The Defence of the New Deaconesses and the Rest of the Story

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.



  1. Conversation happens between like minded people. Discussion allows other points of view to be talked over. It is always a bad sign when a meeting is described as a ‘Conversation’ and not a ‘Discussion’. It would seem to be set up to succeed in promoting a single point of view.

  2. Insightful and most helpful. We are having similar discussions on this side of the Tiber—or Bosporus, if you prefer. Blessings!

  3. Father Lawrence,

    Thank you for the “rest of the story” concerning the historical/canonical record. I would like to comment on the section “Praxis, Not Dogma”. First, praxis follows from Dogma – the two are not unrelated as the board of St. Phoebe imply. Granted the color of the paint in the narthex might seem to be merely utilitarian, idiosyncratic, and of no *dogmatic* importance, but if following St. Paul “all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful/useful” we can understand the organic nature, and symbolic import of even very small things in Church or in our Christian lives. Certainly anyone who has sat on a church council understands how small/trivial things can be exactly where Dogma and Love are “played out”, so to speak. They repeat the modern dogmatic minimalism of the Oxford/Paris school (popularized best by Met. Kallistos Ware) as if it is itself settled and normative for the Church. This statement is quite remarkable:

    “…Orthodox dogma includes neither dogmatic teaching on deaconesses, nor dogmatic teaching on the meaning of man and woman that would preclude deaconesses…”

    In light of how they recognize that the Incarnation, which is God becoming Man(anthropos) as we really are and thus God became not Man(anthropos) “in general”, but a *particular* man (and not a women – nonetheless through the Queen of Heaven) in a particular time and place, is in some way related to dogma in the previous sentence:

    “…the understanding of the Incarnation “.

    These 5 words of course in no way do justice to the colossal importance of the Incarnation and its meaning for all things theological, dogmatic and Christian, not the least of which is what it means to be a man or women! Indeed these 5 words seem designed to minimize and support the assertion that somehow the Church and Her ordained hierarchy (its structure, character, symbolic as well as practical (praxis) meaning) is somehow unconnected to the Incarnation or what the Fathers usually call “Holy Dogma”.

    As they explicitly admit, the:

    “…The reinstitution of deaconesses is about the practice of the Church…”

    When did the “practice of the Church” become a non-dogmatic in character? Is not the Church in Her very essence doxological – about nothing more and nothing less than the life of worshiping God “in spirit and truth”?!? Beyond this, is not our very salvation “ontologically”, intimately bound up in the very Body of Christ – and even our own bodies (including our sexuality – our “gender”) are raised from the dead!?!? The section on “Change” deserves it’s own treatment, but at this time I will only note that they appear to admit in this section that female deacons are a matter for “ecclesiology”, which by definition is a theological and “dogmatic” undertaking.

    I admit it is hard to take this “Praxis, not Dogma” section at face value. Is the board of St. Phoebe with its collection of Ph.D. Academics and seminary professionals genuinely asking us to take seriously the suggestion that a restoration of a female diaconate is not a matter of theological anthropology and thus Holy Dogma? I actually think the answer is yes, in that the modern academic is actually not very good at examining the ground of their own philosophy and methodology and its primary character as a *secular* activity. The strained thinking of the “Change” section reveals to us the depth of their secular and secularized understanding of what Scripture refers to “the world” and history. “Change” and progress (toward what is always vague) are central to this secularized account/world view, and while Christianity does not deny that change (of the reach of our techne-knowledge, or of the conditions of our social and communal relatedness, etc. etc.) and at times the real *relative* good of something called “progress”, Christianity has always been very clear as to the spiritual end of this Age and its meaning – death.

    That points to what I find most lacking in the St. Phoebe’s board attempt to persuade me of the propriety of a female diaconate – where is its *Christian* argument?

    Christopher Encapera

    1. Father and Christopher,
      Father Lawrence,
      I as well thank you for filling in the blanks, the omissions, in the PO article. I appreciate your efforts, especially the time spent being actively involved in this and other pressing issues that impact the Church and keeping us informed through your blog.

      As always, I read your comments with great interest. You make some very good points here. I have a question for you and/or Father, based on the section where you say: “Orthodox dogma includes neither dogmatic teaching on deaconesses, nor dogmatic teaching on the meaning of man and woman that would preclude deaconesses…” .
      I am almost finished reading L. Ouspensky’s Theology of the Icon. In the 2nd volume he speaks at length about “sophiology” and its dissemination and great impact it has had on Orthodoxy, first in Russia, since the 16th-17th century, and still very prevalent in our modern age. As I looked further into this sophiology, I wondered if this particular philosophy was a catalyst in modern feminist ideals the Church is faced with today; I am interested what you think. Apparently, S. Bulgakov is credited for being the one that further promoted this new “theology”; Ouspensky says the root of the problem is a confusion between nature and person, and he explains this problem in light of the Incarnation. Again, I see a similarity between this confusion and the modern issue of feminism.

      As an aside, Christopher, I just want to say I respect and like very much Met. K. Ware, as I am sure you do. I am not in a position to agree or disagree with him based on my knowledge and time in the Church. I have a lot to learn. But I wanted to immediately defend him after your comment! And I trust that the man has good reason to say what he says. I also notice that not a few people voice their objection to some of his stances. Makes for some interesting discussions. We’re pretty good at that, aren’t we?!

      1. Paula,

        I think it has been 25 years since I last read that work by Ouspensky, and I can’t say I recall much at all. Bulgakov is a very interesting figure in 20th century Russian and Orthodox intellectual history. I have not made a study of his “sophiology”, though it was censored by his Synod and criticized by diverse (and “interesting”) figures such as Lossky and Florovsky. Given my personal bias/tendencies, it is safe to say I would probably be in agreement with this censorship. I am more familiar with Bulgakov’s position within “Orthodox Universalism”, if those two words can be meaningfully put together in such a way. So I can’t really speak to any possible link between Bulgakov’s sophiology and the modern effort to create a female diaconate. I tend to focus on what I see is the “alien influence” or “pseudomorphosis” on traditional Christian anthropology and theology (which in the end is nothing less than Christology) by, let’s for brevity’s sake call it “Enlightenment” philosophical and moral metaphysics (even when this same metaphysics turns on itself, becoming an “anti-metaphysics” in at least two important threads in western intellectual and religious history). Just a few weeks ago I was arguing here that Dr. Carrie Frost’s anthropological and moral “absolute parity” concept was best understood as a Kantian framing of the situation (i.e. what antropos is and how we are “ethically” interrelated). Christian anthropology often shares features with other anthropologies (Kantian, etc.) but that does not mean they are the same. The modern moral consciousness of “Justice and Equality” is a many things (some good, some bad) but it is not something that can be imported into our ecclesiology willy-nilly or assumed as an unambiguous good.

        In this latest piece apparently co-authored by the St. Phoebe board, they are mostly focusing on, let us call it the “negative” argument where they claim there is no significant dogmatic, ecclesiological, or moral question involved – let’s do it because we can and it strikes us in our current cultural and ecclesiological situation as something we can do in should because…well this is when the vacillation starts and we are back to significant moral and anthropological claims about the nature of ministry/ordination, how sex (or “gender”) is related to ordination and (womens) salvation.

        By the way, the distinction between “nature” and “Person” is critical, is often “complicated” (though IMO not inherently – it’s just that the “Enlightenment” has left us so terribly confused), and definitely plays a central part in these modern anthropological issues (i.e. womens ordination, homsexualism, marriage, abortion, etc.)

        Met. Kallistos is of course a giant in english speaking Orthodoxy and needs no defending. This is not to say that he is always correct or that we will want to follow him on this issue. His position is actually more subtle, and in a sense more defensible, than anything I have seen from the St. Phoebe Center. If you *really* want to dive down the rabbit hole, you should get the first AND second editions of Hopko’s “Women and the Priesthood” and carefully read Met. Kallistos *changing* position from first edition to the second. He is of course a master at dialectical reasoning, but ask yourself “does his negations (of several usual “dogmatic” defenses of the all male priesthood) in the end lead us to a *positive* reform position?”

        1. Thanks so much for your reply, Christopher.
          25 years since you’ve read Ouspensky! That’s about how much time I’m looking at to catch up! But basically, in my understanding, he links this sophiology with the western influences that changed the landscape of Russian Orthodoxy beginning in the 16th-17th century. According to his view (as an iconographer), it came to a head when several icons were made depicting The Father in human form. It is here where he gets into the nature vs person issues. He also mentions Bulgakov’s followers and critics. Yes, it is good to take note of those people.
          Thanks for stating your focus on Christian anthropology and theology and its “alien influences”. I have surely noticed that in the past, but it, how do I say, “drives it home”, when you yourself lay it down. For instance, now that I looked up the word anthropos (which I understood as “human”), I found in Christian terminology it means Son of Man. And now I see the connection there with Christology. So it just helps me better understand some of the more “complex” responses regarding the issues we discuss here.
          No doubt I’ll have more questions in the future!
          I appreciate your thoughts on Met. Ware. I’d love to read both editions of Fr. Hopko’s “Women and the Priesthood”. We’ll see. My bookshelf is just stacked full! but I’ll keep that in mind.
          Thanks again Christopher for your time!

  4. Thank you for your explanations! I was at the 2017 conference and was appalled at the railroading of the deaconess agenda. Speaking as a woman (and a business owner, graduate degree holder, etc) I am thankful that the Church and her wisdom provide very different roles for the sexes.

  5. Paula,

    With regard to the criticisms of Met. Kallistos that you’ve heard, it might help to know that he, like the authors of the PO piece, has said that women’s ordination is “an open question.” He meant this in the sense that it has not been dogmatically settled (and I note that even canons are not dogma in the technical sense). In this respect both he and PO are TECHNICALLY correct.

    However, to speak in this way is highly misleading, whether purposeful or not.

    There are innumerable aspects of the received Tradition have never been dogmatized in any creed or ecumenical council.. Among these are the episcopate, the priesthood or any other clerical order, the manner of baptism, the Eucharist…and I could go on for many, many pages with other examples. (You get the idea.) Except for the most common pre-communion payer…“I believe also that this is truly Thy most pure Body, and that this is truly Thy most precious Blood…” (which also has not been dogmatized), when has any of us ever been required to confess a creed about such things as these, the denial of which would quite obviously exclude us from membership in the Body of the Church?

    Thus to state that aspects of the received Tradition are not settled because they have not been dogmatized is absurd and disingenuous in the extreme. If accepted as a premise it means that EVERYTHING not specifically stated in a creed or thoroughly defined in an ecumenical council is “an open question.”

    The very need for dogmatic definition is a measure of departure from Grace and the true knowledge of God. As strange as it may sound to those of us who live post-Nicaea, the fact that the dogmas in the Symbol of Faith (the Creed) needed to be defined at all represented something of a scandal for the Church. Prior to the need for creeds Christians knew ABOUT God and what He desired of them because they KNEW God in union with the Person of His Son in His Church. The fact that some who claim to be Orthodox Christians find their theological foundation in the sort of technical and academic ‘theology’ (so-called) that requires definition and dissection rather than in the true theology that is the knowledge of God Himself in His Church is scandalous to Christianity. It is as heartbreaking and absurd as it would be if a man viewed marriage in technical and academic terms rather than as communion and knowledge of the other through love and couldn’t even recognize his own wife apart from defining her.

    In any case, it would not be ENTIRELY fair to take Met. Kallistos’s words as advocacy. He, in fact, advocates caution. It would, however, be more than fair to say that his…let’s call it…equivocation on this matter, coupled with the respect he enjoys among Orthodox Christians, leaves far too wide an opening into which the Progressive-minded are quick to insert a crowbar so their own agendas can be pursued with an apparent degree of legitimacy. My own opinion, for what little it is worth, is that his equivocation is tantamount to advocacy in that, short of dogmatic definition which can only occur in an ecumenical council, it is a received tradition he is willing to question – and this in spite of the mind of the Church, the received tradition, and the overwhelming evidence in his own country that these things always lead to apostasy.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comments. My own personal opinion is that His Eminence has outlived his “best before date”. Perhaps it is the decades he has spent in the world of Academia, where pretty much all questions are open ones and everything is on the table. Making this an open question is a species of capitulation. If someone said that the question of the legitimacy of homosexual activity was an open one but that one must proceed with caution, he or she would rightly be recognized as part of the problem. Where a truth has been so plainly stated and accepted for so long, declaring this question an open one is in itself a kind of apostasy.

      1. Fr Lawrence, did you just call Metr Kallistos Ware “expired”? And/or are you suggesting that spending (too much) time in the academia is bad to one’s faith and spiritual life? On the same logic – is questioning one’s own faith an unhealthy spiritual process?

        1. Yes, I did suggest that His Eminence has spent too much time in the world of Academia and that such an environment can be bad for one’s faith and spiritual life. Note: it doesn’t have to have such an effect, but the fact that theological liberalism seems to always have its root and source in the world of Academia is not without significance. One is of course free to question one’s faith–or anything else. But the Church’s task as Church is not to question its apostolic faith, but to proclaim it. I may question (for example) the divinity of Christ, but integrity would compel me to step back from public ministry until the doubt was resolved.

          1. Dear Fr Lawrence, we definitely disagree on much of what you just wrote (wow!) So: Pray for me and I’ll pray for you. May God guide us both to His Wisdom!

          2. Dear Fr. Andrew: Thank you, dear brother, for disagreeing in such a kind and irenic spirit! Let us indeed pray for each other. May the Lord bless you in your ministry and grant you joy, health, and many years!

          3. “One is of course free to question one’s faith–or anything else. But the Church’s task as Church is not to question its apostolic faith, but to proclaim it. I may question (for example) the divinity of Christ, but integrity would compel me to step back from public ministry until the doubt was resolved.” Well said Fr. Farley! If only more people would have the integrity to do the same, instead of changing the faith to fit their image, as seen in Western circles.

    2. Thank you Brian. I had my own definition of dogma, which I thought was the Creed plus all the things (and more) you say are not dogma. Now that I have that straight, I understand your points completely and agree that the Metropolitan is at least equivocating. It reminds me of when I’d ask my father for permission for something and he’d respond “we’ll see”. I was always glad to hear that because I knew that meant, in the long run, I was going to get what I wanted. If he would’ve said “no”, that would’ve been the end of the discussion. But that is not how it works in the Church, is it. If you would, please explain how this “conciliar process” works in “real life”. (I ask you or Father Lawrence) How I understand it is that a decision does not come from the top down, but must be agreed by all (?) bishops (who are our voice too). If so, what happens if a decision is made and not all churches are in agreement and refuse to concede? where some would have female deacons and some not. And wasn’t a decision already made in some churches, like in Africa, that is, they have female deacons, yet we are still deciding if we should? I am not clear on this. Bottom line, if this decision goes forward, it is most likely going to cause a big rift in the Church, isn’t it? just like what occurred in the Episcopal Church…
      Another question. St. Phoebe’s, as proponents, have their own website. Do those who are in opposition have a website as well, beside the one where we signed that petition?

  6. Thank you, Fr. Lawrence, for offering another interpretation of the ancient text. One of my concerns is that we have saints as part of our company, and some of those are deaconesses. They never left the Church. When people who are actually quite conservative and reasoning from the tradition look at the pastoral needs of our day and wonder if perhaps reviving the order of deaconess could be part of the Church’s response, that doesn’t mean they’re trying to be thwart Church order. It seems that there’s a strong desire for order in ministries that are emerging. They’re likely seeing the growing edges of the Church, such as the need for a great deal more catechesis, prison ministry, helping to heal domestic violence victims, bringing in women whose only experience in their prior faith life was gender segregated, and special needs ministries where women make up a staggering majority of professionals, and they want to see these ministries put in proper order under the priest and bishop. It’s actually a conservative goal to desire proper order.
    Because men typically are put onto a diaconate track that could lead to priesthood, they’re unlikely to be permanently assigned to any of these ministries, all of which flourish under stable leadership. Women, precisely because they’re not priests nor can be priests, might be better suited to fill some of these ministry roles. But then, how are they to be overseen? Do we revive the ancient order of catechist or exorcist, or do we look at those icons of the holy deaconesses?
    In short, one can be conservative, not against patriarchy, not in favor of the possibility of women priests (even seeing that term as nonsensical), and still think that reviving the order of deaconesses is a possibility that might be fruitful for the Church to consider. For my part, I don’t know the solutions. But it does seem that the exodus out of the faith means that we’re not ministering enough to the formation of children and families or women. If deaconesses (however subordinated, whichever ages) are not the way to help address these needs systemically, I wonder what is?

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. My problem with the current proposal is that it is not motivated primarily by a concern for pastoral ministry, but by a desire to create women clergy. If the need is really just for more ministry, why not simply bless these women to minister in prison ministries, etc. and acknowledge their ministry as extensions of the parish? Why insist on ordination, vestments, titles, and a place in the altar? The fact that the St. Phoebe Center insists on the latter and not the former reveals that the primary need in their mind is the need of women to find validation through ordination. Also, I disagree that men are unlikely to be permanently assigned to such ministries. We have three deacons in my own parish who are precisely filling such roles.

      1. Thank you, Fr. Lawrence. I see your point about the focus on the clerical prerogatives. It does seem to draw focus away from the need for ministries. I had in my mind more of a Narthex deaconess when I was thinking about the question, rather than the Altar deaconess that the St. Phoebe article imagines. Someone to help bring others in and help secure them in the faith.

        The prevalence of deacons varies widely across jurisdictions, it seems. We have only 2 deacons among all 5 Orthodox churches over 3 jurisdictions in my area. Perhaps those differences also color people’s views.

        1. The scarcity of deacons in North American Orthodoxy is indeed very sad. I suspect it is rooted in the almost-total reduction of Orthodox ministry to the liturgical cult, but it would be good to get other viewpoints on the cause of the scarcity here. The liturgical service can be done without a deacon (with the priest taking the deacon’s role), so why have a deacon? The deacon’s classic tasks of service to the poor (i.e. diakonia) seem often to be ignored by our churches: we have beautiful liturgies, so who needs soup kitchens? The topic is very big, and I would love to hear other points of view and others’ experiences.

          1. We are all a royal priesthood, and one does not need to be ordained in order to minister to the classic needs of the people. Everyone in the congregation can do so. That is something that needs to be remembered in the move to create female clergy or some order. In our Antiochian parish we have 3 deacons so far. As we are newer in our parish, I am not certain of their non-liturgical activities. Just as you said, any parishioner can minister, and they do, without ordination. Thank you for the great information in your blog.

          2. Yes, and this is one of my main objections to the feminist obsession with the ordination of women–it feeds into clericalism, of which we already have too much in our Orthodox Church. Talk about “empowering women” by ordaining them presupposes that ordination is about power, when in fact it is about service. It equates ministry with ordained ministry, to the devaluation of baptism.

  7. A remarkable young women (20 years of age) was Chrismated in our parish two weeks ago. Typical Protestant background, goes to Georgia (the country) as part of a program related to her nursing training, encounters the Church, comes home and wonders in the wilderness for a short while, discovers our little mission parish, etc. In a discussion with her this Sunday after liturgy she mentioned that she is troubled by the fact that Mount Athos does not allow women, but comforted that Orthodoxy has female icons (I am summarizing for brevity).

    There are many ways to think about this of course. When I think of Mount Athos, and its relationship to the world and its important coming and goings such as the sacred quest for Justice and Equality, I see just how insignificant it is. A tiny “peninsula”, in a tiny insignificant country. A collection of 1800 or so monks and hired helped, among a world of 7.4 billion. A tiny outpost of something non-modern and ancient in a giant see of Progress. In what way is it even worth the slightest thought? The modern world is a very *moral* one, and it tolerates very little if any dissent. As Dr. Carrie Frost put it in an article published at Public Orthodoxy shortly before the one under discussion here, the desire for “absolute parity” is, well in a word absolute. It is all encompassing, and even a small slice of the world deprived of the absolute good (or is it god?) of Justice and Equality is a world impoverished and incomplete. Not only this, but the existence of this incongruity is a stumbling block because it calls into question how Christianity is perhaps not perfected or is somehow incomplete.

    Orthodoxy is not without its comforts however and seems to be willing to accommodate if not acquiesce to the moral demands of “absolute parity” on the local level. There are those in our parish who have out of conscious made sure there is a an (approximate) quantitative leveling – an equality of representation of the Saints of Heaven , at least as far as these Saints sex is concerned. That *is* one of the more interesting features of the modern moral landscape is it not? On the one hand, sex/race/class/gender/talent is to be overcome in an “absolute” moral “parity”, and on the other hand the verification of this achievement can only be measured by a crude quantifying and consideration of the very division the morality is instructing us to overcome – a calculus & judgement (modernism’ Judgement?) of the absolute, the careful categorization of distinctions that are then morally leveled, only to be separated again for inspection (and again and again – or as Kierkegaard put it “When ideality and reality touch each other then repetition appears”).

    There is hope however. When the conversation had shifted its focus, this young women noted how “the ground is cursed” (Gen 3:17). Indeed, a mere creature (made by the Lord – the One, and only, Absolute), who eats of the *knowledge* of good and evil, and there are consequences: a curse, pain, death, uncertainty in all things including the Law of God and morality, prophets, an Incarnation, a Cross, an ascension, and behind the veil and a dark glass a Resurrection and a Second Coming, a Judgement, and then Heaven itself. Instead of the cramped confines of Modernism’s dialectic of categorical morality, we have a *story* from He who is the beginning and end of all stories. Instead of the Law of repetitions, He gives us parables of a Kingdom which “is like a seed” (Mark 26-29) and we know not how. A seed *grows*, transformed from its small, cramped beginnings into something ever reaching out.

    My prayer is with this young women and all women and men in our churches, the Church of God, who being in the grip of a repetition are *being converted* into the Story of our Salvation, the Story of the Lover and His lost beloved, found, and transformed into an eternal space of Righteousness…

    1. ” …the careful categorization of distinctions that are then morally leveled, only to be separated again for inspection (and again and again)…”
      Reminds me of Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”.
      A great and somber reflection, Christopher. And prayer too.

  8. Paula,

    I smiled to myself when I read your question asking how the conciliar process is supposed to work. Not that there is anything at all silly about the question. I’d prefer to give way to Father Laurence and let him answer.

    I smiled because I truly wonder if it can work at all in these times– and not because there is anything wrong with the process as it is supposed to be. It has more to do with the increasing unwillingness to follow the process. It is yet another received Tradition that some seem to think can be ignored without consequence. What happened in Crete was a good example of how it is NOT supposed to work. Part of the process is that every bishop gets a voice. It didn’t happen…not even close. Although something of an agenda may be set prior, the outcome cannot. Again, it didn’t happen. Almost everything was decided by a very few before it even began. Some patriarchates viewed the pre-conciliar process as so corrupt that they refused to come at all. Whether that is entirely a good or a bad thing I cannot say. So many faithful were praying for it that I trust that in the end it was a good thing.

    The schism and apostasy of which you spoke is not only likely at some point, it has been prophesied from the beginning. I’m not even sure it would be accurate to call it schism. I think of it more as pruning, an unveiling of what has long been hidden. We are probably witnessing only the beginning. It will be unsettling. Some who had faith in the ‘glorious and perfect’ Orthodox Church will be scandalized. Others will rejoice that their church finally “came around” and caught up with the times. Still others will remain faithful and weep for their former brethren. The Church herself will stand until the end of the age, but precisely where she will be found will doubtless be confusing. One Saint whose name I cannot recall when speaking of these times said that one who holds to his faith in those days is greater than he who raises the dead.

    I do not hope for any of this, and I pray that my children and grandchildren will be spared from evil times; but in a paradoxical way I find comfort in knowing that our God and Savior, as well as His Apostles, foresaw them and warned that we not be scandalized by them or think that somehow He is not in full control of history – just as He was when He was being crucified.

    “But take heed. Behold, I have told you beforehand.”

    May I add something? And I mean it as affirmation and encouragement. Clearly you want to learn more about your faith, and that is never a bad thing. Knowledge is good. But when I sense the faithful heart reflected in your words both here and on other blogs, I am reminded of…

    “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.”


    “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

    No amount of head knowledge can ever exceed the greater knowledge you have already been given. Glory to Jesus Christ!

  9. I think the main problem in our “secularized world,” is the fact that women are still not taken as seriously as men–business world, secular careers, etc. Equality in the Western Churches is seen in the Ordination of women (Protestant, Anglican, Reformed Judiasm). It is a sad thing in our Orthodoxy Churches worldwide that women theologians — those who have earned Master of Divinity Degrees, and Ph.D’s in Theology, etc have to earn their income from Colleges and Universities in other realms–Catholic Universities, etc and not in Orthodoxy Seminaries. This is one main loss of talents and gifts that the Orthodoxy Church is not using. Women Choir directors in some places are not given the respect and honor which they are due, as some women who serve their parishes in authority roles such as on the Church Council. When parishes and dioceses only look at the Liturgical Function of the parish it sees only the Liturgical Services and the hierarchy of ordained Deacons, and Priests, which are paid functions (may be Deacons are given a salary/stipend). The Orthodox Church in the United States has been a presence for a short period of time. There is a need for women to minister to women; especially in nursing homes, hospitals, cancer centers etc. What about anointing chrism with liturgical service of women who have breast cancer, colon cancer, uterine cancer (certainly a male priest and male deacon cannot anoint a women in these areas of her body without causing scandal). I believe that women deaconness could and should be used by the 21C Orthodox Church.

    1. Two brief words of reply to your far-ranging comment.
      Part of the problem with theological feminism is that, as in your comment, women’s roles in the churches are viewed according to the same secular paradigm as women’s roles in society. In other words, the secular categories of power that apply in the world are also applied in the Church, so that ordained ministry is viewed as just another career. This is a form of secularization.
      Also, there is no reason why women from the parish could not anoint sick women in cancer wards with blessed oil as part of their hospital visitation under the general supervision of the priest. But ordination is not required for this. “Women in ministry” does not equal “ordained women”.

  10. “I must be very clear why I have some misgivings about Dr. Ladouceur’s theologoumena, as I do also with Protodeacon Mitchell’s theologoumena (posted on Fr. Jacobse’s website with Fr. Jacobse’s petition against deaconesses). I believe both that there is no place for women deacons in Orthodoxy, but not that deaconesses should necessarily be ‘stifled’. I find that of all the inquiries into the matter, yours seems the more prayerful (Orthopraxic) and theologically (Orthodoxic) complete. So I should like, if you would not mind, to add some support to your views.

    From my lowly perspective, I perceive that each side in their effort to promote a heavenly state within the Sanctuary (cf. Gal 3:28) do so with spiritually myopic vision.
    First. Both sides approach the issue of women deacons and deaconesses as if they were identical vocations, and they are not, because there are distinct theologies invested in and behind each construct. Woman-deacon or female-deacon is, whether admitted to or not, Marxist-influenced, as are many of the ‘social rights’ issues in Westernism. Deaconess has a whole historical value, which as you point out, is sometimes cherry picked – whether pro or con we take what supports our cause and ignore, with impunity, the remainder.

    Second. Neither side of theologoumena considers the notion – which you do – but which the majority of loud voices do not – of ‘complimentarity’ among the sexes, and in particular the complimentarity vs. identicality of deacons (male) and deaconesses (female) as they existed in the Early Church, and where deacons and deaconesses have existed since.

    Third. Frighteningly, both sides in the ethernet/internet debate most often take a Romanish stance of ‘developmental’ theology. Those promoting women-deacons generally maintain a non-Orthodox theological vision that ‘additions’ may be ‘grafted onto’ Tradition and passages of Scripture may be ‘reinterpreted’ or ‘nullified’, so that new dogmas are crafted even though we are warned not to accept any novel Gospel even if brought by an Angel (Gal 1:8). As to the side which argues against deaconesses, quite often there is, too, a parallel “developmental theology’ which presents itself, though, in an inverse way: which is to say, this group reinterprets Tradition with white wash all over it. The fallen history of Orthodoxy is triumphalized so that the sinful ‘stifling’ of the Spirit (1 Thess 5: 19-22) and the culling of [cutting back on] Tradition (cf. Lk 18:8) is idealized by florilegia – the sins of our fathers are Tradition. In the end, those who blatantly oppose deaconesses fail mightily at an honest look at the Church as continually being broken [and pieces being purposely mislaid] due to a generations and generations of Orthodox missing the mark.

    We must be careful to not judge certain ‘charismata’ and ‘sacraments’ as unnecessary to the Church (Protodeacon Mitchell/Fr. Jacobse) because they are not simultaneously manifested everywhere in the universal Church, as if the arms must sprout eyes because the face has two. While the fundamental mysteries are evenly spread, one does not find deacons everywhere and every time; fools everywhere and every time; thaumaturgists everywhere and every time; prophets and prophetesses everywhere and every time; staretzs and staretzas everywhere and every time; beardless monks everywhere and every time, and so forth. Hesychasm is not evenly received or advocated throughout Orthodox monasticism, and conversely cenobism is not either – and worldwide there is a contention between monasticism and clericalism, that the laity believe they must only seek Confession and Absolution in all instances from a priest. The Holy Spirit blows where He wills (cf. Jn 3:8) – and too – the Light shines in the darkness but it often fails to comprehend It (cf. Jn 1:5).

    So there is a middle position – a narrow road (cf. Mt 7:14) which the some – if I am reading you correctly Father, which you have found, as have others who still find – which can see, understand, utilize and support deaconesses, with a proper understanding, and under the proper conditions.

    Supporting or re-opening the door to deaconesses takes much prayer, and a decolonization of Marxist-based theologies festering in the West. Deaconesses cannot be arbitrarily ‘re-established’ – like Rome reinventing the Mass by cut-and-paste intellectualism and foisting it on the people – for whatever you dare to call it, such a ‘re-establishment’ would be nothing less than an ‘innovation’ or ‘renovation’ – a Trojan horse. Instead deaconesses, where they have fallen by the wayside, must arise organically in a synergistic response to the impulse of Grace. And while some of the externals will naturally be acculturated, the essence must always remain the same as given to our spiritual fathers and mothers. There are no new revelations. There is nothing new under the Son/sun, and what was will be again. (cf. Eccl 1:9) And we are reminded in Gal 1: 7: “There is no other ‘Good News!’ (EOB)

    Blessed be Saint Nectarios who tonsured a deaconess, according to the Tradition of the Church – neither adding to nor departing therefore. Praise God in His saints!

    1. Just one brief comment by way of reply: actually, unlike deaconesses, one does find deacons everywhere and every time. From the days of the apostles until now, the church has always had the office of (male) deacons. The comparison of deacons with beardless monks is hardly apt.

      1. Dear Father Lawrence – I will make a few points more direct which might be helpful. The reason for my writing was to be supportive of your position, looking I might add through the same glasses I thought, but maybe I hadn’t…

        I thought the issue on the universality of deacons was obvious. It is obvious to me: I leave the kellion assigned to me in our hesychasterion and go to a typical Toronto Orthodox parish and what do I see when I look around? In the vast majority of instances, no (male) deacon. Show me every gathering for the Holy Mysteries which has a (male) deacon – that was my point – they are not universal in that sense – and in that sense they are not even required for ‘Church’ to exist on a local or regional level. They may exist in every jurisdiction (at least until tonsured as a priest), but that was not the point being made: the point made was dual:they are not deemed ‘necessary’ for a Divine Liturgy or a liturgical community to exist; and are not, therefore, all-pervasive/all-systemic in the Orthodox Church, even if they are (at least until the deacon is tonsured a priest) in every jurisdiction. And I am well aware that some locales and regions and even jurisdictions follow the Roman practice of ‘transitional diaconate’ and thereby denigrate the diaconate – which makes one question is there denigration behind the infrequency of deaconesses? So I must continue to insist: the only comparison which can be made with deaconesses in this regard – is that while both deacons and deaconesses are not necessary for the Divine Liturgy or a liturgical community to exist, and both are not and have not always been present in every part of the Church at every time as permanent deacons alongside deaconesses – deacons have been more prevalent, when and where they do exist in the fullness of the diaconate, than deaconesses, overall in the Church. I hope this is more clear.

        And while I’m at it, clergy are not necessary for monastic communities to exist at all. And while the a large number of the Fathers opine that ‘Church’ requires a bishop – “where the bishop/overeer is, there is the Church” – the Church throughout the ages – particularly during the Arian period, and most recently the Soviet period, has shown us that ‘Church’ exists where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name. (cf. Mt 18:20) – and Jesus has always been the loudest in maintaining that what we deem ‘Church’ when He returns may simply be scattered disjointed ‘shadows of a Church’. (cf. Lk 18:8)

        Now as to beardless monks. The dual point – I also thought, but may have been mistaken – was a simple one as well. It is a rarified vocation. The Church has acknowledge it to have value – and sometimes continues to do so. Simple. Typically they have continued with breaks here and there in the Oriental Orthodox, but during the Soviet period there are solid rumours that some ‘secret nuns’ were actually ‘secret monks’ – belonging to male communities according to the principle of Divine economia. One might look at St. Mary of Egypt in this regard, given that she lived ‘among’ male monastics for 30 some odd years hidden away, and using her hair as her habit. And I would be the last person to suggest in any theologoumena even, that St. Mary of Egypt is or was unnecessary to the Church. Romania has ‘reinstituted’ the vocation of stylite….simply, now mentioned in a meandering transitional manner to the more personal…

        Finishing on a personal note, my mother, the former Roman Catholic Sr. Marie Therese of the Sacred Heart (a Beata by special dispensation) passed onto eternal memory in preparation for her tonsure to the Order of Widow in the OCA. She was interred as Widow Fleurette (after Theotokos Unfading Rose). As a Beata she went to study, one might say, among the Visitandines ( a monastic community designed for widows). There she was a postulant choir nun, and also atypical, she was also a ‘blessed sacristan’. When she returned to the Carmelite Order she resumed her vocation as a Beata, with a dispensation to live more like a Widow, in that after keeping Vigils alone, and taking a few hours of sleep, would tend to the indigent, or counsel abused women in marriages. Even prostitutes would knock at her door in the evening before ‘going to work’, asking her to light candles for their safety (she prayed, as she told me, less for their safe physical return and more for their return to God but never judging them). Who showed up at her first funeral? (She was given an extraordinary grace of two funerals, and following those, a separate internment.) Her relations – except me – no – they were too embarassed by how she lived. They thought of her as a disgrace. Her neighbors – for the most part, also the same. Who came up to me during the first funeral – prostitutes, asking for her candles so they could light them asking God’s mercy upon them thru her intercession.

        1. Thank you for your comments. My point was not that every parish today has a deacon (though I agree that they should have) but that deacons always existed in the Church whereas deaconesses did not.

          1. Then we agree, although we have worded things differently. God bless you Father in all your good works, and in this holy ministry of your blog bringing the Light of Christ to the ether world.

            A minor clarification regarding Widow Fleurette – her first funeral was Greek Orthodox, in the US; her second was OCA, in Canada.

            your blessing/my blessing, Father.

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