by Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald
Submitted January 27, 2005, The Orthodox Christian News Service
The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece has decided to restore the order of the diaconate for women. Under the leadership of Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, the decision was taken at the October 8, 2004 meeting which brought together 64 bishops from throughout Greece.
The decision was announced the following day on the web site of the Church of Greece and in the Greek paper Kathimerini.The historic decision was made by a majority of the bishops following an extensive discussion. Before their decision, the bishops heard a comprehensive presentation on the topic by His Eminence Metropolitan Chrysostom of Chalkidos. He presented the theological, liturgical, canonical, and ministerial aspects of the order of the diaconate for women.
According to the report of the Holy Synod, Metropolitan Chrysostom concluded his presentation by affirming: It is certainly possible to rejuvenate this praiseworthy order, with its many diversified and blessed activities, as long as the Church decides this is necessary, after carefully weighing her needs and study, being illumined by the Holy Spirit concerning the signs of the times.
Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens fully endorsed the presentation and expressed his own support for the rejuvenation of the order. According to the Synods statement, the Archbishop concluded the deliberations by affirming the missionary, catechetical, philanthropic and social efforts of women today in Greece. He particularly stressed deep appreciation for women who voluntarily contribute to the betterment of society and emphasized their vital place in the life of the Church.
The restoration of the ministry of the diaconate for women has been a particular concern for Archbishop Christodoulos. While serving as Metropolitan of Demetriados, now the region of Volos, he ordained a nun in the year 1986. For the rite, he made use of the ancient ordination prayers of the Byzantine period. Throughout his ministry, he has been a consistent advocate for the restoration of the order.
The Holy Synods Statement says that the bishops affirmed that the institution (thesmos) of deaconesses established in antiquity and rooted in the Holy Canons was never abolished. The Holy Synod also say, that depending on opportunities, the regional Bishop may consecrate (kathosiosi) senior nuns of Holy Monasteries of their Eparchy; in order to address the needs of their Holy Monasteries, and only with the understanding that the deaconess is not appointed to the rank (bathmos) of priesthood.
Professor Evangelos Theodorou, emeritus Professor at the University of Athens, applauded the decision of the bishops. In a telephone interview, Professor Theodorou stated that the decision initially to receive nuns to the order must be seen as the first step toward fully reestablishing the diaconate for women. He noted that the bishops want to take the restoration one step at a time.
Theodorou believes that eventually other devoted and qualified women will be eligible to be ordained. He feels that this is implicit in the positive remarks made by Archbishop Christodoulos and other bishops at the Synod meeting. Theodorou says some bishops already have publicly expressed their desire for deaconesses to minister within the wider society on behalf of the Church.
Theodorou also says that the bishops clearly recognized that they were restoring the ancient order which was important in the life of the Church for generations. He believes that the ordination rite of the Byzantine period will be used in future ordinations of deaconesses.
Professor Theodorou’s scholarly examination of the history of women deacons was first published in the year 1948. In his monumental study published in 1954, Theodorou clearly demonstrates that women were truly ordained as deacons in the Orthodox Church at least through the Middle Ages, and that the order never completely disappeared to this very day. Based upon an extensive study of ancient sources, Theodorou convincingly shows that women deacons were ordained at the Altar during the Liturgy in a manner similar to male deacons. In his study, Theodorou reproduces the ordination prayers for women deacons used in the Byzantine period. He also identifies and discusses the many responsibilities which women deacons had in the Church.
As professor at the University of Athens, Theodorou was the teacher of many of the bishops who approved the decision to restore the diaconate for women. His historic studies and his many scholarly articles on women deacons are well known to clergy and theologians in Greece, and throughout the Orthodox world. He presently serves as a senior advisor to Archbishop Christodoulos.
The decision of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece is in conformity with the decision of the Pan-Orthodox Consultation on Rhodes in 1988.
Convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, this Consultation brought together representatives of the autocephalous Orthodox churches. There, the delegates also formally reaffirmed that women had been ordained as deacons in the Church. They also noted that the order had never totally fallen out of existence. Mindful of the historical and liturgical evidence, the delegates formally called for the restoration of the order of the diaconate for women to serve the needs of the Church today.
Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald is the author of Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church which contains an extensive preface by Professor Evangelos Theodorou. She has represented the Ecumenical Patriarchate at numerous theological conferences including the Pan-Orthodox Consultation on Rhodes in 1988.