Deaconesses: Looking Down the Road to LMNOP

In this last February 2017, the Patriarchate of Alexandria ordained six “deaconesses” in the Congo, an action which was hailed by some as a courageous and much-needed step forward, and decried by others who warned that it was a dangerous step, tending to further unorthodox actions, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood and the erosion of Orthodox Tradition generally. As an example of the former, we may cite the congratulatory “Statement of Support” by certain “Orthodox liturgists” issued in the October of last year; as an example of the latter we may cite the recent “Public Statement on Deaconesses by Concerned Clergy and Laity”. Since I was one of the original signatories of the latter, my own views of the matter should not be in doubt.

I have placed the word “deaconesses” in the initial sentence in quotation marks because it seems reasonably clear that the women ordained in the Congo are not deaconesses as the early church understood the term. The Patriarch did not ordain them using the Byzantine rite for ordaining deaconesses, but rather the “prayer for one entering church ministry” such as would be given to any layman beginning church work. He did not bestow the orar on the women as was the practice in the ancient rite of ordaining a deaconess, nor perform the rite within the Divine Liturgy, the time when ordinations to major Orders [Greek cheirotonia] are performed, but rather at the end of the service. The women assisted in the washing of his hands (like Subdeacons), and anecdotal evidence reports that their function coincides with the ministry of Readers.   Presumably the term “deaconess” was used only to cover the newly-invented ministry with a mantle of pretended antiquity, justifying it as a restoration of an old office when in fact it constitutes the creation of a new one. The whole thing is soaked in a kind of historical dishonesty—with respect, it would be better for His Beatitude to simply admit that he believes these women should be commissioned for a new office of catechetical and liturgical service than to suggest this represents a revival of the historic order of deaconesses.

There is more to be said in response to the Patriarch’s act, but here I simply refer the interested reader to the “Public Statement on Deaconesses” mentioned above. For now I would like to look not to the Congo in the year 2017, but down the road a generation from now. The “Orthodox liturgists” who signed their “Statement of Support” mentioned that the “process of restoring the female diaconate requires … the adequate preparation and education of the people who will be called upon to receive, honor, and respect the deaconesses assigned to their parishes”. Those of us old enough to remember the introduction of female priests into churches which did not have them (such as in the Anglican or Episcopal church) will also remember how similar “adequate preparation and education” was required to make it sail in those churches, and that its final implementation involved schism, catastrophic loss of membership, defection of clergy, and erosion of tradition. The same churches that once enacted such adequate preparation and education (indistinguishable from synodal bullying and relentless propaganda) now find themselves introducing same-sex marriage and transgender confusion, which they find also require heavy doses of adequate preparation and education.

The fact is that much of the foundation on which the new project is built is simply false, for the new office bears little resemblance to its historical predecessor. It panders to the feminist vision of “empowering women” by erasing gender distinctions, and reconfiguring Church praxis so that it conforms to secular norms. But the real problem with the whole project lies elsewhere, for the engine driving it is modern feminism, not ancient Tradition, and thus it involves ignoring and eroding parts of that Tradition. The final result will not simply be more women serving liturgically and in ordained ministry, but further betrayals of Tradition and embraces of secular modernity. We don’t have to guess where it leads; the Anglican church and others like it have kindly given us abundant demonstration of it in our own generation.

This was foreseen by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory. When interviewed by AGAIN Magazine some decades ago about this very question, he said, “Many years ago when women’s ordination was first being discussed in the Faith and Order Commission in the World Council of Churches a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Vitaly Borovoy, said, ‘The Russians have a saying. If you say A you have to say B; if you say B then you have to say C. I’m interested in where you get when you’re at LMNOP.’ His [Fr. Vitaly’s] point was, of course, if you take a step in a particular direction, you must see the full implication of where you are going”.

When Hopko first made these statements, the denominations which embraced the ordination of women had yet not embraced same-sex marriage or begun to eliminate or limit masculine references to God. If the ordination of women were the “A” to which Frs. Vitaly and Thomas referred, these later moves would be a “D” or a “E”, since they came only a few decades after the normalization of the ordination of women. But they came surely nonetheless, despite the assurances given as part of the required “adequate preparation and education” that no further changes or erosion would be forthcoming. And the ordination of women began with the restoration of deaconesses. In Anglicanism, deaconesses (once sharply distinguished from deacons) were declared by the preparers and educators to be actual deacons, whether the new female deacons liked it or not (some did not). But, they said, it would never lead to female priests. Until, of course, it did, but this would never lead to female bishops. Until, of course, it did.

Then, since gender did not matter, it was discovered as modern society continued in its erosion of Christian tradition, that—well, gender didn’t matter, so a priest could be homosexual or lesbian. Episcopal priest Gene Robinson, for example, after being married with children, “came out” in 1986, (ten years after his church voted to ordain women), met his gay partner Andrew the next year, moved in with him the year after that (having their house blessed by their bishop), and was elected bishop in 2003. They were legally married in church in June 2003 (Robinson said that “I always wanted to be a June bride”). They divorced in 2014.

Those asserting that such a progression from women’s ordination to same-sex marriage could not happen in Orthodoxy are guilty of magical thinking, and need to produce evidence that American Orthodox are somehow immune to such sweeping cultural shifts as have effected everyone else. Ad hominem attacks on former Anglican convert clergy sounding the alarm and suggesting that they suffer from a kind Episcopalian Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome do not constitute evidence, and are scarcely worthy of a reply.

If Orthodoxy in North America does ordain deaconesses as part of its current liberal drift (i.e. blurring the historical distinction between deacons and deaconesses), I predict the following when many decades later we finally reach LMNOP: we will also have embraced the ordination of women to the priesthood, same-sex marriage, and transgender confusion. If such predictions seem over the top, that it because we have not yet reached “A”. When the Anglicans first began to ordain female deacons, anyone predicting their current liberal slide would have been derided as alarmist, over the top, and hysterical. In fact, now that I think of it, they did predict such a slide and they were derided as alarmist, over the top, and hysterical. They were also proven correct, though such vindication provided them with little enough satisfaction. For myself, I do not think Orthodox bishops will be foolhardy enough to ordain women deacons or declare “deaconesses” to be actual deacons. The threat of schism is too great and costly for that. But if “A” is reached, LMNOP will surely come. If so, I am grateful I will not be around to see it. Farleys are a fragile breed, and usually don’t live that long. Advanced longevity sometimes comes with a high price.




  1. So, true, Father. Sad for us who had to live through those experinces as alarmists, hysterics, &c. However the Holy Spirit, laus Deo, used it to prpel many of us to a better place.

  2. This raises a practical question for me. I’ve only been attending an Orthodox church for seven months. It’s a tiny, Old Calendar parish in the Russian tradition, so there’s certainly no worry about women being ordained or same-sex marriages being performed. Parish survival is a higher priority since the priest passed away last September. At some point down the road, I’ll probably have to move and undertake the process of finding an Orthodox church in some other city. I don’t know much about the internal politics of the Antiochian, Greek, or OCA churches. Orthodoxy in America doesn’t seem to be as uniform as Roman Catholicism. At least Roman Catholics are more or less going the same way, whichever way that is. I’m not sure which way the different flavors of Orthodoxy are going.

    1. Kevin: In my experience with my RC friends (including converts from RCism in my parish) there is far more theological diversity there than in Orthodoxy. One family for example attended a very conservative Latin-rite congregation, while another formerly knew of a congregation that had “clown Masses”. It seems to me that RCism is in a state of crisis, with many Catholics applauding their new Pope as a much-needed breath of fresh air, and many other Catholics lamenting him as a liberal disaster. Orthodoxy by comparison is quite uniform; the liberals among us are by far a small group–which perhaps accounts for some of their shrillness.

      1. So my perception of a significant division in Orthodoxy because of the multiple names in America is misplaced and that they are more or less distinctions without a difference? I realize that doctrinally, they are the same, but I wasn’t sure if I was wading into some political skirmish between the different subgroups. America is probably the most confusing place to encounter Orthodoxy because of the “branding” issue.

        1. The division between liberal and traditionalists (to use unhelpful labels) goes down the middle of all the jurisdictions and groups, so that liberals and traditionalists can be found in most if not all jurisdictions.

  3. Father Lawrence,
    Thank you and all our people who produced such an excellent Public Statement on the issue of Deaconesses. Out of the multitude of very pertinent reasons to reject their appointment, just this comment would have been enough for me:

    “But if laws and canons and precepts are not enough to turn us to repentance, God has given us two distinct models of perfected humanity, one male and one female: Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, and His Most Pure Mother, the Theotokos, whose icons stand always before us in worship as reminders of what we are meant to be as men and women.”

    We depend on our leaders for sound guidance and decisions. God forbid that the Church be divided over this, or any issue, but that we pray always for our unity. God forbid we succumb to secular demands, but rather stand strong and fight this spiritual war. We need each other to do this.
    Thank you all for your efforts.

  4. I was reading someone today, complaining about all those converts from the EOC. The implication was Orthodoxy was (or would be) some hotbed of acceptance for gay sex and women priests, if only the Protestants hadn’t come in. Funny, I don’t see traditional Orthodox societies as hotbeds of those opinions at all. One wonders what world these people live in.

    1. What world indeed! How depressingly quickly some people move to an ad hominem response–which is particularly handy, I suppose, when one experiences a shortage of real substantive reply. If you can’t refute the argument, you can always try to discredit the one making it. It is much easier, and much more fun.

  5. I have been quoting this alot lately:

    “In a secularized academic context riveted by the political ideologies of “race, class, and gender”…The questions of “experience” and reason in theology – its sources, first principles and procedure – and the acceptable cultural “correlation” require a more rigorous and dogmatic-philosophical treatment. Orthodox theologians must deal not only with Western theology, but also with the sources of Western secularism with greater depth and care than has yet been shown…” (Fr. Mathew Baker, +2015, from his excellent “Neopatristic Synthesis and Ecumenism: Towards the “Reintegration”).

    Taken as a whole, my opinion is that the Orthodox Faithful on all levels (parish lay people, clergy of all levels) are either unaware, or in denial about just how secularized we are – how much it has affected us, particularly around these modern Justice and Equality issues, complaints and reform efforts.

    Also Fr. Lawrence, I don’t agree that the Bishops take seriously a schism around this reform or any other. What would the form and boundaries of this schism be (e.g. between one jurisdiction or another, or between the slavs and the greeks)? In my opinion, the secularism is too deep, the line between “liberal and traditionalists” too deeply ingrained for an actual schism – where would the energy and organization come from? Such a schism would indicate a healthy immune response on the part of the Body, but (in my opinion) we are too sick for that. This is a dark assessment fur sur, but I don’t see a the critical mass for an actual schism…

    One good thing however about our bishops is that on their level up, they work in and maintain an ecclesiology that is designed for an Imperium. We still have a “Patriarch of Constantinople”, a city and Imperium that has not existed for 500 years for goodness sake!! So they wait for Emperor to act, and they wait, and they wait…

    1. I would like to think you are wrong, but in the terrible wee hours of the morning, I think you may right. A horrible thought…

    2. Christopher,
      I do not argue a word you’ve said. I have not been in the Church long enough to even do so. But there is something I do have a problem with. It is not so much our current condition, that we are “too sick” to realize the extent of our immersion in secularity. I agree we can not simply say ‘well, now, I remove myself’. But it is our attitude toward it. If I maintain a pessimistic attitude, I know my mind will remain darkened…I’ll live like that, think like that, and breathe like that. This is not what Christ came for. I wonder sometimes if ignorance is bliss. I insist on pressing toward the positive. I want to believe that our Bishops are doing the best for us that they possibly can. When our Bishop visited our Church a few months ago, it was the first time I ever met a Bishop! I was very much looking forward to that. At the same time there had been a crisis over the past year within our Church…again, first time I experienced this since entering Orthodoxy. I observed and listened intently to discern “the mess”. Previously, I heard some harsh words spoken towards our Bishop and Priest, all while we were sitting and have coffee in “fellowship” after the Liturgy. I looked upon our Bishop and tried to imagine his responsibility (not to mention our dear Priest who said it was the most difficult year he has had). He spoke to us about our “mess”…and I do remember him saying he leads and directs “in Christ” and not in the ways of the world, to appease our selfish complaints (my paraphrase, he didn’t use those exact words. The issue was over money and thwarted egos). I’d fail miserably in his shoes. And I choose to trust him. I don’t care if it seems to take eons for the Church to make decisions. We do not have to resign ourselves to the thought that we’ll never change and our “condition” prevents us from making sound decisions, as we wait, wait, and wait.
      And as far as the possibility of schism, I definitely believe that people will leave. Who knows what form it will take. Perhaps it will be mostly converts that will leave, those in whom familiarity has not yet bred contempt, who came to Orthodoxy knowing that it is here, and only here, where the truth is spoken. But then again, where would we go? There is no place else to go.
      Again, I do not know much. I am “only” a layperson. But we all have a voice to be heard. I want that voice to edify. I want to remember in the midst of despair, to rejoice in all Christ has done and is doing….yes, doing, even in the disastrous forms of secularity.
      In the end, the Church will remain. Christ said so. God willing, we all will remain and be true to Her. In Peace.

      1. Paula,

        Allow me to risk a consolation and perhaps an “on the other hand” to my words above. If you think about it, the fact that the bishops lack a centralizing/directing presence (in the form of an Emperor) has just as many upsides as downsides. One of those is a de facto “conservatism” because, how would they ever get together to pull off a Church wide reform such as the creation of a new order of “deaconesses”? In other words, we might just get through this secularism through what to the world looks like shear ineptitude and anachronistic organization! A simplified summary to be sure, but one that just might turn out to be true.

        However lets say we go from bad to worse and an honest to goodness schism actually occurs. Where would we go? God provides, and the Faithful will be able to in time to discern our course. Not that this will be easy – indeed it will be “as through fire”. Those who compromise however (many have already, mostly by tolerating a little more of this, a little more of that) will find themselves in a slow “dissipation” of the Faith until they look around them one day and ask, “how did we get to this place?”. This is the experience of so many in the Episcopal church and we would be foolish to ignore it. We prepare our defense by doing the basics (which is both obvious and hard at the same time) and listening to those who help us discern the outline and content of this “secularism”, such as Fr. Lawrence and Fr. Stephen. As you know Fr. Stephen has said in so many words, we conquer secularism by not being secularists.

        As far as money and church squabbles, divisiveness, and even worse (such as when these things get so bad it becomes “one of those years”), I have been there and done that. I am treasurer of our mission parish, and you know what the most consistent and divisive issue in our parish has been? Charity, the question as to how our parish should help “the poor” and the community! On occasion, it has driven people from the parish – a couple of times they have (and I mean this quite literally) walked out the door backwards, finger wagging in the air, telling us we are “not being REAL Christians” because we did not support this or that idea, program, etc. What has caused this “passion”, this focus on this one virtue such that other virtues are ignored and it becomes so obviously a vice?

        Several reasons but one of the most important is a secular mind and the “pressure” the world puts on us to “fix” it in all its brokenness, sin, and death. As you know Fr. Stephen does a good job at exploding this myth. However most parisherners don’t read Fr. Stephen and so it sounds reasonable to them when someone suggests that a mission parish (of about dozen contributing families) should build and run a home for battered women and their children – after all, is it not our Christian duty to serve the poor and love our neighbor!?

        Just today at our annual parish meeting, we decided to “tithe” 10% of all contributions to a handful of worthy (and mostly local) charities. No more special collections, special efforts, or what I call “big ideas” (as I mutter just out of hearing “of the Devil”) unless directed by our bishop, as laid out by this book:

        We will see how it goes…I will let you know 😉

        I say all this because I do believe we are working through this, and our parish level praxis itself helps us to succumb to the world, or helps us to overcome it – but it is up to us God is always giving us a path. So yes, let us press towards the positive…with our eyes open!

  6. In the book THE PLACE OF THE WOMAN IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH AND THE QUESTION OF THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN, various presentations argue for the impossibility of the ordination of women. The reason being that according to Orthodox Tradition, Christ represents the New Adam and Mary represents the New Eve. Further to this reasoning, Orthodox Tradition argues that Adam was not a true representative of Humanity created in the image and likeness of God male and female, but rather merely male. Therefore, Christ as the New Adam is seen as male through the arguments of those presented in the book above at the Rhodes Inter-orthodox Symposium in 1988. I grew up during a time when the word MAN, included both sexes. In fact when I was just a girl in grade 6 and the Easter Story proclaimed how when the Woman weeping outside the tomb heard that Christ had risen she didn’t quite realize it, it dawned on me…they were referring to her. The Good News was the Woman had risen with the “Good Teacher” as the Risen Christ and he was telling her to go and tell, to preach the Gospel to Simon and the other Fathers of the Faith. When I was a little older, I saw another pearl of wisdom hidden in Patriarchal language. I saw Paul as the mother of the Gospel and because of secular and religious bias, I realized Paul takes on the role of an Apostolic Father, even though Paul is female and claims to be a circumcised Jew. This little known fact is hard to believe because patriarchal tradition, language and grammar have convinced the majority of people that when Gospel writers wrote the story of the rich man for example they meant rich male, instead of rich person. Grammar rules even make it hard to keep the word person neutral. Even the rich person takes on he in the pronoun and yet a person can be either a he or a she. Further to this, take a look at the idea of Jesus claiming to be the VINE who is one with the Father the Gardener, the husbandman. Now look back to Psalm 128:3. There the Vine is female. But in John’s Gospel, most people assume the Jesus who is speaking with Nicodemus is male, rather than female. And again in John 15, most people simply assume that the Jesus who claims to be the Vine is male, rather than female. Also in John 8:12 when Jesus claims to be the light of the World, most assume Jesus is male, rather than the female, the Mega Helen, the bright torch of the Gospel. Now jump back to the tomb scene. The Woman, the Lady in tears is looking for her Lord. She can’t see him, so she supposes that the “Good” Teacher is the Gardener. Yet the Good Teacher calls her Mary, as if she like Naomi is a widow whom the Lord has bitterly treated and assures Mary he has not assumed her husband’s body, his role. Yes secularism and feminism are huge threats to the Truth of Christianity. Many feminist and secular views confuse and confound many believers, orthodox and non. Thus many believers today cannot see Jesus as three distinct persons, (Mark 15:21) each committed to the other and the Good Teacher’s beloved housewife Martha, the New Eve.

    1. It is difficult to know how to respond to such a tangle of nonsense. But it does illustrate the necessity of reading the Scriptures through the lens of the Fathers if we would understand its true meaning. I can only say that your approach to Scripture bears a greater resemblance to Gnostic interpretations than it does to anything in historical Christianity, much less Orthodoxy.

      1. “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed”

        and in case we didn’t clearly understand the gravity of his words the first time, St. Paul, says it again:

        “As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”
        Galatians 1: 8-9

        Linda, I fear for you. I pray to St. Paul himself, that through his intercession to Our Lord Jesus Christ, He open up your eyes like He did his.

  7. Christopher,
    I seriously thank you for your “on the other hand” response! I now have a better understanding of why you are drawing certain conclusions. Good to know the “why’s”! For instance, that conservatism necessarily occurs when ” bishops lack a centralizing/directing presence”, and as a result, a never ending discussion of a certain Church wide reform. I have noticed that in the history of the Church! As for the Church appearing inept to the world, I say what else is new?! Since when did the modern world think differently?! Yet if it turns out to be true, another simplified response could be ‘God really does work in mysterious ways’! Nevertheless, I agree that we are working through this and that our eyes must be wide open. It is important to listen to those who have tread the waters, who have experience in areas we do not. The book your Bishop wrote is a great example. I purchased it last night after reading your response, as it is an area I want to know more about. You are correct in saying we tend towards “giving back” in a secular way and for secular reasons. It is so easy to get caught up in this, even if we don’t want to. I mean, the absurdity of division over how to give to charitable causes will not work not only because of the secular approach but because the charity (love) wasn’t there in the first place! Thank God our Priests (and Bishops) address this issue.
    You ask ‘where would we go’ if there was a schism. Wherever they go it would be in a backward direction…some would forsake church for good, some for a while, some would go down the road to another parish, some would go to another denomination….and nothing would change for them. If you don’t believe in the ‘One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church’ and do not understand that perfection is in Christ, and not in the people who make up the Church, you’ll never be at home anywhere. There is no where else to go. So I agree totally that we should not ignore what happened in the Episcopal church. And yes, we start by doing the basics, for if the basics become corrupt, then so do we. Undoubtedly, the “doing” is in no way easy.
    Christopher, I thank you again for taking the time to explain. It really does help.

  8. The bishop in the Congo saw and sees a great need for his flock. The women of his diocese will be getting their needs met through these women who have been blessed by their bishop with this enormous task. Separating ordination as to the “orders of the priesthood and those by “blessings is an important key element . We in the West are not of the same culture nor the same needs as those in the Congo. Also important is not to bring in “past baggage from another christian denomination and put it into the framework of Orthodoxy. Many former Anglicans/Episcopalians left their home church to become Orthodox Christians (many of our priesthood, not only Episcopalians but other Protestant denominations). My being an Orthodox Christian since infancy and lifelong practicing Orthodox Christian have seen damage done to the Orthodox mindset from those still carrying such baggage. Women are not seen as “having equal gifts,” when these same people bring in such baggage and only see Ordination as the “equalizer and important threshold. Women choir directors and chanters are not given the respect for their work (which in many places is completely voluntary — no compensation). So I applaud the Bishop of the Congo and giving authority and blessings to these women who obviously will do great work for their Church.

    1. Thank you for your comments. It would be helpful if the bishop in the Congo made clear that he was not ordaining deaconesses, if that was not his intent, since his actions have results throughout the west, and not just in the Congo. Part of his episcopal responsibility involves taking thought for the wider Orthodox Church, as well as his own small corner of it.

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