A Dialogue on the Mission of St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess
These essays are part of a series on the diaconate in the Orthodox Church derived from talks delivered at the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess “Renewing the Male and Female Diaconate in the Orthodox Church Conference” in Irvine, California in October 2017.
Diaconal Service in Church Administration and Governance
Rev. Protodeacon Peter Danilchick
I have been privileged to serve for the past 42 years in the holy diaconate in Christ. For the deacon, to live is to serve and to serve is to live. This living and serving is, however, not for oneself—it is for the Church, the Body of Christ.
When we think about governance, we might imagine a board, like a parish or diocesan council, meeting in a conference room, making “big decisions.” Well, governance, properly understood, is far more intimate and grassroots than that.
The icon of governance in the Church is the episcopate. In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the word episkopous to refer to the overseers of the flock, who also serve as guardians and stewards. The image of the Good Shepherd immediately springs to mind, the one whose sheep know his name and the one who seeks after the lost and lonely ones.
But how do deacons fit into the governance structure?
Many deacons are employed in “secular” work areas which can be of benefit in parish and church administration. They can be of significant assistance to the bishops, especially in bringing their specialist expertise to bear upon his problems. In addition, since they are normally not compensated for their work, they are capable of speaking truth to power, in love, and not be afraid. They work in a spirit of true sacrifice and service, in both church and charitable activities.
I would emphasize that a servant of Christ, a true deacon in Christ, does not have to be a Deacon with a capital “D.” We are all deacons by virtue of our baptism and chrismation, just as we are all members of the royal priesthood, if we serve others in the spirit of Christ.
St. Ignatius of Antioch called his deacons “my favorites—entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ.” He said of one of them, “my fellow slave, the deacon Zotion….I am delighted with him, because he submits to the bishop as to God’s grace” (Letter to the Magnesians). Sometimes, modern-day Christians recoil at the very mention of submission, but the Martyr’s words simply echo St Paul’s when the Apostle said “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Practically, what does this submission mean? St. Ignatius goes on to say quite explicitly: “The Lord Jesus did nothing without the Father, because he was one with him, so you must not do anything without the bishop and presbyters. Do not, moreover, try to convince yourself that anything done on your own is commendable. Only what you do together is right.”
Proper governance in the Church requires both responsible hierarchical authority and collaboration among all. St. Cyprian of Carthage said: “The Church is a people united with its sacred bishop and a flock which stands behind its own shepherd. The bishop is in the Church and the Church is in the bishop; if anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church” (Epistle to Puppianus).
Everyone needs a supervisor. We need the blessing of the bishop.
When we are contemplating changes in the structure of the Church or considering issues which bear upon the theology of the Church, we need to have the explicit involvement of the bishop. In the specific question of re-institution of the order of female deacons, the bishop needs to be there for proper governance.
My recommendation to the board of St. Phoebe Center is this: seek the proper church governance structure for your organization. Place yourself under the hierarchical authority of a bishop, or, better yet, a synod of bishops.
The controversial aspects of the theological issues are precisely why further work must be under the omophorion of a governing bishop. You also owe it to the bishops who are responsible before God for you. Are we helping them? Do we proactively invite the bishops “inside” our own plans and dreams, hopes and fears? Or do we effectively exclude them, keeping them “outside” and isolated from us?
Regarding administration: the parallel Greek word economia means the building of a house, specifically the building of the house of the Lord. Construction must be done in a disciplined and careful way, built upon the proper foundation, with skillful workmanship, in a conciliar and collaborative manner.
The walls of the house must go up at the same time or else the building will collapse. The foundation must remain inviolate or else tremors will cause disaster. The problem is compounded when different architects emerge with different plans for that building. When they meet with their separate blueprints, egos may flare and the end may be worse than the beginning. What to do?
Enter the deacon and the example that he sets. The deacon images Christ as servant: the one of no reputation, emptying himself for others. He thus offers the example of humility in administration. In a corporate environment, the most effective leader is the one who serves others without regard to title or position, laying aside his own presuppositions in search for a common solution, shared values, and a unified vision.
Our church theology of community is that we are all one in Jesus Christ. This is critical. Any steps regarding controversial subjects such as the female diaconate need to be taken very carefully, in complete openness to others, and in complete humility.
And you need to consider what it is you want, really want, is it to be ordained, or is it purely to serve?
My recommendation: Offer to serve, in any way that you can, without expecting any consideration of your own desires regarding church organization and roles. Seek blessings for everything. Pray that the Lord’s will be done in you — to be a true servant of God, by virtue of your baptism and chrismation.
Reverend Protodeacon Peter Danilchick is a member of the Secretariat of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA. He is a deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.
The St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess: Thoughts on Our Mission
The Board of St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess: AnnMarie Mecera, President; Caren Stayer, Ph.D.; Gust Mecera; Teva Regule, Ph.D.; Carrie Frederick Frost, Ph.D.; Dr. Helen Theodoropolous, Ph.D.
The St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess was born out of a conversation among Orthodox Christian friends, who shared the belief that renewing the office of deaconess would build up the body of Christ. They were inspired by the 1988 conference “The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church” convened in Rhodes, Greece by Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I that reaffirmed the female diaconate and called for its reinstitution. In 2013, these friends decided to found an organization to highlight the history of the female diaconate and consider its future. In 2015, the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess officially incorporated and received IRS non-profit status.
Knowing that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware was receptive to the female diaconate, St. Phoebe Center President AnnMarie Mecera invited Met. Kallistos to be a member of the St. Phoebe Center Advisory Board and he accepted. Met. Kallistos is an enthusiastic supporter of the mission of the Center as he says in a video address offered at the recent St. Phoebe Center conference: “I consider that the work the St. Phoebe Society is doing is of great interest and value. I am fully in favor of the revival of the order of deaconesses.”
The founders of the St. Phoebe Center were aware that, to some, the issue of the female diaconate is controversial, and felt that it was not best to ask a bishop or a synod of bishops for an official blessing before the organization had a chance to demonstrate its mission. However, the St. Phoebe Center has been open with hierarchs about its work from its beginnings; for example, AnnMarie Mecera contacted her bishop, Bishop Paul (Gassios) of the Midwest (OCA), and explained the intentions and efforts of the St. Phoebe Center as it was being incorporated.
Furthermore, the St. Phoebe Center has engaged the Orthodox faithful, both clergy and laity, by establishing an informative website and organizing two public conferences, one in New York City in 2014 that was blessed by Bishop Alexander (Golitzin) of Toledo (OCA, then locum tenens of the Midwest) and another in California in 2017.
An entire session was dedicated to engaging bishops at this most recent conference, “Renewing the Male and Female Diaconate in the Orthodox Church” held in October 2017 at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California. His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos (Michaleas) of San Francisco (GOA) attended part of the conference. He thanked the St. Phoebe Center for coordinating the conference and welcomed conversation on the diaconate, saying, “The bishops of our Church are listening.” While recognizing this was not, of course, formal endorsement, we found his words and attendance encouraging.
The St. Phoebe Center will continue its mission to educate and engage on the topic of the female diaconate, including working specifically to engage and build constructive relationships with our hierarchy. Perhaps the time and the place will come when it is appropriate for one of our bishops or a synod of bishops to bring us under the shelter of his or their wings. As a group of faithful Orthodox Christians, we welcome conversation with all Orthodox faithful on how to best engage with this issue.
In the meantime, many Orthodox women continue to serve in ways traditionally associated with the diaconate: as chaplains, parish administrators, spiritual directors, servants to the poor and disenfranchised and homeless, educators, and so on. These women did not go into their field of service, their diakonia, out of a wish to be ordained—this is not available to them.
Yet, we at St. Phoebe Center know that ordination is important. We acknowledge that while the “royal priesthood of all believers” includes laity and clergy alike, and thus we are all servants of Christ, ordination has significance. The ancient rite for a female deacon prays, “Send down upon her the rich gift of your Holy Spirit. Preserve her in the Orthodox faith, that she may fulfill her ministry in blameless conduct according to what is well pleasing to you” (Barberini, 8th century). If there were no significance, no importance, no meaning to ordination, then there would be no ordained orders.
All are called to serve, but deacons are acknowledged as having a special and distinct ministry of expressing and exercising their royal priesthood in service to the Church and the world. If the Church were to again ordain women as deacons, they would be blessed with the authority and credibility that would enable them to expand their ministry; they would be held accountable to the Church (and specifically to their bishop) in their work; and they would be offered the support they need to serve with resilience.
More important than what ordination gives the deacon is what ordination gives to the Church: a particular and vital presence in the world. Expanding the diaconate to again include women would build the body of Christ in this suffering world that so clearly needs the healing that is made possible by Christian service and love.
The St. Phoebe Center will continue its mission, composed of faithful Orthodox Christian servants of God with great love for the Church, open to engagement with clergy and laity alike, in the hope that the Orthodox Church will see fit to rearticulate the ordained female diaconate for the twenty-first century.
We do so with the humble awareness that we know not what is to come in the life of the Church, but with the belief that given the events of 2017 alone—the consecration of deaconesses in Africa by the Synod of Alexandria and the statements of support of those consecrations, the efforts and the recent conference of our own organization, and the recent gathering at the Monastery of Bose at which the female diaconate was affirmed—the Holy Spirit appears to be at work.
AnnMarie Mecera is the President of St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess. She became passionate about the female diaconate after researching the topic for a paper she presented at the University of Leeds in 1998 and years of involvement in the Orthodox Church.
Caren Stayer, Ph.D. earned her doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Byzantine history and she teaches history and humanities in Columbus, Ohio.
Gust Mecera is a retired construction manager with the McDonald’s Corporation and is a passionate Orthodox Christian.
Teva Regule, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in liturgical theology at Boston College.
Carrie Frederick Frost, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at the University of Virginia and is a Professor of Theology at Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary.
Dr. Helen Theodoropolous, Ph.D. received a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and completed her doctorate in Theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is currently adjunct professor at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox School of Theology in Libertyville, IL and Lecturer at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/ Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.