by Carrie Frederick Frost
History was made on February 17, 2017 when five women were consecrated deaconesses in the Orthodox Church. For many of us, this is a welcome but shocking development.
Speaking for myself, I expected the reintroduction of a female diaconate to occur in Greece, or elsewhere in Europe, or, even more likely, the United States; say, Pittsburgh. These are the places with multiple advocacy groups and a robust academic investigation into the history and pastoral function of the female diaconate.
Frankly, I anticipated—in a most unexamined way—the first Orthodox deaconess of our era would be white woman. (Let me pause and be clear, lest my readers be distracted: even though I am a white American woman advocating for the female diaconate, I have neither call nor desire to serve in this way.)
I now know that I suffered a serious failure of imagination.
The historic consecration of deaconesses this February took place in the African interior: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, part of the Synod of Alexandria. The five women who made history are Africans.
My own biases and insular experiences of Orthodoxy in America and Europe have limited me, and I am humbled.
The other factor that has limited me, and others interested in this topic, is the lack of international Orthodox forums for communication among hierarchs, scholars, and interested laypersons. As far as I can tell, no one in the English-speaking parts of the Church knew about the new deaconesses until a few days after they had been consecrated. Also, none of us working on the issue knew that the Alexandrian Synod was even considering this matter prior to its decision to revive the female diaconate a few months ago.
There are two questions I find very interesting: Why there? And why not here?
Why has the female diaconate been revived specifically in Africa, and why (or how) so swiftly? Though very little is known so far about the specific women consecrated at the Missionary Centre of Kolwezi, a news release states that one, Theano, will be given the title “Deaconess of the Missions,” and that the other deaconesses will help with missionary efforts including adult baptism, marriage, and catechism. It appears that these women were “blessed” to the diaconate, rather than “ordained,” yet they are being referred to as “deaconesses” rather than “sub-deaconesses.” It will be fascinating to learn about the mode of their consecration as more information makes its way to us in the US.
It also appears that their work will be deeply tied to the missionary efforts of the Orthodox Church in this part of Africa, which has been active since the 1950s and has more than a hundred parishes. Bishop Athanasios Akunda of neighboring Kenya told me back when the Synod initially voted to revive the female diaconate: “Women are all over in our ministry. What is being done [making them deaconesses] is just confirmation for them to do their work not in fear. Yes, we need them.” I suspect that it is more comfortable for deaconesses in Africa (rather than deacons or priests) to assist with missionary matters like adult female baptism. Other issues of modesty and the culturally appropriate nature of woman-to-woman ministry may be informing these consecrations.
It is noteworthy just how quickly the Alexandrian Synod moved. After voting to revive the female diaconate in November of 2016, it consecrated its first deaconesses three and half months later. In Orthodox time, that is a supersonic pace.
Though I had a failure of imagination in my own vision of the future female diaconate, happily this was not the case in Africa; the Alexandrian Synod saw a pastoral need and took decisive action.
Why has the female diaconate not been revived here in the US, despite active engagement and advocacy with this issue by scholars, laypeople, clergy, and even some hierarchs?
There is clearly a need for it. The American Church should ratify and bless the ministry that, in some cases, is already taking place. The Church should formally recognize and value the work that women offer as service (diakonia): feeding the poor, visiting the sick, praying with those in prison—work that is often valued and remunerated by secular society but not by the Church.
Perhaps most importantly, women need woman-to-woman ministry. This is not a need exclusive to modesty requirements during adult baptism in fourth-century Jerusalem or to missionary efforts in contemporary Katanga. There are so many challenging or important situations in which I believe most women need the ministrations of a woman rather than a man, such as: domestic violence, marital problems, miscarriage, sexual abuse, rape, menstruation, childbirth, lactation, care of the elderly, and gynecological illnesses. Every priest should be trained in, say, how to compassionately counsel a woman who has miscarried; I am not suggesting that all the male clergy step away from these matters (in fact, they would benefit from having female colleagues who have direct experience with these things). However, I would think this would be a place that the most traditional and the most progressive minded among us might agree: does it not make sense, for example, to have a trained and vetted deaconess who is overseen by her bishop and called to this work to minister to a young woman who miscarries her first pregnancy at twenty weeks?
There are many convincing reasons to revive the female diaconate, in my opinion, but the real need for woman-to-woman ministry is high on my list. For bishops and synods (other than Alexandria) to offer anodyne statements to the effect that the female diaconate ‘ought to be investigated,’ instead of dedicating effort into actively creating a female diaconate for the twenty-first century implies willful ignorance of real need, as well as a failure of not just courage, but also of imagination.
Even in the midst of this failure of imagination, there is—for me—no absence of delight in these recent events. I am rejoicing in the Lord that the needs of the Church are being acknowledged and that my sisters-in-Christ are being courageously and imaginatively honored in their call to diaconal ministry in the Orthodox Church in the Diocese of Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo, Synod of Alexandria. May their courage and imagination be contagious!
Carrie Frederick Frost, PhD is a scholar of Orthodox theology, Professor of Theology at Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, and a Board Member of Saint Phoebe Center for the Deaconess.