Women in the Church

Let’s Make History: Ordain Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church Today

Published on: March 27, 2023
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March is Women’s History Month, when we particularly witness women’s vital roles in our past, including in the Orthodox Church. These stories deserve our attention and appreciation, but let’s not just look to the past, let’s also look to the future. Let’s make history. 

Let’s make history by ordaining women as deaconesses in the Orthodox Church once again. 

The conversation around deaconesses in the Orthodox Church over the last half century has been about what and why, and—to some degree—when. It’s time to move to the question of how

What

The Church ordained women as deaconesses for over half of its history and never abolished the order which faded over time for many reasons. Roles of deaconesses varied based on place and era and included diakonia, service, in the form of ministering to other women, taking the Eucharist to women at home, liturgical service, helping with baptism, catechesis, and philanthropy. Deaconesses are an indisputable and rich part of our history. 

Why

There are so many reasons to ordain deaconesses today. Women who are already filling a diaconal role in the Church would have the Church’s authority, support, and accountability to minister in their communities. The Church would create a space for woman-to-woman ministry, something sorely missing in Orthodox women’s lives. Most salient for me: The Church needs deaconesses so it can better fulfill its vocation of service to the faithful and to the world. People are suffering inside and outside of the Church. Ordaining deaconesses will not fix everything broken, but it will increase the Church’s capacity to offer solace and spread the joy of the Gospel. 

Another why: to live up to our own tradition. Not only are deaconesses part of our past, but many quarters of the Church in our own era have called for the reinstitution of deaconesses, including the Rhodes Consultation of 1988 and the recent document commissioned by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church. We ought to respect and listen to this collective wisdom of the Church by ordaining deaconesses again today.

When

Sometimes I hear the idea that ordaining deaconesses “would cause schism,” or “the time is not right.” We need to face the fact that the Orthodox Church is already in schism over women and their roles in the church. We are bleeding away younger generations (and some older ones, too) because it is both incomprehensible and entirely unacceptable (to both men and women) to stay in a church community that, despite the Orthodox Church’s own convictions and history, only honors the gifts of men in ordained ministry. Furthermore, fear of schism or division ought not be a yardstick for considering change in the Church. If the Orthodox Church changes its practices regarding women out of fidelity to its understanding of the truth, any possibility of division should not be a concern. Finally, if we wait for when the time is “right,” when everything in the Orthodox world is calm and ordered, we will never do anything.

How

Reinstitution of the ordained order of deaconess will involve a creative re-imagining of how the order will best serve the Orthodox Church today. While the historical sources will inform us, they will not be determinative; deaconesses for the twenty-first century will be different from deaconesses in the ancient church, though in continuity with them. Deaconesses today could be engaged in various types of service including philanthropy, administration, chaplaincy, social work, catechesis, pastoral care to women and men of the parish. Deaconesses today could serve at the altar during the Liturgy and other services. There might be local variance in the expression of this order; deaconesses in Korea might have different roles and responsibilities than deaconesses in America, Romania, or Africa.

In fact, there is recent precedent of deaconesses in Africa. In 2017, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Orthodox Church in Africa, consecrated several women as deaconesses. These were “tonsures,” rather than “ordination,” and the move was complicated by outside pressures, but, nonetheless, we have a twenty-first century example of a local church courageously welcoming women as deaconesses once more. 

There are many ways the Orthodox Church could create a process to ordain deaconesses within the next decade. Any such process should include the voices of both clergy and laity, men and women. A synod of bishops could, for example, commission a working group which includes such voices to create a process of implementation. A group of women who already have diaconal skills—and there are many such Orthodox women—such as chaplaincy or spiritual direction could be identified, trained, vetted, and then ordained within supportive parishes. Another route would be to identify a cohort of women to go through diaconal training together at one of the Orthodox seminaries, and then be ordained and placed in parishes receptive to their presence. Organizations like St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, which I chair, constitute a hub of scholarship, experts, and lived experience of the service of women that could be tapped to design and support the process of welcoming deaconesses into the Church. 

St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Its first decade was focused on the what, why, and when of deaconesses. Though the center will continue education about the history and need for the diaconate, St. Phoebe Center will shift in its second decade to the how of ordaining deaconesses, supporting the whole Church—clergy and laity—as we discern how best to imagine and reinstitute the order of deaconesses today.

Ordaining deaconesses in Orthodox Church is possible because deaconesses are not a deviation from the Church’s truth, but an authentic expression of it. The what, why, and when are clear. Let’s move on to the how. Let’s make history and ordain women as deaconesses in the Orthodox Church within the next decade. 

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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.

About author

  • Carrie Frederick Frost

    Carrie Frederick Frost

    Professor of theology and religion, Chair of St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess

    Carrie Frederick Frost is an Orthodox Christian theologian who teaches at Western Washington University. She is the author of the recent book on women in the Orthodox Church, Church of Our Granddaughters (Cascade 2023), Book Reviews Editor for Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies, and Chair of St. ...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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