The Ordination of Women as Deacons

Wikis > The Ordination of Women as Deacons

Registered Members (so far) of the Advisory Committee with editorial rights: Prof Bert Groen; Dr Luca Badini Confalonieri (London); Dr John Wijngaards (London). More members are welcome. Share your knowledge, insight and judgment.

Did the Ancient Ordination Rite for Women Deacons Confer the Ministry of the Diaconate as Much as the Ordination Rite for Male Deacons Did?

In many ancient manuscripts the precise rite through which women deacons were ordained, have been preserved for us. I will print here the text as found in the Codex Barberini gr 336 (780 AD).[1]http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr1.shtml It contains the rite used in the Eastern/Greek part of the Catholic Church during the first millennium.

Prayer for the ordination of a deaconess

’ευχη ’επι χειροτονιαι διακονισσης

“After the sacred offertory, the doors are opened and, before the deacon starts the litany ‘All Saints’, the woman who is to be ordained deacon is brought before the pontiff. And after he has said the ‘Divine Grace’ with a loud voice, the woman to be ordained bows her head. He imposes his hand on her forehead, makes the sign of the cross on it three times, and prays:

“Holy and Omnipotent Lord, through the birth of your Only Son our God from a Virgin according to the flesh, you have sanctified the female sex. You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maid servant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate [της διακονιας], and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit. Preserve her so that she may always perform her ministry [λειτουργιαν] with orthodox faith and irreproachable conduct, according to what is pleasing to you. For to you is due all glory and honour.”

After the ‘Amen’, one of the deacons now starts this prayer: ‘Let us implore the Lord in peace. For peace from above, let us pray the Lord. For peace in the whole world. For this our Archbishop, for his priestly ministry, his reward, his endurance, his peace and salvation and the work of his hands, let us pray the Lord. For so-and-so [name of the woman] who is to receive the diaconate and for her salvation. That God who loves people grant her a pure and immaculate diaconate, let us pray the Lord. For our pious Emperor who is protected by God, etc., etc.’

While the deacon makes these intercessions, the archbishop, still imposing his hand on the head of the ordinand, prays as follows:

“Lord, Master, you do not reject women who dedicate themselves to you and who are willing, in a becoming way, to serve your Holy House, but admit them to the order of your ministers [λειτουργων]. Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maid servant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfil in her the grace of the diaconate [διακονιας], as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate [διακονιας], whom you had called to the work of the ministry [λειτουργιας]. Give her, Lord, that she may persevere without guilt in your Holy Temple, that she may carefully guard her behaviour, especially her modesty and temperance. Moreover, make your maid servant perfect, so that, when she will stand before the judgement seat of your Christ, she may obtain the worthy fruit of her excellent conduct, through the mercy and humanity of your Only Son.”

After the ‘Amen’, he puts the stole of the diaconate [το διακονικον ‘ωραριον] round her neck, under her veil, arranging the two extremities of the stole towards the front.

When the newly ordained has taken part of the sacred body and precious blood, the archbishop hands her the chalice. She accepts it and puts it on the holy table.”

The same rite is found, with minor alteration, other ancient manuscripts, such as the Bessarion (1020 AD) [2]http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr2.shtml, Vatican Mss Gr 1872 (1100 AD) [3]http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr3.shtml, the Coislin Gr 213 (1050 AD) [4]http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr5.shtml and the Codex Syriacus Vaticanus 19 [5]http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_syr.shtml.

Did women deacons receive the ministry of the diaconate as much as male deacons did?

In terms of traditional theology[6]such as used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome: was the rite ‘sacramental’?

First draft based on J. Wijngaards, The Ordained Women Deacons of the First Millennium, Canterbury Press 2012, pp. 112-121.

What matters is whether the bishops at the time intended to impart a full ordination to women. Now there is no way we can establish that intention except by studying what the bishops said and did while performing the ordination. The fact that women were ordained through an ‘imposition of hands’ [χειροτονια] was significant. However, it does not by itself prove the ‘sacramental’ character of the ceremony, for during the first centuries this gesture was also employed for the imparting of minor orders.

To determine whether an ordination was a sacrament or not in traditional terms, depends crucially on the form used, that is: what the bishops in their ordination prayers said they wanted to do, and the additional ceremonies which helped to define the precise nature of the matter, namely whether hands were imposed for a full ordination. From this we can establish the objective intention of the rite.

Here I will list six norms which has been used by authors to assess the ordination as having been ‘sacramental’. Please, attach your comments to the end of each section.

1. The setting of the ordination

It is significant that women deacons were ordained in the sanctuary, before the altar and right within the eucharistic celebration. Its significance was not only to indicate access to the altar, but to mark the ordination as one of the ‘major orders’, to distinguish it from minor ministries such as the subdiaconate and the lectorate.

Theodore of Mopsuestia (350 – 429) explains the classic distinction. He defines the diaconate as a ‘ministry to sacred things’, which certainly also included baptism.

It is worth adding that we should not be surprised at the fact that he [Paul] does not mention subdeacons or lectors here. For these [functions] are actually outside the orders of real ministry in the Church. They were created later on by the need of many things that had to be done by others for the good of the mass of the faithful. That is why the law does not permit them to receive ordination in front of the altar because they do not minister at this mystery. For the lectors look after the readings and the subdeacons in the sacristy prepare what is needed for the service of the deacons and look after the lights in church. However, only the priests and deacons perform the ministry of the mystery: the former by fulfilling their priestly role, the latter by ministering to sacred things.”

The Orthodox liturgist Simeon of Thessalonika confirms this in his classic work on ordination, written between 1418 and 1429:

“Two ordinations are given outside the sanctuary, that of the reader and subdeacon. There are also others for administrators, deputees, acolytes . . . But the exalted ordinations are imparted inside the sanctuary.
The ordination of women deacons in the sanctuary ‘right in the heart of the Divine Liturgy’ ranks it among the orders of the higher clergy.” [7]E. Theodorou, The ‘Ordination’ [χειροτονια] or ‘Appointment’ [χειροθεσια] of Women Deacons, Athens 1954; E. Theodorou, ‘Das Amt der Diakoninnen in der kirchli­chen Tradition. Ein orthodoxer Beitrag zum Problem der Frau­enordination’, Una Sancta 33 (1978) 162‑172; E. Theodorou, ‘The Ministry of Women in the Greek Orthodox Church’, Orthodox Women: Their Role and Participation in the Orthodox Church, Geneva 1977, pp. 37-43; E. Theodorou, ‘The Institution of Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church and the Possibility of its Restoration’, in G. Limouris (ed.), The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Katerini, Greece, 1992), pp. 207-238.

ADD YOUR COMMENTS? More bibliographical references?

2. The public character of the ordination

Women deacons were ordained before the whole congregation and “in the presence of the priests, deacons and deaconesses” (Apostolic Constitutions; 380 AD).[8]http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_con.shtml This is also clear from the standard Byzantine ordination rite which mentions the other clergy.

This ‘public’ character of the ceremony marks the ordination as one of the higher orders. A study of the procedure at ancient ordinations shows that the public election of the new minister belonged to the ordination itself. St. Jerome (347 – 419), for instance, records this in one of his letter

In Alexandria, since Mark the Evangelist until Bishops Heraclas and Dionysius, the priests always instituted as their bishop one of their own, after having elected him and enthroned him; as soldiers do when they proclaim their emperor; or the deacons who elect one of their own as archdeacon because of his zeal.

At times, as in this example, there seems to have been no imposition of hands. Normally, the imposition of hands with the invocation of the Spirit followed on the election. The point is that the ecclesial context of the ordination, expressed in the common election and public recognition by the congregation, was crucial at higher ordinations. Private ordinations, outside the congregation, were ipso facto invalid. The public setting of the ordination of women deacons confirms its status as a major ordination.

ADD YOUR COMMENTS? More bibliographical references?

3. The ‘Divine Grace’ proclamation

We read this rubric in the ordination rite for women deacons: “The bishop says the ‘Divine Grace’ with a loud voice”. This proclamation was only performed for the higher orders.

We can be sure that the ‘Divine Grace’ was the same in the case of women deacons and of male deacons, for a number of reasons. The rubrics explicitly say that everything is the same for male or female deacons except where indicated.[9]“For such a woman candidate all is performed that is also performed for male deacons, with only a few [= the following] differences”; Constantinople Codex & Cairo Codex. If the Divine Grace proclamation had been different for women, this would certainly have been mentioned. Also, the classic ‘Divine Grace’ proclamation had a very rigid form with only three variable elements. This is the actual text:

“Divine Grace which always heals what is infirm and completes what is missing chooses so-and-so [name] as bishop [or priest, deacon] of [name of the location]. Let us therefore pray for him/her that the grace of the Holy Spirit may descend upon him/her.”

Research has shown that this Byzantine form is very old indeed, going back to at least the 3rd century. It was considered the distinctive characteristic of Christian ordination.

“The ordaining bishop speaks the [Divine Grace] proclamation with a loud voice. This mystery signifies that the ordainer, who is loved by God, is the herald of the divine choice. It is not he himself who leads the ordinand to ordination by his own grace, but he is moved by God in all ordinations” (Pseudo-Dionysius; ca. 500 AD).
[“I never aspired to the priesthood], all the more because many of these ordinations happen through human ambition, not really by the divine grace” (St. John Chrysostom; 344 – 407).
[On the disorderly election of a bishop.] “I would almost believe that political authorities are more ordained than ours over which one proclaims the ‘Divine Grace’ ” (St. Gregory of Nazianze; 330-389).

The liturgist Bernard Botte thought that the proclamation itself was the ordination, at least orginally. But later studies disproved this. Ordination consisted of two distinct stages of one and the same liturgical action, each equally essential: the election and the ordination proper. The election indicated who was chosen for the ministry. It proclaimed God’s choice of candidate. It manifested the intention of the Holy Spirit. The imposition of hands was the sacrament through which the Spirit actually descended on the ordinand. The ‘Divine Grace’ proclamation was therefore the public act of election which designated a candidate to a particular ministry in a specific church. In 398 Emperor Arcadius urged the bishops to “grant the Divine Grace to John [Chrystostom] to ordain him bishop of Constantinople”.

At ordinations, and particularly at Byzantine ordinations, the ‘Divine Grace’ was only proclaimed for bishops, priests and deacons.[10]‘La formule d’ordination “La Grace Divine” dans les rites orientaux’, L’Orient Syrien 2 (1957) pp. 286-296. The fact that the ordaining bishop proclaimed the ‘Divine Grace’ to announce the divine election of a woman deacon, shows that he ranked her ordination, without any shade of doubt, within the sacrament of holy orders, like that of male deacons.[11]About all this see the excellent article by Pierre-Marie Gy, ‘Les anciennes prières d’ordination’, La Maison-Dieu 138 (1979) pp. 93-122.

ADD YOUR COMMENTS? More bibliographical references?

4. The calling down of the Spirit

The central action of ordination is the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the ordinand while the bishop imposes his hands on her.

Do now look upon this your handmaid, who is to be ordained [προχειριζομενην] to the diaconate[εις διακονιαν], and grant her your Holy Spirit.
Dedicate her to the task of your diaconate [της διακονιας], and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit.
Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maid servant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfil in her the grace of the diaconate [διακονιας], as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate [διακονιας].

In the Eastern tradition, the calling down of the Holy Spirit is technically known as the epiclesis. During the divine liturgy, it is not so much the ‘words of consecration’ but the epiclesis that brings about the transformation of the bread and the wine. Epiclesis, in one form or other, occurs in all the sacraments, for the sacraments come about through the action of the Spirit. Every epiclesis means a drawing on the Spirit Christ obtained for us at Pentecost. The Church asks to receive from God here and now, what she has already historically received in Christ as a promise. This also applies to the ministries. The Pentecostal Spirit ‘who provides all things’, pours its fulness into the bishop, the priest and the deacon.[12]J. D. Zizioulas, Priesteramt und Priesterweihe im Licht der östlich-orthodoxen Theologie, Freiburg 1973; J. Erickson, ‘The priesthood in Patristic Teaching’, in Limouris (ed.), The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Katerini, Greece, 1992), pp. 108-109; K. Karidoyanes, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, Brookline 1998, pp. 85-86, 106.

Being the action of the Spirit in the Church, the full epiclesis always takes place in the context of the assembled church community. The epiclesis of ordination also specifies the ministry for which the Spirit is imparted: as in the case of the woman deacon who receives the Spirit in view of the diaconate. Though indirect mention is made of the gifts of the Spirit in the installation prayers of some of the minor orders, it is only bishops, priests and deacons on whom the full epiclesis is called down.[13]P.M. Gy, ‘Les anciennes prières d’ordination’, l.c., esp. pp. 112-114.

ADD YOUR COMMENTS? More bibliographical references?

5. The second ordination prayer

Having two ordination prayers for a woman deacon is another indication that a major order was imparted.

The second ordination prayer, also known as the ekphonese because the bishop spoke it softly, was a later development at the higher ordinations, probably starting from the 4th century. It may have been inspired by the need of the ordaining bishop to make sure that the conditions for ordination had been fulfilled. It may also manifest the typical eastern trait of prayers spoken softly out of religious ‘awe and dread’, as we encounter during the eucharist.[14]P. M. Gy, ‘Les anciennes prières d’ordination’, l.c., esp. pp. 110-111; see also: M. Hanssens, ‘Les oraisons sacramentelles des ordinations orientales’, in La liturgie d’Hippolyte, vol. II, Rome 1970, pp. 263-285; G. Kretschmar, ‘Probleme des orthodoxen Amtsverständnisses’, in J. Baur (ed.), Das Amt im ökomenischen Kontext, Stuttgart 1980, pp. 9-32.

By speaking the ekphonese prayer over the woman candidate, the bishop again indicated her being raised to the full sacrament of the diaconate.

As to the contents of the second ordination prayer, […] both in the case of the man and the woman, the substance is the same. The man receives the Holy Spirit “for the ministry of the deacon”, the woman “for the grace of the diaconate [διακονιας], as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate [διακονιας], whom you had called to the work of the ministry [λειτουργιας].” Could the ordaining bishop be more outspoken? The woman is even more explicitly, forcefully, deliberately and undeniably ordained to the diaconate than the man![15]John Wijngaards, No Women in Holy Orders?, pp. 120-21.

ADD YOUR COMMENTS? More bibliographical references?

6. Parallelism in all essentials with the ordination of male deacons.

The ordination of men to the diaconate runs parallel to that of women in all essentials. The main differences are for gender propriety (the man kneels, the woman bows her head) and male/female adaptations in the prayers (Phoebe is the example for women, Stephen for men). The male deacon is made to “fan” the gifts with the rhipidion since he was to serve at the altar. Female deacons could not stand at the altar next to the priest because much of the service took place behind a closed screen.

Most scholars consider the close parallel between the two ordination rites a strong argument for accepting women’s diaconate as having been as much a sacrament as the diaconate of men. “It cannot be denied that the ordination ritual puts women deacons and male deacons on entirely the same level”.[16]H. Frohnhofen, ‘Weibliche Diakone in der frühen Kirche’, Studien zur Zeit 204 (1986) 269-278, here p. 277. See also Jean-Marie Aubert, Des femmes diacres. Un nouveau chemin pour l’Église, Paris 1987, pp. 171-190.

This is also the considered opinion of the Orthodox scholar Kallistos Ware. He wrote classic books such as The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. He co-authored and co-translated into English a number of important Orthodox liturgical and spiritual texts, including a multi-volume edition of the Orthodox classic collection of spiritual writings, The Philokalia. Since 1966, he has been Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford, becoming a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford in 1970. In 1982, he was consecrated titular Bishop of Diokleia and appointed assistant bishop in the Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Bishop Kallistos judges women deacons to have been truly ordained:

“The order of deaconess seems definitely to have been considered an ‘ordained’ ministry during early centuries in at any rate the Christian East . . . Some Orthodox writers regard deaconesses as having been a ‘lay’ ministry. There are strong reasons for rejecting this view. In the Byzantine rite the liturgical office for the laying-on of hands for the deaconess is exactly parallel to that for the deacon; and so on the principle lex orandi, lex credendi — the Church’s worshipping practice is a sure indication of its faith — it follows that the deaconess receives, as does the deacon, a genuine sacramental ordination: not just a χειροθεσια but a χειροτονια.”.[17]Kalistos of Diokleia, ‘Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ’, in Women and the Priesthood, ed. Th. Hopko, New York 1982, reprinted 1999, pp. 5-54; here p. 16.

No one denies that the ordination of male deacons during the first millennium was a true sacrament. The same applies to women deacons.

ADD YOUR COMMENTS? More bibliographical references?

Conclusion

All the symbolism surrounding the imparting of ordination to the women signified its being a real sacrament:

  • 1. *** its setting in the heart of the eucharist,
  • 2. *** the presence of the clergy and the faithful,
  • 3. *** the proclamation of divine election through the hallowed ‘Divine Grace’ formula,
  • 4. *** the epiclesis of the Holy Spirit on the ordinand
  • 5. *** and the addition of the second, ekphonese prayer of ordination.

Through this symbolism the ordaining bishop indicated, both to the ordinand and to the assembled congregation, his unmistakable intention to impart a full diaconate ordination to the woman. In today’s terms we would say: women deacons were as fully ordained as their male counterparts. In traditional terms: a woman’s ordination to the diaconate was as ‘sacramental’ as a man’s ordination.

ADD YOUR COMMENTS? More bibliographical references?

<hr /

References   [ + ]

1. http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr1.shtml
2. http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr2.shtml
3. http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr3.shtml
4. http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_gr5.shtml
5. http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_syr.shtml
6. such as used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome
7. E. Theodorou, The ‘Ordination’ [χειροτονια] or ‘Appointment’ [χειροθεσια] of Women Deacons, Athens 1954; E. Theodorou, ‘Das Amt der Diakoninnen in der kirchli­chen Tradition. Ein orthodoxer Beitrag zum Problem der Frau­enordination’, Una Sancta 33 (1978) 162‑172; E. Theodorou, ‘The Ministry of Women in the Greek Orthodox Church’, Orthodox Women: Their Role and Participation in the Orthodox Church, Geneva 1977, pp. 37-43; E. Theodorou, ‘The Institution of Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church and the Possibility of its Restoration’, in G. Limouris (ed.), The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Katerini, Greece, 1992), pp. 207-238.
8. http://www.womendeacons.org/rite/deac_con.shtml
9. “For such a woman candidate all is performed that is also performed for male deacons, with only a few [= the following] differences”; Constantinople Codex & Cairo Codex.
10. ‘La formule d’ordination “La Grace Divine” dans les rites orientaux’, L’Orient Syrien 2 (1957) pp. 286-296.
11. About all this see the excellent article by Pierre-Marie Gy, ‘Les anciennes prières d’ordination’, La Maison-Dieu 138 (1979) pp. 93-122.
12. J. D. Zizioulas, Priesteramt und Priesterweihe im Licht der östlich-orthodoxen Theologie, Freiburg 1973; J. Erickson, ‘The priesthood in Patristic Teaching’, in Limouris (ed.), The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Katerini, Greece, 1992), pp. 108-109; K. Karidoyanes, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, Brookline 1998, pp. 85-86, 106.
13. P.M. Gy, ‘Les anciennes prières d’ordination’, l.c., esp. pp. 112-114.
14. P. M. Gy, ‘Les anciennes prières d’ordination’, l.c., esp. pp. 110-111; see also: M. Hanssens, ‘Les oraisons sacramentelles des ordinations orientales’, in La liturgie d’Hippolyte, vol. II, Rome 1970, pp. 263-285; G. Kretschmar, ‘Probleme des orthodoxen Amtsverständnisses’, in J. Baur (ed.), Das Amt im ökomenischen Kontext, Stuttgart 1980, pp. 9-32.
15. John Wijngaards, No Women in Holy Orders?, pp. 120-21.
16. H. Frohnhofen, ‘Weibliche Diakone in der frühen Kirche’, Studien zur Zeit 204 (1986) 269-278, here p. 277. See also Jean-Marie Aubert, Des femmes diacres. Un nouveau chemin pour l’Église, Paris 1987, pp. 171-190.
17. Kalistos of Diokleia, ‘Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ’, in Women and the Priesthood, ed. Th. Hopko, New York 1982, reprinted 1999, pp. 5-54; here p. 16.