Those contending for the creation of a new order of women clergy in the Orthodox Church under the guise of restoring the ancient order of deaconess (such as those at the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess) make up in tenacity what they lack in historical balance. Their recent piece in the Public Orthodoxy site makes a number of statements and claims about the ancient order of deaconess. These statements are not so much false as incomplete. By adding to the picture what they deliberately omit, one can know (in the immortal words of Paul Harvey) “the rest of the story”.
To begin: the authors begin their apologia for the new order of women clergy with the assertion that they are guided by a truly impartial spirit, one open to all kinds of different voices, for they say “We consider it to be part of our work to promote empirically grounded conversation”. In support of this, they mention in a footnote that, “This dedication to conversation with those who see the issue differently was exemplified by our presentation of positions for and against the female diaconate at our 2017 conference”. That is technically true. I know, for I was the first one tapped to be the voice of those speaking “against the female diaconate at [their] 2017 conference”. I declined, due to the press of parish commitments. A worthy substitute was found (actually, much worthier than I could have hoped to have been) and he duly presented the (sole) contrary voice. He was given 20 minutes to speak. Please note: I wrote a chapter on this very topic in my book Feminism and Tradition and could not have read the chapter in the allotted time, much expounded upon it. This tells me that the contrary voice of “those who see the issue differently” was included largely for its token value.
To continue: under the heading “Ordination” the authors of the piece in Public Orthodoxy then wrote, “A deaconess was ordained by the bishop, during the Liturgy, at the altar, she was presented with a stole and chalice, and received communion with the clergy. Her service was tied to the Eucharist as the source and summit of her ministry”. Again that is technically true. The rest of the story tells us that the prayer ordaining a deaconess was completely different than the prayer ordaining a deacon, that her posture at the altar while ordained was different from that of a deacon, that the deaconess wore the stole differently than a deacon did, and that after receiving the chalice she simply returned it to the altar, and did not (as did the deacon) use it to administer communion. Her service was thus not “tied to the Eucharist” as was that of the deacon. These liturgical details in fact serve to differentiate the office of deaconess from that of deacon, not to identify the two as suggested. Deaconesses had no liturgical function in the Eucharist comparable to male deacons.
Again: under the heading “Duties”, our authors wrote, “deaconesses ministered to women much as male deacons ministered to men. Other responsibilities mentioned in Church texts include: catechetical instruction, pastoral care, taking communion to the infirm, supervision at liturgy, participating in processions, and serving as agents of the bishop entrusted with carrying out philanthropic and hospitality tasks”. Again, this is true, but over-stated, and requires the rest of the story. The footnote justifying these assertions cites the Didascalia, the Apostolic Constitutions, and Canon 40 of the Council in Trullo.
But the Didascalia does not say that “deaconesses ministered to women much as male deacons ministered to men” as if the two were parallel ministries to specific genders. What it does say is that, “a man [i.e. a male deacon] is for the administration of many necessary tasks… a woman [deacon] for ministry among the women” (chapter 16). That is, the deacon had a more generalized ministry than did the deaconess. The Didascalia then goes on to mention as her main ministry that visiting sick women, and assisting women during baptism. Their ministry of “catechetical instruction” consisted solely of exhorting the newly-baptized women about how to remain holy after their baptism: “When she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her [i.e. help her to dress], and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be kept unbroken in purity and holiness”. This is a very limited catechesis.
“Supervision at liturgy” consisted of keeping watch over the women’s doors. The relevant quote from the Apostolic Constitutions reads, “A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons [!], but is only to keep the doors and to minister to the presbyters in the baptizing of women on account of decency” (Book 8, ch. 28). Once again, this “supervision at liturgy” was confined to keeping order among the lay women present. The “carrying out of philanthropic and hospitality tasks” referred to their ministry to sick women in situations where a male deacon could not be sent—once again, a gender-specific task.
Furthermore, far from being parallel ministries as our authors suggest, the Apostolic Constitutions actually subordinates the deaconess to the deacon just as subdeacons were subordinated. In fact the Apostolic Constitutions says that, “The deacon has the power to excommunicate the subdeacon, the reader, the psalmist and the deaconess if this is required and the presbyter is absent. But neither is the subdeacon, the reader, the psalmist nor the deaconess is allowed to excommunicate anyone, whether clerical or lay, for in these categories are the attendants to the deacons” (italics mine). Note: the deaconess, like the subdeacon and the reader, are accounted as an attendant or assistant to the deacon, not as his clerical equivalent. When one turns from feminist rhetoric to the actual sources themselves, one gets the rest of the story, one markedly different from that suggested by the St. Phoebe Center.
Under the heading “Canon Law” the authors admit that the existence of canons governing deaconesses which they would dispense with in the new order of women clergy created under that name. They seek to justify this by speaking of how there were exceptions to these canons in the ancient days which would allow a deaconess to be married, and they cite the example of Epiphanius: “Saint Epiphanius of Salamis of the 4th c writes that, ‘Deaconesses must be married to only one man’”. The footnote quotes his Exposition of the Catholic Faith, chapter 21. But an actual look at the text gives the rest of the story.
Epiphanius nowhere speaks of deaconesses enjoying the use of marriage in chapter 21. In that chapter he first speaks of virginity being the best, of continence being the next best, followed by widowhood, and then “lawful wedlock”, concerning which he says, that if a person’s spouse dies, it is allowable to remarry. But it is different for the priests, for “the holy priesthood is drawn mostly from virgins, but if not from virgins, from once-married men”. Then he speaks of readers and says that these may be drawn from people twice married, “for a reader is not a priest”. When he next speaks of deaconesses he does not say, “Deaconesses must be married to only one man.” What he actually says is: “Deaconesses are also appointed, only to assist women for modesty’s sake, if there is a need because of baptism or an inspection of their bodies. Deaconesses can only have been married once, and they must lead continent lives, or else be the widows of a single marriage, or else have remained perpetual virgins.” In other words, deaconesses were required to be single, for Epiphanius speaks of them being required to “lead continent lives”—i.e. celibate lives.
The authors’ quotation of Epiphanius might give the impression that he allowed married deaconesses. It is not so. Certainly the words of the saint of Salamis do not represent much a change: it was understood that deaconesses were required to be virgins or widows, and Epiphanius only insists that they be widows of a single marriage. It is possible that he had in mind also deaconesses who embraced celibacy while their husbands still lived (as in the case of the wives of those elected bishops in Canon 48 of the Council in Trullo). But the idea of a deaconess still living with her husband is one he would have vigorously repudiated.
The authors’ handling of Epiphanius is consistent with the way they handle the others sources they cite. That is, in their treatment of the sources we see either an ignorance of the meaning of the texts themselves or (more likely) a deliberate distortion or fudging of their meaning. This is not scholarship, but partisanship. It appears that in their zeal to promote the establishment of a new order of women clergy they try to find historical support wherever they can, even if it involves dealing with the historical sources in a rather cavalier fashion. The fury and desperation with which it is being pursued is apparent, for the piece is replete with assertions which are half-truths, requiring someone to give the rest of the story. And as is often said, one must be wary of half-truths, for one usually gets the wrong half.