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.