When women were deacons
by John Wijngaards
The Tablet, 8 May 1999, p. 623-624.
Were women ordained as deacons in the early Church on the same basis as men? The director of the Housetop Centre in London, which specialises in Christian communication, believes he has proof that they were. If he is right, his discoveries have far-reaching implications for the ministry of women in today’s Church.
SO women deacons in the early Church had no part in the sacramental ministry, according to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos (The Tablet, 3/10 April, p. 500). His statement must have made the thousands of women deacons who faithfully served the Church in the past turn in their graves. For they were formidable women, if we are to go by the 28 tombstones on which some of them are commemorated. One was Athanasia in Delphi in the fifth century AD, who was ordained by Bishop Pantamianos. The stone carries a curse: “May anyone who disturbs the tomb in which this honoured and blameless deaconess lies buried receive the fate of Judas who betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Fifty years ago, church historians and theologians alike routinely dismissed the women’s diaconate as obviously a historical sop to women, “a blessing of some sort” or “just a minor order”, for the simple reason that a sacramental ordination of women seemed a priori excluded. But the historical facts are becoming clearer by the day, and this position is now untenable.
From the outset we should realise what is at stake. If, as the records show, women were for many centuries admitted to the full diaconate which is now only imparted to men, then they did receive the sacrament of “holy orders”. For this sacrament has three levels: episcopacy, priesthood and diaconate. Anyone who receives any of the three is consecrated to the ministerial priesthood, as the Council of Trent defined it.
But were women ordained as real deacons – into a sacramental diaconate “tied theologically to the Holy Spirit”, to borrow Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos’s words?
The answer lies in precious Greek and Syriac manuscripts concealed in dusty libraries, but now to be made accessible to all via the Internet (www.womenpriests.org). They contain ancient ordination rituals for male and female deacons, documenting the Church’s practice from the fourth to the eighth centuries AD, and confirming the oldest ordination prayers already found in the Apostolic Constitutions, a so-called fourth-century “church order” with regulations for discipline and liturgy.
A study of the documents shows that in the Church in the East, centuries before it split with the West, both men and women were admitted to the diaconate through a precisely equivalent sacramental ordination. Both were conducted into the sanctuary to face the bishop, who was seated before the altar. Both received the laying on of hands by the bishop, who invoked the Holy Spirit to impart the grace of the ministry of the diaconate, using identical words. Both were vested with a stole as a distinctive sign of their ministry. Both received Communion from the bishop and both were handed the chalice with the precious Blood. The impressive parallelism has recently caused the Orthodox theologian Evangelos Theodorou to join a number of Catholic theologians in declaring the diaconate of women to be as sacramental as that of men.
Perhaps we should go back to basics here. Sacraments are, by definition, sacred signs. In its long history the Church has come to accept two aspects of the “sign” in each sacrament: the matter (an object or an action) and the form (the words that are spoken). In baptism, the washing with water is the matter, the words “I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” are the form. These two elements make up the substance of the sacramental sign. Where we find them present, we know that the sacrament has been validly administered. And being precise in details here is no luxury, as the Catholic Church has always insisted.
In the case of Holy Orders, from time immemorial the imposition of hands has been considered as the “matter” of the sacrament, the invoking of the Spirit on the ordinand as the “form”. These constitute the essence of the sacramental sign, by which everyone knows that this person has been truly ordained.
Additional symbols are the conferring of the sacrament during the liturgy of Mass right in front of the altar, the laying on of the distinctive vestment and the handing over of an instrument of the ministry,such as a chalice. Through all these external signs the universal Church publicly imparts the sacrament of Holy Orders so that both the recipient and God’s people know the sacrament has been completed.
But if the Church ordained women deacons and male deacons with exactly the same sacramental signs, how could anyone say that one – the diaconate of men – is sacramental, and the other – that of women – is not? Do not the severe words of the Council of Trent apply here? “If anyone says that, through sacred ordination, the Holy Spirit is not given, and that therefore the bishop says in vain: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ . . . Let him be anathema” (constitution on Holy Orders, canon 4)
A typical ordination prayer for a woman deacon which the bishop would say from the fourth to the eighth centuries while laying on his hands runs, in abbreviated form, as follows: “Holy and omnipotent Lord, through the birth of your only Son from a virgin according to his human nature, you have sanctified the female sex. You grant not only to men, but also to women, the grace and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maidservant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate, and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit.”
The ordination prayer for male deacons given in the same documents mentioned earlier is almost entirely the same, culminating in the same dedicatory phrase and invocation of the Holy Spirit. In some longer prayers the bishop refers to the example of Stephen (Acts 6:5) for male deacons, to Phoebe “our sister”, who was “deacon of the Church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1), for women deacons.
Those who deny the sacramental character of the woman’s diaconate often point to the fact that in these early centuries it was normally male deacons who assisted at the altar and who helped in distributing Communion. “Men exercised a different kind of diaconate”, the objectors claim. “Men assisted at the Eucharist. Women did not.” Differences in the day-to-day division of work do not prove there was a separate diaconate, however. Many church officials in Rome, for example, have been ordained as bishops and archbishops for diplomatic reasons. They work mostly in administration. Does this make their ordination to the episcopate less valid than that of pastoral bishops?
It was pastoral prudence that inspired church leaders to employ women deacons differently. Women serving the bishop in the sanctuary, which was screened off from the people during the holiest of moments, might invite the suspicion of impropriety. Moreover, women also had to battle with the prejudice of presumed ritual uncleanness during their monthly periods. But it is wrong to infer from this that, therefore, a woman deacon was ordained to a lower form of diaconate than a man.
The ordination rite of the woman deacon itself contradicts this since she was handed a chalice, as the man was. Through the ordination prayers, women deacons, as much as their male colleagues, were dedicated to this “ministry” (the Greek word isleitourgia) in God’s Holy temple. Moreover, we know from local Syrian church laws that women deacons assisted at the altar when there were no male deacons, and that they took Communion to the sick.
The main function of the woman deacon was the pastoral care of women and here she held a parallel ministry to the male deacon, though usually under her colleague’s supervision. The woman deacon instructed women catechumens for baptism, either in the church or at home. During the baptismal ceremony itself she would anoint the bodies of women with the oil of the catechumenate, as the male deacon did for the men. In those days catechumens stripped naked and oil was rubbed over the whole body, front and back, on all the limbs, even between the fingers and toes, ‘leaving no part unanointed’, to quote an ancient rubric. Propriety demanded that a woman deacon performed this rite for a woman catechumen, after which she would lead her, still naked, into the font and submerge her three times, while the bishop spoke the baptismal form. Later texts suggest that the bishop himself may also have descended to the font and submerged the catechumen. In any case, it was the bishop who imposed the chrism after the catechumen had been dried by the woman deacon and vested in a white robe.
The diaconate of women faced tough opposition.in Latin-speaking regions, such as Italy, North Africa, Gaul and Britain. According to Roman law, which was adopted in essentials by the Church, women could not hold any public office. Also, the taboo of menstruation proved an enormous obstacle. In the West, the “woman’s diaconate” continued to exist until the early Middle Ages as a ‘blessing’ imparted to abbesses. It was but a feeble shadow of the real thing that had existed in the East.
History has left us ample records of the activity of genuine women deacons who flourished mainly in Greece, Asia Minor, Dalmatia, Syria and Palestine, from certainly the third to at least the eighth century until here too, as in the West, menstruation and other taboos eroded it. St Chrysostom at Constantinople had 40 women deacons attached to the basilica of Hagia Sophia, as wel1 as 100 male deacons. From the correspondence of the Fathers we know a good many by name: Salvina, to whom St Jerome wrote; Macrina, the sister of St Basil the Great; Anastasia, an assistant of Severus Bishop of Antioch. We also have many epigraphic inscriptions, such as that of Theodora in Gaul (sixth century) and Sophia in Jerusalem (fourth century): “Here lies the servant and Virgin of Christ, the deacon, the second Phoebe.”
So here we have proof that women were admitted to holy orders for centuries, under the sanction of ecumenical councils, producing ordained ministers who confirmed in their own person the equality of men and women in Christ. Is this not the true Tradition to which the Church should be faithful?
Read also the ‘Letters to the Editor’ in the Tablet responding to this article.