The Revival of the Order of Deaconess by the Patriarchate of Alexandria
The Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES) has recently published the Proceedings of its international conference on “Deaconesses, the Ordination of Women and Orthodox Theology”, both its English version and the Greek version.
The book is dedicated to the Patriarch of Alexandria, for his decision to revive the order of Deaconesses, and it was presented to him in the margin of this year’s conference of Orthodox spirituality in Bose Monastery, Italy. The Patriarch expressed his thanks and requested the Orthodox theologians to continue to support his mission.
In the meantime, a “Response to Monastic Objections by a Deacon of the Orthodox Church” was circulated, after its author read a letter from an Orthodox monastery that objects to the decision of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria to revive the order of deaconesses a year ago. The letter ended as follows: “In my humble opinion, as a deacon of over three decades, the setting and situation experienced in the missionary Church of Alexandria is arguably the most appropriate and providential context for instituting women readers and restoring women deacons. This would not necessarily create a new tradition or institution (θεσμός) in the Church, as critics maintain. It would actually serve as the application of hierarchal discernment and dispensation in specific missionary circumstances where the Church faces pressing challenges and unconventional needs. And that is surely the most justifiable and just response to the Christian Gospel”. There were also rumors that some missionary agencies, probably related to that monastic community, have even threated to stop supporting the African missions!
As a result, nine of the most prominent Orthodox liturgists (Emeritus Professor Evangelos Theodorou, of the Theological School of the University of Athens, Alkiviadis Calivas, Emeritus Professor of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Paul Meyendorff, Emeritus Professor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, George Filias, Professor of the Theological School of the University of Athens, Panagiotis Skaltsis, Professor of Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki, Stelyios S. Muksuris, Professor of the Byzantine Catholic Seminary, Nicholas Denysenko, Jochum Professor and Chair of Valparaiso University, Phillip Zymaris, Professor of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and John Klentos, Professor of Graduate Theological Union), issued the following statement, which was sent on October 18, 2017 (originally published here).
STATEMENT OF SUPPORT FOR THE REVIVAL OF THE ORDER OF DEACONESS BY THE PATRIARCHATE OF ALEXANDRIA
It has come to our attention that the venerable Patriarchate of Alexandria, after due consideration, has decided to reinstitute the ancient order of deaconess, in order to better serve the pastoral needs of the ever-increasing number of missionary parishes within the Patriarchate which serves the entire continent of Africa. The validity of this decision, however, has been questioned by some.
We the undersigned, active and emeriti professors of liturgics and liturgical theology at various theological schools and seminaries in Greece and the United States of America, wish to express respectfully our support of His Beatitude Patriarch Theodoros and the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in their effort to restore in a timely fashion the order of deaconess within the borders of the Patriarchate.
The historical, theological, canonical, and liturgical validity of the order of deaconess has been attested to time and again in recent years by Orthodox scholars and theologians. Although the order of deaconess gradually fell into decline by the end of the fifteenth century, it survived among the Oriental Orthodox Churches and in some monastic communities. The Russian Orthodox Church before the 1917 Revolution and again in more recent times has considered restoring it. Likewise St. Nektarios and other contemporary Greek bishops have ordained deaconesses. In fact, the Church of Greece established a School of Deaconesses, which in the end developed into a school for social workers.
The reinstitution of the female diaconate does not constitute an innovation, as some would have us believe, but the revitalization of a once functional, vibrant, and effectual ministry in order to provide the opportunity for qualified women to offer in our era their unique and specific gifts in the service of God’s people as publicly commissioned and authorized educators, evangelists, preachers, counselors, social workers, et.al.
Initially, the liturgical role of the female diaconate, according to the sources, appears to have been limited. These same sources provide us with the rite of ordination of a female deacon, which is strikingly similar to that of the male deacon. Significantly, the liturgical vestments are the same as those of the male deacon’s. The decision as to whether or not women deacons will perform added liturgical functions in our times, as one theologian puts it, “remains exclusively the prerogative of bishops in synod.”
Indeed, the very process of restoring the female diaconate requires careful consideration of several other factors as well, including the adequate preparation and education of the people who will be called upon to receive, honor, and respect the deaconesses assigned to their parishes. Also crucial to the process of restoration is to carefully articulate the qualities and qualifications of the candidates for the office. St. Paul in his Pastoral Epistles provides guidance as to the qualities required of the candidate. The canons tell us of some qualifications, such as the minimum age of the candidate. However, nothing is said of other qualifications such as the education and marital status of the candidate. These and other matters, including the public attire, remuneration, and the method of assignment and removal of the deaconess, must also be addressed. Above all, the process requires that the role and functions of the deaconess be identified, properly defined, and clearly stated.
Talk of the restoration of the order of female deacons has been with us for several decades. In fact, one of the conclusions (VIII) of the Inter-Orthodox Symposium, “The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church” which was held on the Island of Rhodes in 1988, addressed this very issue. It bears repeating parts of the conclusion: “The apostolic order of deaconesses should be revived…The revival of this ancient order should be envisaged on the basis of the ancient prototypes testified in many sources…Such a revival would represent a positive response to many of the needs and demands of the contemporary world in many spheres…and in response to the increasing specific needs of our time…The revival of women deacons in the Orthodox Church would emphasize in a special way the dignity of woman and give recognition to her contribution to the work of the Church as a whole.”
Generally speaking, it is safe to say that only doctrinal impediments and commonly accepted authoritative precedents would preclude an autocephalous Church from enacting liturgical reforms within its borders. Liturgical and canonical issues that have implications beyond the local church are generally resolved through a consensus of the autocephalous churches. The restoration of the female diaconate is such that neither doctrinal issues nor authoritative precedents are at stake. It is refreshing to know that a local Church has taken up the challenge, has studied the matter carefully, and is proposing measures for the implementation of a significant reform, the restoration of the order of deaconess, through a prudently conceived program.
In light of this, we respectfully support the decision of the Patriarchate of Alexandria to restore the female diaconate, thus giving flesh to an idea that has been discussed and studied by pastors and theologians for decades.
Petros Vassiliadis is an emeritus professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Thessaloniki and president of the Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES).
*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.