Thursday, October 26, 2017

Letter published in support of Alexandrian deaconesses

Do we have naked women needing to be baptized by deaconesses? Do we have priests unable to go to widows homes lest they scandalize the village? Do we have male and female sides to our parishes that need deaconesses to keep the women in order during services? No? Then what role will they play as that's the role they filled 600+ years ago? Helping people through Christian charity? Does that need an ordained ministry?

(Pan-Orthodox Synod Forum) - Dated October 24, 2017 Orthodox liturgists issued a statement of support for the revival of the order of deaconess by the Patriarchate of Alexandria.

It has come to our attention that the venerable Patriarchate of Alexandria, after due consideration, has decided to reinstitute the ancient order of deaconess, in order to better serve the pastoral needs of the ever-increasing number of missionary parishes within the Patriarchate which serves the entire continent of Africa. The validity of this decision, however, has been questioned by some.

We the undersigned, active and emeriti professors of liturgics and liturgical theology at various theological schools and seminaries in Greece and the United States of America, wish to express respectfully our support of His Beatitude Patriarch Theodoros and the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in their effort to restore in a timely fashion the order of deaconess within the borders of the Patriarchate.

The historical, theological, canonical, and liturgical validity of the order of deaconess has been attested to time and again in recent years by Orthodox scholars and theologians. Although the order of deaconess gradually fell into decline by the end of the fifteenth century, it survived among the Oriental Orthodox Churches and in some monastic communities. The Russian Orthodox Church before the 1917 Revolution and again in more recent times has considered restoring it. Likewise St. Nektarios and other contemporary Greek bishops have ordained deaconesses. In fact, the Church of Greece established a School of Deaconesses, which in the end developed into a school for social workers.

The reinstitution of the female diaconate does not constitute an innovation, as some would have us believe, but the revitalization of a once functional, vibrant, and effectual ministry in order to provide the opportunity for qualified women to offer in our era their unique and specific gifts in the service of God’s people as publicly commissioned and authorized educators, evangelists, preachers, counselors, social workers,

Initially, the liturgical role of the female diaconate, according to the sources, appears to have been limited. These same sources provide us with the rite of ordination of a female deacon, which is strikingly similar to that of the male deacon. Significantly, the liturgical vestments are the same as those of the male deacon’s. The decision as to whether or not women deacons will perform added liturgical functions in our times, as one theologian puts it, “remains exclusively the prerogative of bishops in synod.”

Indeed, the very process of restoring the female diaconate requires careful consideration of several other factors as well, including the adequate preparation and education of the people who will be called upon to receive, honor, and respect the deaconesses assigned to their parishes. Also crucial to the process of restoration is to carefully articulate the qualities and qualifications of the candidates for the office. St. Paul in his Pastoral Epistles provides guidance as to the qualities required of the candidate. The canons tell us of some qualifications, such as the minimum age of the candidate. However, nothing is said of other qualifications such as the education and marital status of the candidate. These and other matters, including the public attire, remuneration, and the method of assignment and removal of the deaconess, must also be addressed. Above all, the process requires that the role and functions of the deaconess be identified, properly defined, and clearly stated.

Talk of the restoration of the order of female deacons has been with us for several decades. In fact, one of the conclusions (VIII) of the Inter-Orthodox Symposium, “The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church” which was held on the Island of Rhodes in 1988, addressed this very issue. It bears repeating parts of the conclusion: “The apostolic order of deaconesses should be revived…The revival of this ancient order should be envisaged on the basis of the ancient prototypes testified in many sources…Such a revival would represent a positive response to many of the needs and demands of the contemporary world in many spheres…and in response to the increasing specific needs of our time…The revival of women deacons in the Orthodox Church would emphasize in a special way the dignity of woman and give recognition to her contribution to the work of the Church as a whole.”

Generally speaking, it is safe to say that only doctrinal impediments and commonly accepted authoritative precedents would preclude an autocephalous Church from enacting liturgical reforms within its borders. Liturgical and canonical issues that have implications beyond the local church are generally resolved through a consensus of the autocephalous churches. The restoration of the female diaconate is such that neither doctrinal issues nor authoritative precedents are at stake. It is refreshing to know that a local Church has taken up the challenge, has studied the matter carefully, and is proposing measures for the implementation of a significant reform, the restoration of the order of deaconess, through a prudently conceived program.

In light of this, we respectfully support the decision of the Patriarchate of Alexandria to restore the female diaconate, thus giving flesh to an idea that has been discussed and studied by pastors and theologians for decades.

With deep reverence and respect

Evangelos Theodorou, Theological School of the University of Athens

Alkiviadis Calivas, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

Paul Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

George Filias, Theological School of the University of Athens

Panagiotis Skaltsis, Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki

Stelyios S. Muksuris, Byzantine Catholic Seminary

Nicholas Denysenko, Valparaiso University

Phillip Zymaris, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

John Klentos, Graduate Theological Union


  1. There may well be places in Africa where those things are issues?

  2. Much could be said about this. One aspect is this kind of ecclesial and theological "colonialism" by educated and rich "theologians" from traditionally western civ territories. They can't pull of this reform (what they mislabel as "restoration") in their own churches so they but they are happy to experiment with it in Africa.

    Also notice the top down nature of this reform effort.

    I also read that the Patriarch in fact ordained these women with the sub deacon rite, so they are not really deaconess in any case. All very confusing and confused - as any reform should be... ;)

  3. When news about the African deaconesses first came out, I talked about them with an Orthodox friend who has lived in Africa for many years. His take was 1) There are communities in Africa, and probably other parts of the world, in which issues about men and women intermingling are serious issues, and 2) there are immigrant communities in the US in which men and women intermingling are also serious issues. The question for the Orthodox Church is, do we want to evangelize these communities? If not, then we keep doing as we are. If yes, then we probably need to make some changes so we can at least get in the door and start talking to these communities and sharing the gospel.

    So to answer your question, you are right, deaconesses are probably not needed in the vast majority of current American parishes. But I think that is the wrong question to ask. I think a better question is, is the lack of deaconesses preventing us from evangelizing particular groups of people? Who is NOT in the Orthodox Church, and why? What can we do to invite them? What barriers, intentional or unintentional, are we putting up to prevent evangelism? If the Orthodox Church is truly for all people, these are questions we need to ask, no matter how uncomfortable they make us feel.

    1. I can't see this as anything other than the usual rhetoric. Are the cultural reality's (i.e. those proscriptions against causal intersex "intermingling") substantially different than those of the traditional societies of the early Church? Not really, and if so how did the early Church get by with an all male apostleship?

      The right question to ask is why the reform movement for a female diaconate is being lead by highly secularized "theologians" from western civ who just happen to be reflecting their wider societies sacred cows of "Justice and Equality" and general confusion over our created sexuality. Not that reform minded secularized Orthodox want to ask themselves these uncomfortable questions...

  4. You, however, are asking the right questions, Jake.

  5. Assuming the description of deacons in Acts included their ordination, then, yes, "Helping people through Christian charity" does, in fact, "need an ordained ministry". That was the origial, apostolic purpose of ordained deacons. What has been added to the apostolic deposit that women should not be allowed?

  6. 123, the liturgical function which is what most of the "restorers" are interested in. Make no mistake it is a movement that could become the eqivalent of the Reformation.

    1. But the liturgical function is the part without biblical warrant while the biblical responsibilities of deacons are dismissed as unimportant and things lay people already do. There's a certain unintentional line of thinking against deaconesses and against women's ordination by traditionalists that leads very much to the Protestant notion that ordination isn't the indelible change of a person by laying on of hands but something more symbolic, temporary, or unnecessary. That is, as in so much Orthodox polemis ism, we're using non-orthodox arguments to support Orthodox positions, e. G., that we don't need ordination to do the things ordained people have historically been responsible for. If the Apostolic purpose of the deacon is to serve at tables, then why do we dismiss ordination for those meant to serve at tables? This is actually a broader problem regarding the entire Theology of ordination and holy orders, as well as the nature of the development of tradition and theology, i.e., Whitey Apostolic purpose of the diaken it is now secondary to nonexistent.

  7. Alexandria needs to be very very careful. They are playing with fire. Make no mistake; the real cause that animates the vast majority of those agitating for deaconesses is women priestesses. For them this is the camel's nose under the tent flap. Some may say that I am being unduly alarmist, but I've seen this game played too many times in other religious sects. Any attempt to go down the road of W/O would almost certainly end in schism.

    1. It's similar to the push in my own Latin Church for the ordination of married men: take something that, in an of itself and taken out of context, may be totally unobjectionable and certainly has no dogmatic impediments, and may even bring on board otherwise "traditional" folk, and use it as a "trial balloon" to strengthen and advance their agenda of various crazy stuff. Sad!

  8. I quite agree.The excuse used is "All hands on deck." At least that's what Dr. Gayle Woloschak and Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou were saying on Ancient Faith Radio when the story broke. That's the excuse Rome uses for lady Eucharistic ministers. It's a slippery slope indeed.

  9. Correction, that may not be Rome's excuse. Be that as it may, we need not follow in their footsteps. There already exists a Byzantine Catholic church. Let those who are union minded go there instead of holding out for a corporate union.

  10. There is a serious need for deaconesses or something like deaconesses in the American Orthodox Church. They can provide spiritual guidance and counseling to women much better than a man can. In a parish they can also organize the Sunday School, do charity work and work with the choir. In short they can do anything that an ordained Priest can do, except function liturgically and they can probably do it much better with women.

    Fr. John W. Morris.

    1. Fr John,

      Respectfully, I disagree. Deaconesses where never spiritual mothers (outside of what a normal lay woman would have been to another lay woman).
      I refuse to abrogate my pastoral role in the life of my parishioners, men or women. In fact, to have women turning to women solely for spiritual guidance and consoling denies the healing of the separation between male and female from the fall of Adam and Eve. In today's day and age, the divide between men and women is far worse.
      A Deaconess cannot and never could do anything an ordained Priest does: she lacks ordination.
      St. Ignatius said where you have the Bishop, you have the Eucharist, there is the Church. This means nothing is lacking for salvation for either men or women, when you have Priest serving Divine Liturgy amidst a Community.
      The Deaconess brings nor offers anything to alter or add to that.
      Deaconess is a functional role. Even though a singular text ideates the ordination of a Deaconess, there is a multiplicity of evidence, including canons which deny this thinking. And besides, even in that case, the Church never ever universally accepted the ideation of ordination of a Deaconess.
      They always were and remained laity blessed for specific functions, but never serving at the altar or having a liturgical role.

      As an aside, I personally agree that Deaconesses can and should be a reality today. However, i'm never going to support pseudo archeological and/or feminist reconstructions of something that never existed.

    2. Respectfully, Father, a laywoman or a nun may already do anything a priest can do except celebrate the Mysteries.

    3. Thank you Fr. Alexis for your cogent reply to Fr. John's assertion that "They can provide spiritual guidance and counseling to women much better than a man can." The reform group "St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess" says the same thing this way (from the FAQ on their website):

      "...Without females holding an official role in the church as in the early church, 50% of the church is not adequately ministered to."

      I find this a curious anthropology – what is it about the *nature* of anthropos and our created sexuality that prevents a man from "adequately" ministering to a women?

      This idea is in fact very very important Christological implications, in that it implies that Jesus Christ himself being fully human, has a *natural* impediment to spiritually healing (i.e. "ministering") a women. It even implies that the incarnation is somehow inadequate or incomplete, in that Christ being incarnated as a male, is somehow deficient to the real spiritual needs of women "kind" and that if and until God incarnates as a female, our salvation is incomplete.

      Question: Why do you believe Deaconesses should be a reality, and what form, function, and limitations would that reality take? Also, what about the "today" aspect – as you note the current reform effort is animated by ideas that come from places other than Christianity (IMO it is all a rather crude Secularism)- how does the Deaconesses you envision differ from that reality? Not asking out of a "gotcha" mentality. I am sincerely interested in your take on this!

    4. Jake,

      Curious indeed. In fact, just flat out wrong.

      Feminist ideation is no foundation at all, its divisive ideology. It doesn't belong in the Church.

      In terms of my Opinion on Deaconesses, it is very brief. The Church has always had the authority to have them. To me, necessity is irrelevant. We don't NEED Deaconesses. Our salvation is complete without them. However, the Lord set aside the Disciples for Ministry. Bishops were ordained to pass on the Faith. Bishops alone are given the capacity to ordain. This is Apostolic Succession. Deaconesses neither add nor take away from this. The Church is complete without them.

      Deaconesses would have to function under authority like a reader or subdeacon. They would be made by the Bishop alone, but in a parish setting, be there to "serve" at the pleasure of the priest.

      They'd have to be past child bearing years or consecrated virgins (of course, then why not just go to the monastery. Deaconess is NOT a vocation like a Deacon, its a tonsuring like a reader).

      They would only have "charge" of women and young children.

      They could sing in the choir, but it would be ahistoric to have them singing in mixed choir.

      Actually, it would be rather humiliating for modern American women.

      In any case, they would have zero actual liturgical role. They would NOT read the Gospel or even the Epistle (aside from in a woman's monastery). They would not be allowed in the altar. They would not take litanies. They would have a very minimalistic attire, but it would have to be ultra conservative by today's standards (long sleeves, long dress/cassock, head covered, not neckline). Tradition affords the Maphrion to them and perhaps that would be appropriate. I can't see the wearing of any kind of stole, which would cause a lot of problems and confusion (which is one of the reasons Deaconesses became extinct).

      So what would they do outside the Liturgy? Train as catechists for women and small children. Clean the Church. Function as secretary/treasurer for Councils. Etc etc etc. In effect, they'd do lay work, but now with the full weight of submission to ecclesial authority and no ordination.

  11. Protodeacon Jeremiah,

    Not that this is your original thought, but it is in fact disingenuous to assert and continue to say that "a laywoman or a nun may already do anything a priest can do except celebrate the Mysteries."

    Its a rather disposable, secular, and modernistic opinion of priesthood and laity.

    In fact, with assertions of this sort, you could quite literally say anything. For example: "a layman or a monk may already do anything a priest can do except celebrate the Mysteries." And also, "a lay teenager or monastic novice may already do anything a priest can do except celebrate the Mysteries."

    See? Kinda of a strange ideation when one actually contemplates it.

    1. Fr. Alexis,

      For my assertion to be disingenuous, it have to be wittingly untruthful, and I assure you it was not. But I do take your point and I doubt we actually disagree all that much on the substance of the matter. I do not think of priests reductively as “essentially laymen who, oh, by the way, also happen to be authorized to celebrate the Mysteries,” if that or something similar is what you had in mind when you wrote about a “disposable, secular, and modernistic opinion.”

      I meant only that if we consider the various roles for a revived order of deaconesses put forward by its modern advocates, including but not limited to those mentioned by Fr. John Morris, e.g. ”provid[ing] spiritual guidance and counseling to women... organiz[ing] the Sunday School, do[ing] charity work and work[ing] with the choir,” most if not all already may be (and in fact are) fulfilled by *qualified* nuns and laywomen. I am thinking of abbesses, monastic eldresses, competent choir directors, church singers, parish sisterhood presidents, etc. Of course some roles are more appropriate to female monasteries than parishes.

      Particularly in a non-monastic context, it would be extremely unusual for women to fulfill certain roles (even if not completely without historical precedent). The notion of a layman or laywoman acting as a spiritual father or mother, elder or eldress, without the benefit of the grace of the priesthood and/or proper monastic foundation, would certainly cause me to raise an eyebrow. In all but the rarest of cases, which I doubt I will be likely to encounter in this life, it would seem ill-advised, highly irregular, and presumptuous. But it is also very far from the norm for *deacons* to fulfill such a role, much less subdeacons or readers, which is why I find it strange to bring up revival of the “diaconissate” in this context. Again, I say this with all due respect to Fr. John.

      In other words, I do not find compelling the argument that bringing back the order of deaconesses is necessary or even beneficial to the fulfillment of the roles mentioned. I personally would go further and say that in the contemporary Western cultural climate, to ordain deaconesses, even following the more conservative, limited, and I think historically conscious model you outline above, would be imprudent at best. Someone may say that there is some remote place in today’s world where this is not the case. I’m dubious but can accept that such a thing is possible in theory.

    2. Protodeacon Jeremiah,

      How can I disagree with your response? Please, if you ever find yourself passing through Augusta, GA, look us up. Let's catch lunch or something. God Bless you!

    3. I will certainly do so, Father. Thank you.

  12. Fr. John: I question the basic assumption often made that all ministry requires ordination. Why does a woman require ordination as a deaconess to counsel, run the Sunday school, do charity work, and work with the choir? Are not women already performing these functions now without being ordained? And that would include evangelizing certain groups--does she require a vestment and a title before sharing the Gospel? It is hard not to conclude that the felt need being met by this, at least in North America, is the need of some women for affirmation, not the needs of the Church for ministry.

    1. Astute observations Fr. Which I'm confident I don't have to say are also shared by many clergy.

  13. Do we need male deacons? All their job can be done by priests.

    Do we need readers? You do not need a fancy black dress to read prayers so why do some need it?

    Do we need subdeacons? As their current role is nothing but handling candles to bishops and besides that no one has a clue what to do with them and what are they for.

    1. The first two arguments are jokes and they prove the fallacy of using the same arguments against female deacons.

      However, as for subdeacons, I am yet to hear a single argument why the Church should keep them. As in some traditions they are already replaced by readers allowed to dress and act as subdeacons.

  14. Or, he's lampooning the use in the comments above of Protestant arguments against Holy Orders as a traditionalist critique of the need for deaconesses. Because that's what the argument from utility used above is.

  15. The “argument from utility” made in this thread was one in favor of deaconesses, i.e. that we supposedly need deaconesses because they can fulfill x, y, and z roles that (male) clerics and male and female laypeople are for some reason unsuited for. I and some others said that we did not find the argument compelling.

    The orders of the episcopate, prebyterate, and diaconate have existed from the time of the apostles in an unbroken succession, and indeed have Old Testament analogues (high priests, priests, and Levites). There may be good rationales and excellent utilitarian arguments in favor of each order, but as each is an element of the Apostolic deposit of faith, they in no way depend on such arguments for justification. The subdiaconate and lectorate are orders of great antiquity, ubiquity, and continuity. As such, they are part of the received tradition (even if not strictly speaking Apostolic) and the burden of proof would lie with those seeking to eliminate them, if such people exist.

    This is not so in regard to the question of deaconesses, who belonged to an order which has existed in some parts of the Church for relatively brief periods of time, been explicitly forbidden in others, variously considered an ordained office or a lay service, and never the same order as deacons except poetically or anagogically and to my knowledge in a single text. They are not part of the continuous tradition of the Church, and lack the mark of ubiquity. Arguing for their revival is not analogous to arguing that we should eliminate deacons or even subdeacons and readers. A closer though imperfect analogy would be to imagine that we had a small but dedicated group within the Church which wanted to revive chorbishops, but for whatever reason didn’t want them solely to fulfill the traditional and historical functions of chorbishops.

    Proponents of the revival of the “diaconissate,” like our hypothetical champions of a (new and improved!) “chorepiscopate,” realize that the burden of proof lies with them, which is why they suggest various roles which deaconesses might theoretically fulfill (we rarely hear proponents who want them to fulfill their actual known historical functions and those alone). It seems quite odd to make utilitarian arguments for deaconesses and then to accuse those who *respond* to them of making an “argument from utility,” much less to lampoon them as ones arguing in a heterodox manner.

    1. Arguing against deaconesses because they aren't needed is also an argument from utility.

      Asking whether "helping people through Christian charity" requires "an ordained ministry" is Protestant argumentation.

      I could actually care less whether deaconesses are revived or not, but the overstatement of need and history from some pro quarters and the pearly clutching fear and intransigence from the con quarter are less than helpful. As you acknowledge, deaconesses are "an order which has existed in some parts of the Church for relatively brief periods of time, been explicitly forbidden in others, variously considered an ordained office or a lay service", i.e., tradition is supportive of both sides of the argument and pretending it doesn't is disingenuous.

      Also, there are disagreements as to whether bishop and priest were as distinct as they came to be. "Early", as any conversation about the history of CHristianity shows, is a moving target depending on one's preference, and "apostolic" doesn't always mean (or need to mean) literally done by an Apostle of the 12 or the 70 (or a later but still "early" Isapostle).

      This is all really an argument about the nature of tradition, and specifically the nature of received tradition, its value, its level of fallibility or infallibility, the line between "Tradition" and "tradition(s)", etc. The primary argument against deaconesses is we haven't received them and aren't sure whether we can do or redo anything that was part of the Tradition but isn't now. We aren't sure how, in fact, it is that our tradition changed in real time in the past, whether it is possible for it to change again now or in the future, and how the Church and Her members discern the difference between valid and invalid changes in that tradition. One pretty solid argument for the validity of deaconesses in Africa is the fact they were consecrated/ordained/blessed by the ones responsible for dividing the word of truth in Africa.

    2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments 123.

      "but the overstatement of need and history from some pro quarters and the pearly clutching fear and intransigence from the con quarter are less than helpful....tradition is supportive of both sides of the argument and pretending it doesn't is disingenuous."

      Sure, this is the dialectic but I certainly don't see both sides as somehow equal. I specifically disagree when you imply that tradition is equally supportive. To see that the "con" argument is better supported is not "pretending" as you allege.

      "This is all really an argument about the nature of tradition, and specifically the nature of received tradition, its value, its level of fallibility or infallibility, the line between "Tradition" and "tradition(s)"

      This is where the "pro" side wants to put the disagreement, but it is an error. They do this because academic theology is comfortable here, and the spirit of their project for the last 50 (probably 100) years has been pivoting on this very point in an effort to confront the issues of the day (e.g. ecclesiology and dialogue with other "churches", how to do Orthodoxy in non-traditional lands/cultures such as western Europe/NA, etc.). Concurrent with this focus on "tradition" has been a theological/dogmatic minimalism as represented by Kallistos Ware (who has for decades overseen the production of a legion of "scholars" who think like him) and others.

      The more relevant ground of this question is anthropology and in particular our createdness as a sexual duality (male/female) and what that means in the other contexts ("traditions", ecclisology, ordained orders, etc.). The fact that the "pro" side refuses to acknowledge the anthropological ground of this issue is a signal to me that they have accepted (consciously or unconsciously - does not matter) a nominalistic anthropology around our created sexuality, and in this they merely reflect the secular culture of which they are a part.

  16. Near the end of the third paragraph I should have written: “*Questioning the prudence* of their revival is not analogous to arguing that we should eliminate deacons or even subdeacons and readers.”

  17. I do tend to think that an ordained Subdeacon belongs only in a cathedral setting. Otherwise, he does appear to be a glorified altar boy. Different bishops have different policies. One bishop adhered to what I described above. Another bishop ordained a man Subdeacon and allowed him to give out Holy Communion.

  18. I agree Orthodoxy has had very little recent experience with "how to do Orthodoxy in non-traditional lands/cultures", especially when it is not an imperial power evangelizing far weaker and/or less sophisticated cultures. Orthodoxy has had very little need to think about how to answer questions that only arise when one leaves the village, so to speak.

    What is definitely not part of the tradition is asking whether "helping people through Christian charity" requires "an ordained ministry", cf. the institution of the diaconate in Acts.

    The issues isn't whether one side is better supported or not as that depends on the subjective criteria one prefers. The reality is that the absence of deaconesses is not the sum total of the tradition, and saying we don't need them because we don't currently have them begs the question about how the Church is to understand its own tradition, i.e., is tradition all of the traditions known in the Church or is it only the received (current) tradition and once a tradition has gone extinct it is dead and gone forever.