On Deaconesses and Women’s Ordination: Fr. David Bissias replies to Valerie Karras

My thoughts below are in response to this fine review article by Fr. David Bissias directed at a recent screed article by Valerie Karras ostensibly seemingly to justify some form of women’s ordination.

I’ve read through Fr. David’s article, and now wish I had Karras’s as well. But in reality I don’t need it, for my thoughts are actually in response to Fr. David’s musings, and that in two regards. First, he quite nicely cites the difference that St. Maximus the Confessor makes between the distinction of the sexes and the division of the sexes: the first is created and natural, whereas the second arises from our Fall. Karras, according to Fr. David, seemingly sees this and then simply blurs these distinctions on distinction, seeing both dispensed with in the eschaton. Fr. David rightly points out that distinction in St. Maximus goes much deeper than this, and here is something that is radically important, especially in our modern world which likes to champion différence and its concomitant idea of “the Other.”

I am amazed at how many of my students, all who proclaim themselves Christians, fall into this language that when we make a critical evaluation of a person’s or group’s actions, opinions, ideas, thoughts, ideologies, or policies, we are making “other” of them. I almost think that they read Sartre’s No Exit every night at bed instead of their prayers (but alas, they’re mostly evangelicals, and they don’t read prayers). Sartre’s existentialism maps neatly onto the Marxist doctrine of alienation, and Rousseau’s idea (repeated in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau) that man’s breath is fatal to his fellow man. Camus in The Plague wrote that we all have plague (the disposition to tyranny), and the most virtuous of us are the ones who don’t breathe on other people.

But in Maximus and patristic thought, distinction is not opposition or division. This is the basis of his argument in his disputation with Pyrrhus that two distinct wills can exist side-by-side in Christ without opposition, and thus why we can have as Christians, wills that are not in opposition to God’s. Distinction does not necessitate division or opposition, and thus the distinction of male and female is not a result of the Fall, and will not thus vanish in the eschaton, even though things we think are so important to this distinction will. Thus, the distinctions in the Persons of the Trinity do not engender division, and nor does this mean that naturally for humans we are in opposition either. Fr. David calls attention to distinction being the basis of communion, and it should be noted as well, that distinction within one nature is as well the basis for our submission to one another as Christians, children to parents, wives to husbands, the younger to the elder, and lastly, though this works on a much more complex level, parishioners to priests. This attack on making distinctions leads to all sorts of trouble, and while Fr. David talks about it, it would have been good had he been far more explicit as to its source in modern atheistic thought.

Second, Fr. David never really talks about what deaconesses were, or why they ceased to function. This is a huge topic, and would have added a good bit of length to his essay. I shall try to be brief with just a few observations. The office of the female deacon was something practiced some places at some times by various regional churches, and in this regard, it never rose to St. Vincent of Lerins’ definition of tradition as that which is believed everywhere, at all times, by everyone. The practice was never known in Egypt and Ethiopia, and did not exist in the west until the fifth century at the earliest, and only then was something done for abbesses and older widows. Even here, it was clearly listed not as an ordination of consecration, but rather a blessing. It had died out by the end of the eleventh century.

Where it was practiced, in the eastern Empire, in Syria and Palestine, and in the east, Mesopotamia and Persia, its purposes varied. In the east it was to assist in the baptism of female adults, in the Empire it existed as an administrative office within communities of nuns, and was often exercised by women whose families were already active in the clergy. Some presbyteras were consecrated to this end. But what is clear in all of them was that, while in the Byzantine rite deaconesses were made within the altar area, this was done with the clear intention that they were not receiving an ordination as a female deacon. They did not place their heads on the altar as male deacons did, and they did not genuflect to one knee as the male deacons either (priests prostrated to both knees).

That they were not ordained to a sacerdotal role can be seen in one of the most well-known canons touching them, that of St. Basil, wherein he says that a deaconess who commits fornication shall be kept from communion for seven years before she is allowed back in to her function. The canon thus makes it clear that this is not an ordained post in that a priest or deacon caught in fornication were stripped of their ordination in perpetuity, but not excommunicated (they weren’t punished twice for their offense). Thus the order of deaconess was one of function, and not an office as that of deacon or priest. Fr. David is not very clear on this, and thus I thought something should be said about it.

I hope you all enjoy the article.


  1. Would you allow a comment from a member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of a Latin Catholic background?

    I have read Fr. Bissias’ article very quickly, and so my initial response must be taken FWIW, and it may not be worth much — and one must put aside for the nonce the fact that I agree with him in every particular as against Valerie Karras.

    There was an old “principle” called the “Praestantia Latni Ritus,” abandoned in the 1960s, which meant that the Roman Rite takes precedence over all other rites within the Catholic Church, which, among other things (I suppose) meant that when there is, or appears to be, an implicit (or explicit) contradiction between what is presupposed in the Roman Rite and that of other rites, the teaching of the Roman Rite prevails. Well, this article by Fr. Bissias seems to have an implicit presupposition of “Praestantia Byzantini Ritus” concerning the supposed existence of “woman deacons.” I will not argue the case here that the rite for the ordination of “deaconesses” (which Bissias always renders as “deacons”) in the Byzantine Rite does not necessarily mean that “deaconesses” are “female deacons;” Aime-Georges Martimort has argued, in his book *Deaconesses: An Historical Study* (1983) that case well (although Fr. Bissias, like so many Orthodox writers on the subject, passes over Martimort, one of the foremost French Patristic scholars of the last century, in silence, which is, I suppose, to be preferred to dismissing his views, in the manner of Kyriake Kydonis Fitzgerald, as “reflecting a Western phronema,” as though that were a substantive critique). One would have expected, though, some reflection on the fact, for it is a fact, that in the East Syriac tradition the rite for “making” a deaconess is quite dissimilar to that for ordaining a deacon, and that the rite itself makes it clear that a deaconess is not a “female deacon;” and that the same is true of the equivalent rites in those Western/Latin churches (not including the Roman Church, which never, ever, had deaconesses) that, all seemingly after the end of the Fourth Century, had something called “deaconesses” (who seem to have been particularly preeminent abbesses, usually of royal or noble stock). In that respect, I find Fr. Bissias’ response unsatisfactory, in that it makes unnecessary concessions to the advocates and proponents of “female deacons” in the Orthodox Church.

  2. Minor correction: The Island of Dr. Moreau was written by H.G. Wells, not Shaw.

Comments are closed.