Challenges for Restoring the Byzantine Female Diaconate for Present Times

by Ashley Purpura

Pope Francis’s recent call for a commission to explore the possibility of reinstating the female diaconate in the Catholic Church resonates with over a century of similar calls among leaders and laity of the Orthodox Church. These calls for restoring the female diaconate within the Eastern Orthodox Church have been supported by prominent theologians and hierarchs. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I even stated in 1995 that, “There is no canonical difficulty in ordaining women as deacons in the Orthodox Church,” and in 1997, that the “order of ordained deaconesses is an undeniable part of tradition” and that “there are already a number of women who appear to be called to this ministry.”

Despite hierarchical endorsement, consensus of various international conferences, intermittent examples of elevating nuns to the rank of deacon over the past century, and attempts to form centers for training female candidates for the diaconate, no successful reinvigoration of the female diaconate has been sustained. Although there is Byzantine precedent for the female diaconate, concerns about women’s “roles” in the Church, prejudices against the female body in liturgical space, and ambiguity about how to apply historical tradition to the present day Church in a way that attends to women as full and equal members of the Body of Christ exist as subtle inhibitors of restoring this ministry.

Byzantine sources indicate the rite for making a female deacon was in fact “ordination,” and that female deacons received a stole and received Eucharist at the altar comparable to the male deacons. The female deacons assisted in the adult baptism and sacramental ministry of women in private. Sometimes, female deacons also were identified with keeping order on the women’s side of a church, chanting, held prominent monastic positions, and participated in processional roles. In general, they had limited public liturgical functions, and were usually required to be over the age of forty and celibate/virgins. While the ordination of female deacons has not been canonically prohibited, the order did diminish almost entirely excluding periodic exceptions within monasteries by the twelfth-century. It is unclear what led to this decline, but the increasing numbers of infant baptisms, and the development of restricting women’s liturgical participation during times of perceived “impurity” contributed.

Historically, the diaconate was not a stepping stone to the priesthood, but modern documents about the female diaconate are typically situated among conversations about the “role” of women in the church–both to affirm women do have opportunities for service in the church and (usually) deny any possibility of a female ordained priesthood. For this reason, there is some debate about “consecrating” instead of “ordaining” female deacons. Claims of iconicity, distinct “charisms” for men and women, typologically based orders of creation and redemption, and a lack of a female ordained priesthood in revelation/tradition are used to justify the continued exclusion of women from clerical ranks. An issue worth considering, however, is why is the thought of a female serving liturgically results in such heated debate. Perhaps the Church’s concerns about maintaining an exclusively male administration of sacramental authority is more charged by social/cultural values than theology.

The issue of maintaining or rejecting the Byzantine age requirements for female deacons and the necessity of celibacy/virginity which historically may have mediated cultural concerns about women’s sexuality also need to be interrogated for contemporary relevance. Despite episcopal and pastoral directives that have rejected practices of prohibiting a woman from receiving communion during menstruation, one only has to look at the prayers for a woman entering the Church forty days after childbirth to see there remains a liminality about female bodies in liturgical practice and space. The few twentieth-century Greek deaconesses all were within monasteries, but the possibility of non-monastic and married female deacons has been proposed. An opponent of this proposal exclaimed that it would be a scandal to even imagine maternity vestments. Perhaps the ridiculousness of the idea of a pregnant deacon is obvious to some, but instead of scandal perhaps one could see a Eucharistic icon, if such a deacon ever were to be allowed to exist. Concerns about the hypothetical female deacon’s appearance in liturgical public are not limited to their procreative potential, but also include concerns about appearing sufficiently modest and un-distracting to male parishioners. Perhaps, however, parishioners—both male and female need to see women active in the ministry of the church and the tradition of placing the responsibility for male sexual arousal upon women finally needs to be rejected. Aside from any potential female diaconal involvement in liturgical contexts, opponents also argue that women should not have teaching authority over men, and that women would not have time for ministry given their inherent domestic and maternal duties. Authority should be recognized based on qualifications regardless of sex, and these types of hesitations need to be dispelled.

The female diaconate should be developed for the present in a way that does not idolize the past that has little relevance for women and men today, but in a way that continues to receive and recognize the gifts of the Holy Spirit working timelessly in the unified Body of Christ. To reject the restoration of the diaconate on the basis that the Byzantine pastoral concerns are no longer present today, ignores the host of ministerial needs and the comfort levels of women and male clergy in spiritual ministry. Although there are no longer adult nude baptisms, and there are very few private spaces for women that a male priest would not be permitted to enter, there are numerous pastoral instances in which a female deacon would be preferable to a male. Most of the arguments for restoring the female diaconate have centered on women’s ministry to other women, as in Byzantine times, but this does not necessarily need to be the only path for the female diaconate in the future. The concerns restricting the development of the female diaconate need to be prayerfully and critically considered in order that a female ministry might emerge in a way that is abundantly fruitful within, and authentically witnessing to, the unity and fullness of the Orthodox faith.

Ashley Purpura is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Purdue University.