I watched with interest in August 2016 when Pope Francis made good on his promise to convene a commission to study the female diaconate. I was especially attentive to this development because I am a supporter of the renewal of the order of deaconesses in my own church—the Orthodox Church. Later last year I was astonished when one of the self-governing churches of the Orthodox world, Alexandria, decided to revive the female diaconate in Africa and proceeded to consecrate five women as deaconesses this past February. These moves by the Synod of Alexandria surprised those of us in the United States working on this issue—we did not know the female diaconate was even under consideration by the African church. Rarely does anything happen this fast in the Orthodox world.
That we were unaware of support for the female diaconate in Africa is evidence of two Orthodox realities. First, our church is fragmented: we do not yet have established international mechanisms for theologians and historians, or even hierarchs, to communicate with one another. Second, the autocephalous Orthodox churches throughout the world are self-governing, which means that any one of them could decide to revive the female diaconate tomorrow and ordain a deaconess the next day.
As my Catholic sisters and brothers await the report from Pope Francis’s commission, we in the Orthodox Church are waiting to learn more about the ministry of the new deaconesses in Africa. The Synod of Alexandria has not yet published an official description of their duties, but it has informally suggested that these women will assist with missionary work, such as catechism and baptism, as well as conducting services in mission parishes that have no regular priest. We are also waiting to see if another Orthodox church will follow in Alexandria’s footsteps, and to find out what the female diaconate will look like in other parts of the world.
We know at least one thing already: it will not be a novelty. There is ample evidence of a female diaconate through the twelfth century in the Orthodox Church—a fact of great importance in a tradition that zealously values precedent. From the third century on, there are several extant texts that include or mention ordination rites for deaconesses. From these texts, we know that deaconesses were ordained at the altar during the Divine Liturgy, that they received the Eucharist with the other ordained orders and had an orarion (deacon’s stole) placed over their necks, and that their bishop laid hands on them.
There are also ample records of women who were deaconesses in the Christian East, starting with Paul’s esteemed benefactor Saint Phoebe in the middle of the first century. (Though the term Saint Paul uses to describe her is somewhat ambiguous, the Orthodox Church has long presented Phoebe as a deaconess in its prayers, hymns, and iconography, which often shows her holding a diaconal censor.) We still have detailed records of some of these women: Saint Olympias, the friend and confidant of Saint John Chrysostom; Saint Nonna, the mother of Saint Gregory the Theologian; Saint Irene of Chrysovalantou, an abbess of the ninth century. At the height of the Byzantine Empire, one could find deaconesses in many places, including Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Thessalonica.The precise historical roles and responsibilities of deaconesses are less clear. The language of a surviving eighth-century ordination rite is broad: “Bestow the grace of your Holy Spirit also upon this your servant who desires to offer herself to you and fill her with the grace of the diaconate just as you gave the grace of your diaconate to Phoebe whom you called to the work of ministry.” Deaconesses were said to serve their bishops by being available for “many things,” as noted in the third-century Christian treatise, the Didascalia apostolorum. Surviving lists of their duties include: assisting with female baptism; administrative work, such as management of church properties; processing and chanting during liturgy; and many ministries to other women, such as catechetical instruction, spiritual advising, charitable care of widows, ministry to the ill, and bearing the Eucharist to the homebound. The job description of deaconesses changed according to time and place, adapting to new needs. But then, so did the job descriptions of deacons, priests, and bishops.