those willing to do the hard work of actual Faithful praxis and suffering so that one can pass the Faith on to the next generation will make it out alive, so to speak.

    What this means for "canonical orthodoxy", at least in Europe and NA is that the easy go-along-get-along lifestyle simply leads to empty churches and secularized heirs. Women deacons would be (and I think will be) simply a symptom of the disease. Orthodoxy is about to get a lot smaller in our neck of the woods (i.e. over the next 100 years or so).

    But that is OK, but all this is expected with even a shallow understanding of what the NT actually says. Glory to God for all things, even this current separation of the Faithful wheat from the secularized chaff...

  10. One last thought: I am a bit taken back by the position of clergy who have posted here. I don't disagree with you in substance, it's just that you (and I) are swimming upstream. What will you *actually* do when the first female deacon is ordained (probably in GOA, maybe in my own "jurisdiction" of the UOC of USA)? Besides strongy (and in vain) voicing your opposition in private to your bishop (who will politely listen and then pat you on the head like a child) what will you do. Most of you will continue on just as before, justifying it to yourself as "humility" and "for the good of the local Body/flock", etc. In other words, you want REALLY walk the plank when it comes to it. I don't like having to say this, but most of you know it is true...

    1. Let us pray that that is not the case.
      Also, I think you are overestimating what might be and very thoroughly underestimating how many clergy and laity will respond.

  11. The deaconesses were ordained as early as in the 4th century. You may not like it but it's a fact. And if that is a sign of loosing Christian integrity or whatever that means we are all doomed already.

  12. Speaking of the 4th century, Canon 19 from the Council of Nicea rejects the notion of the ordination a deaconess. They are counted among the laity.

    1. But we also have a laying hands rite for deaconesses. It may mean there were more thand one way what deaconesses was and how were they made. Pretty similar to subdeacons nowadays.