Orthodox move for women deacons is ‘revitalization’ not ‘innovation’

Appearing in the National Catholic Reporter

Nov 30, 2017
by James Dearie

Orthodox liturgical theologians are voicing support for the decision of Patriarch Theodoros II and the Greek Orthodox Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria to reinstate the order of deaconesses.

“We respectfully support the decision of the Patriarchate of Alexandria to restore the female diaconate, thus giving flesh to an idea that has been discussed and studied by pastors and theologians for decades,” nine theologians from theology schools and seminaries of the United States and Greece said in a statement dated Oct. 31.

The reinstitution of the female diaconate does not constitute an innovation, as some would have us believe,” the theologians said, “but the revitalization of a once functional, vibrant, and effectual ministry,” the theologians said.

Theodoros, pope and patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, consecrated five women to the diaconate last February in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, primarily to assist in missionary churches.

Modern Orthodox scholarship acknowledges the existence of a female diaconate in the early church, with many tracing it back to a woman named Phoebe mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. However, “it really fell out of existence in the late Byzantine period,” said Carrie Frederick Frost, an Orthodox theologian who sits on the board of the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, an organization that provides education about and promotes the female diaconate in the Orthodox Church.

“Every now and again there has been one … but, for the most part, the past few hundred years have not seen deaconesses,” Frost told NCR in a Nov. 20 interview.

For several decades, Orthodox patriarchs have discussed the possibility of bringing the order back. A 1988 Pan-Orthodox Consultation at Rhodes, Greece, produced the document “The Place of Women in the Orthodox Church,” which stated that the “apostolic order of deaconesses should be revived.”

Little had been done to advance the cause until Theodoros’ surprise move earlier this year.

Reports indicate, however, that Theodoros did not ordain the women in the traditional manner, with the laying of hands at the altar, but “consecrated” them on the side.

Frost says that the ceremony appeared to be a “blending” of the ordination of deacons and the blessing of those entering the subdiaconate, the highest minor order in the Orthodox Church, possibly to deflect pressure from parts of the church that are resistant to the idea of conferring major orders on women.

“There’s an allegiance to tradition that sometimes gets lived out as resistance to change,” Frost said. Many Orthodox are wary of breaking with tradition, she said, and see the decline in other churches’ membership as evidence that the way of the past is the way of the future for the Orthodox Church.

“They see [the female diaconate] as a slippery slope,” she said. “It’s a fear about capitulating to what is perceived to be the secular world at large, in that doing things differently in the Orthodox Church, even if it were a return to something that was historically the case, like the female diaconate, that that would be a capitulation to secular pressures about modernity and change.”

For this reason, the Patriarchate of Alexandria’s decision could have a large impact. Orthodox bishops do not answer directly to a pope or head patriarch, and could technically start ordaining women as deacons, but probably will not as long as it appears that such a move would cause conflict. In a church very concerned with precedent, the patriarchate “really gave us an example of a local church … making that decision internally,” said Frost.

Ultimately, she said, the question of female deacons is a question of the needs of the modern church, many of which she believes female deacons could help meet, citing ministry to women as an important example.
Related: Orthodox Church debate over women deacons moves one step closer to reality

“I don’t want to pigeonhole them into woman-to-woman ministry, but I think that is something they would give the church that the church does not have right now,” Frost said.

She also notes that in the case of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, the women were chosen “to help with missionary work. The church is growing gangbusters in Africa right now; there aren’t enough priests, there aren’t enough people on the ground … and they desire to deputize these women to teach, catechize and lead services.”

The revitalization of a female order of deacons in the Orthodox Church could influence the work of Pope Francis’ commission studying the possibility of female deacons in the Roman Catholic Church, which has traditionally recognized the validity of Orthodox sacraments.

“I’m sure that there’s a whole lot of conversation going on in the Holy See right now with regard to Catholic-Orthodox relations on this question,” William Ditewig, a theologian, Catholic deacon and former head of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for the Diaconate, told NCR.

While both churches are considering the possibility of women in the diaconate, the move in the Orthodox Church should not be seen as a step toward women in the priesthood. “There’s no movement [in favor of female priestly ordination],” Frost said of the Orthodox Church.

“In the Orthodox Church, the diaconate is a ministry on a different level than that of bishops and [priests],” Orthodox Fr. Steven Tsichlis told NCR. “One can be ordained to the diaconate and remain a deacon for one’s entire life; the diaconate should not be seen merely as a step to the priesthood and episcopacy in Orthodoxy — although it sometimes is today.”

“It’s about the vocation,” said Ditewig. The diaconate “is not a lower-case priesthood. This is a vocation in its own right.”


Orthodox Christian Laity Plans Annual Conference

The Future of the Orthodox Church in the American Cultural Setting

Saturday October 28, 2017 at Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral Community Center, Chicago, Illinois. 60631

Speakers and Topics include:

Father Frank Marangos, Former Dean of Archdiocese Cathedral of Holy Cross, NYC; Former National Director of Religious Education and Executive director of Communications for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting and Managing Director of O’Mara Ferguson; Finding Our Voice: orthodox Leadership for the 21st Century

Father Hans Jacobse, pastor St Peter Orthodox Mission (Antiochian) Ft. Myers-Naples, FL.  He edits the web site Orthodoxy Today and directs the American Orthodox Institute, a research and educational organization concerned with cultural and moral issues of the day; The Challenge of Secularism in the Local Parish

Father Deacon John Chryssavgis author and theologian who serves as advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues.  He is a clergyman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America with the title of Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne.  Title of his presentation is: THE WAY OF THE CHURCH: Learning from the Past; Looking to the Future. 

Dr. Frances Kostarelos, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, College of Arts and Sciences Governors State University, Chicago, IL.  She has written on issues related to religion and has served as a consultant to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese on issues related to Holy Cross Seminary. Religious Pluralism, Fundamentalism and contested Identities in North American Orthodox Christian Religious Life: The Case of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. ‘

More Details: www.ocl.org

Deaconess Presentation Made to Ecumenism Metro Chicago

St. Phoebe Center Board Member Helen Theodoropoulos recently made a presentation on the deaconess to Ecumenism Metro Chicago (EMC).  Formerly known as The Ecumenical Millennium Committee, EMC was formed in 1999 to promote and to pray for a more ecumenical millennium. It is currently comprised of 20 judicatories or communions in addition to the Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries organization.

Nearly a dozen officers from the various Christian communities attended, including the director of the education program for Roman Catholic deacons. “They were very supportive,” Helen said, also noting that attendees requested a copy of her PowerPoint presentation.

Visit the Ecumenism Metro Chicago Facebook page here:

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr

from Fr. Ted’s Blog, Meditations of an Orthodox Priest

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr

“Metropolitan Vladimir does see them as being part of the ordained clergy of the Church.  His comment that “the nature of women’s ministry has always conformed to the needs of the Church in each historical period” is also fascinating.  It would indicate that any discussion about women’s ministry in the Church should focus on what the current need of the Church is.  If we have need of specific women’s ministry in the 21st Century Church, which I think we do, then we should be able to establish it without much resistance from the Church.  The role of women in 21st Century Western society is very different than it was in traditional Orthodox cultures and in the past.   Women today are educated, have careers and take common leadership roles throughout society.  This in itself seems to necessitate that the Church open not only the discussion but the opportunities for women’s ministries today.”

Read entire article

Fr. Ted’s post references the article “St. Elizabeth the New Martyr: The Quest to Restore the Order of Deaconess”, by Elena B. and Nadezhda A. Beliakova appearing in the Winter 2017 issue of The Wheel.

Not a Novelty: The Eastern Orthodox Case for Deaconesses

By Carrie Frederick Frost
May 18, 2017

Publia (Poplia) the Confessor and Deaconess of Antioch / Menologion of Basil II

I watched with interest in August 2016 when Pope Francis made good on his promise to convene a commission to study the female diaconate. I was especially attentive to this development because I am a supporter of the renewal of the order of deaconesses in my own church—the Orthodox Church. Later last year I was astonished when one of the self-governing churches of the Orthodox world, Alexandria, decided to revive the female diaconate in Africa and proceeded to consecrate five women as deaconesses this past February. These moves by the Synod of Alexandria surprised those of us in the United States working on this issue—we did not know the female diaconate was even under consideration by the African church. Rarely does anything happen this fast in the Orthodox world.

That we were unaware of support for the female diaconate in Africa is evidence of two Orthodox realities. First, our church is fragmented: we do not yet have established international mechanisms for theologians and historians, or even hierarchs, to communicate with one another. Second, the autocephalous Orthodox churches throughout the world are self-governing, which means that any one of them could decide to revive the female diaconate tomorrow and ordain a deaconess the next day.

As my Catholic sisters and brothers await the report from Pope Francis’s commission, we in the Orthodox Church are waiting to learn more about the ministry of the new deaconesses in Africa. The Synod of Alexandria has not yet published an official description of their duties, but it has informally suggested that these women will assist with missionary work, such as catechism and baptism, as well as conducting services in mission parishes that have no regular priest. We are also waiting to see if another Orthodox church will follow in Alexandria’s footsteps, and to find out what the female diaconate will look like in other parts of the world.

We know at least one thing already: it will not be a novelty. There is ample evidence of a female diaconate through the twelfth century in the Orthodox Church—a fact of great importance in a tradition that zealously values precedent. From the third century on, there are several extant texts that include or mention ordination rites for deaconesses. From these texts, we know that deaconesses were ordained at the altar during the Divine Liturgy, that they received the Eucharist with the other ordained orders and had an orarion (deacon’s stole) placed over their necks, and that their bishop laid hands on them.

There are also ample records of women who were deaconesses in the Christian East, starting with Paul’s esteemed benefactor Saint Phoebe in the middle of the first century. (Though the term Saint Paul uses to describe her is somewhat ambiguous, the Orthodox Church has long presented Phoebe as a deaconess in its prayers, hymns, and iconography, which often shows her holding a diaconal censor.) We still have detailed records of some of these women: Saint Olympias, the friend and confidant of Saint John Chrysostom; Saint Nonna, the mother of Saint Gregory the Theologian; Saint Irene of Chrysovalantou, an abbess of the ninth century. At the height of the Byzantine Empire, one could find deaconesses in many places, including Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Thessalonica.The precise historical roles and responsibilities of deaconesses are less clear. The language of a surviving eighth-century ordination rite is broad: “Bestow the grace of your Holy Spirit also upon this your servant who desires to offer herself to you and fill her with the grace of the diaconate just as you gave the grace of your diaconate to Phoebe whom you called to the work of ministry.” Deaconesses were said to serve their bishops by being available for “many things,” as noted in the third-century Christian treatise, the Didascalia apostolorum. Surviving lists of their duties include: assisting with female baptism; administrative work, such as management of church properties; processing and chanting during liturgy; and many ministries to other women, such as catechetical instruction, spiritual advising, charitable care of widows, ministry to the ill, and bearing the Eucharist to the homebound. The job description of deaconesses changed according to time and place, adapting to new needs. But then, so did the job descriptions of deacons, priests, and bishops.

‘As Catholics await the report from Francis’s commission, the Orthodox Church waits to learn about the ministry of deaconesses in Africa’

The big question about the female diaconate in the Christian East is why it diminished so rapidly in the late Byzantine era. Was it monastic influence? During this period, liturgical rites that included rubrics for deaconesses were replaced with rites from male monasteries that lacked such rubrics. Was it geopolitical forces? There was enormous pressure from the Crusades and the Ottoman Turks, and this destabilized the church, perhaps in ways that undermined the female diaconate. Was it a revival of Christian concern with Mosaic law—but only as it applied to women? During this era menstruation and childbirth were linked to impurity for the first time in the Christian East. Whatever the reasons for the decline of the order, no decree or canon law ever prohibited it.

Just as there is ample historical evidence of the female diaconate, so there are also plentiful and authoritative calls for the renewal of the female diaconate in recent Orthodox history. The Russian Church was poised to renew the female diaconate on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution. Multiple pan-Orthodox consultations have formally called for the female diaconate to be revived, including one in Rhodes in 1988 that was convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. In 2004, the Church of Greece decided to “bless” (rather than ordain) deaconesses, and has since blessed a few nuns. In the past decade or two, several Orthodox organizations advocating for deaconesses have sprung up: Saint Catherine’s Vision, Orthodox Deacons, and Saint Phoebe Center for the Deaconess (of which I am a board member). Prominent historians and theologians continue to urge the Orthodox Church to consider the revival of the female diaconate—including perhaps the most influential living Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

At the same time, there has been an upsurge in ordinations of male deacons, as the Orthodox Church has discovered more ways to make use of the diaconate. This follows centuries of decline. In the Christian East, the role of the deacon had withered over time till deacons were little more than liturgical assistants. This decline may have been the result of the disentanglement of church and state in many parts of the Orthodox world. When church and state overlapped, deacons often worked as administrators. As soon as the state had its own non-ecclesial administrators, deacons suddenly had less to do. Now, however, the male diaconate is again being remembered as a boon to parish life and a ministry unto itself, rather than just a procedural stage on the path to priesthood. This is why several North American Orthodox seminaries have established diaconal training programs.

Deaconesses would also be a boon to parish life. Even in twenty-first-century America, a woman can often go where men are either not as welcome or not as comfortable. Deaconesses could minister to other women in cases of miscarriage, infertility, sexual and domestic abuse, for example. An order of deaconesses would also help the Orthodox Church recognize and make use of women’s gifts. Today, Orthodox women are lawyers, artists, theologians, chaplains, doctors, real-estate agents, historians, educators, scientists, and so on. It is discouraging to see their gifts embraced and put to use in the world but not in the church. The Orthodox woman who works as a chaplain at my local jail ought to be able to bring Communion to Orthodox inmates. Imagine the inspiration of seeing her ordained at the altar so that she could do just that.

With so many calls for renewal of the female diaconate and so many needs that could be met, why would anyone oppose it?

First, some claim that there is no longer any need for a female diaconate. In the early church, these opponents say, deaconesses anointed and baptized unclothed female converts, but today this function is all but obsolete since few adults enter the Orthodox Church. This objection simply overlooks the many other duties of the diaconate.

The second claim is that, if the Orthodox Church were to ordain women to the diaconate, this would inevitably lead to the ordination of women to the priesthood, which would in turn lead to a massive decline—just as, in this view, the ordination of women has led to the decline of the Anglican Church. This claim overlooks too many important differences between the culture and theology of the Orthodox Church and those of the Anglican Church. More fundamentally, it disregards Orthodoxy’s robust understanding of the diaconate as something more than a way station to the priesthood. Nor is it clear that the Anglicans’ difficulties can all be attributed to the ordination of women. That doesn’t mean that Orthodox Christians should ignore the experience of other churches, but we must take into account the many relevant differences between our tradition and theirs.

The same critics assert that seeing deaconesses at the altar would have an unconscious effect on the faithful, leading to thoughtless support for female priests. There is no doubt that the effect of seeing women serve would indeed be powerful, but the critics underestimate the sophistication of the faithful. They forget that icons of deaconess saints, the celebration of their feast days, and the remembrance of their lives in hymns already surround the faithful, who have internalized this rich legacy. In fact, there is no movement in the Orthodox Church to ordain women to the priesthood, nor has there been anything like a sustained exploration of the matter; the theological spadework simply has not been done. There is plenty of precedent in the Orthodox Church for a female diaconate, none for a female priesthood. Nor is there any support for a female priesthood from the faithful or clergy. This means we ought to be able to discuss the female diaconate on its own merits without confusing the issue.

Finally, some critics worry that reviving the female diaconate—or even acknowledging its history—would erode the Orthodox Church’s understanding of men and women as meaningfully different. Given the many ways in which the Orthodox Church’s theology, homiletics, iconography, and hymnography support a vision of man and woman as equal but not equivalent, the ordination of deaconesses seems unlikely to compromise this vision. Not ordaining deaconesses may even undermine the Orthodox claim that men and women each have distinctive charisms. For to make this claim while ordaining only men to holy orders skews the entire church toward the masculine charisms. Ordaining deaconesses would allow the distinctive female charisms to benefit the whole church. Refusing to ordain them, lest this be misunderstood as a capitulation to secular trends, sends the wrong message, a message of fear rather than faithfulness.

What would a female diaconate look like today? It would revive the historical roles of deaconesses that are still relevant while also adapting to the church’s current needs, as is happening at this very moment in Africa. My ideal vision of the female diaconate in our own time and place would involve allegiance to a bishop, formal ordination, and commitment to diakonia—some type of ministerial service, as a chaplain, parish administrator, spiritual advisor, or pastor to women. Ideally, deaconesses would be paid for their services to the church, both to demonstrate that their work is valued and to prevent overwork. A deaconess ought to be vetted, educated, and trained by her bishop.

‘My vision of the female diaconate would involve allegiance to a bishop, formal ordination, and commitment to diakonia’

Then there are the questions of eligibility: How old do deaconesses need to be? Do they need to be married, or unmarried? Early canons stated that a deaconess must be at least sixty; canons from the fifth century lowered that age to forty. These canons are still on the books, but canon law in Orthodoxy is largely particular to time and place. Today it would make sense to make the minimum age for deaconesses the same as that for deacons: twenty-five. As for marital status, there is historical evidence of both celibate and married deaconesses. There were even cases of celibate married deaconesses, who were ordained to the diaconate when their husbands became bishops or monks. Today it would make sense to adopt the same discipline for deaconesses as for deacons: that they remain married if already married, and celibate if not.

A women’s diaconate would demonstrate that there is a place in the Orthodox Church for women to serve in roles of leadership. Seeing deaconesses offer their gifts to the church, serve at the altar, preach, and be recompensed for their work would demonstrate that women’s gifts really are as important as men’s, in practice as well as in theory. Just as importantly, it would show that the Orthodox Church is more concerned with fidelity to its own traditions than with keeping up resistance to secular trends. In short, it would demonstrate confidence, not capitulation.

Published in the June 2, 2017 issue: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/

“Narthex of the Deaconesses in the Hagia Sophia”

This paper by Neil K. Moran explores the ceiling rings in the western end of the north aisle in the Hagia Sophia, revealing a rectangular space delineated by curtain rings, and proposing that the southeast corner of the church was assigned to forty deaconesses.  An analysis of the music sources in which the texts are fully written out suggests that the deaconesses took part in the procession of the Great Entrance as well as in rituals in front of the ambo. Read the article.



Updated Services of Initiation book removes impurity language, woman as ‘murderess’ for miscarriage

A new Services of Initiation book was released March 2017 by the Antiochian Orthodox Institute, LaVerne, CA for use in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.  Particularly relating to women, it includes:

  • a translation of an older (8th c?) Greek prayer for First Day prayers that removes former mention of impurity
  • a version of the Churching service that removes impurity language
  • a translation of an older prayer for miscarriage that removes mention of impurity and does not label the woman a “murderess”

The service book is compiled, translated and edited by VRev Michel Najim and the VRev Patrick B. O’Grady and can be purchased here (http://store.antiochianvillage.org/The-Services-of-Initiation.html)

Chicago Regional Presentation: “The Deaconess in the Orthodox Church”

A regional presentation was made at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Glenview, Illinois by St. Phoebe Center Board Member Dr. Helen Creticos Theodoropoulos, April 5, 2017 as part of the parish’s 2017 Lenten Lecture Series.

In spite of the bad weather, approximately 40 people attended the presentation, and later commented that not only did they learn a great deal about the ancient role of the deaconess, but were “most amazed” with the history of women in the Church.

Access the recorded presentation here.
Access the PDF PowerPoint here.

If you are interested in hosting a regional presentation in your area, please contact us at stphoebecenter at gmail dot com.

Shared Ministry and Divine Grace: Restoring the Diaconate in Orthodoxy

by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

The Orthodox world is buzzing with the recent news report on the ordination of deaconesses in the Patriarchate of Alexandria. To the best of our knowledge, the ordination occurred after the Divine Liturgy in the nave of the temple, and appears to resemble the rite used to ordain subdeacons. This rite includes the presentation of the orarion, handlaying, a prayer, and the washing of the bishop’s hands. The reports do not offer details on the prayer said by the Patriarch. It seems that the Patriarch did not use the Byzantine Rite for the ordination of a deaconess, which takes place at the end of the anaphora (before the deacon intones the litany before the Lord’s Prayer, “Having remembered all the saints”), in the altar, and includes the deaconesses receiving Communion with the other clergy in the altar, according to order. While Patriarch Theodoros II appeared to use the rite for the ordination of subdeacons, the Patriarchate of Alexandria is referring to these newly-ordained women as deaconesses, and has appointed them to perform crucial sacramental and catechetical ministries as part of the Patriarchate’s missionary work.

The ordination of these five deaconesses in Alexandria marks a turning point in the discussion about the order of deaconess within the Orthodox Church. To date, the restoration of the female diaconate has been limited to discussion, deliberation, and study – not to mention heated debate. With this ordination, we now have a historical episode of ordination and appointment to ministry, a pattern for what the female diaconate could become. Will the Alexandrian ordination become the new rite for the order of deaconess, or will the Church dust off the Byzantine rite of the ordination of a deaconess? What other ministries might the deaconesses execute? We do not know the answers to these questions. We do know that the debate on the female diaconate is going to intensify.

As part of an ongoing research project, I’ve been asking Orthodox lay women and men for their opinions about the restoration of the order of deaconess. The responses seem to fit the positions presented by ideologues in the debate. Some people argue that restoring the order of deaconess is a legitimate application of ressourcement, of drawing upon our liturgical and ecclesiological history to appoint ministers who contribute to the building up of the body of Christ through particular gifts. Others depict the attempt to restore the deaconess as a trojan horse strategy to inject secular egalitarian values into the Church’s political theology. Others are unsure: one lay woman remarked that Orthodoxy “has the Panagia, and the Greek Orthodox Church has the Philoptochos Society – women essentially run the Church – why do we need a female diaconate?”

In reflecting on these responses, I was struck by the impression that very few people asked how the ministry of the deaconess would complement the current work done by bishops, presbyters, and deacons.

An honest appraisal of the orders of our Church demonstrates a reality: we are a presbyteral Church. For the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, the experience of Church ministry begins and ends with the priest. This experience might have diverse dimensions in various Orthodox Churches, especially those with deacons or in the proximity of a monastery, but the fact remains that the priest is essentially a “one-man band” in the Church. The priest presides at all liturgical offices; the priest anoints the sick and brings them Communion; the priest offers catechesis and preaches; the priest hears confessions and imparts spiritual direction; the priest functions as the local expert on Orthodoxy. The laity are charged with leading liturgical singing, taking care of the Church building, and handling financial issues, and in situations where the laity or a parish deacon exercise ministry, it occurs only under the supervision and with the blessing of the priest.

Many of the priests I have come to know over the years have expressed frustration on the absence of assistance in parish ministry. Most priests long for an associate or assistant priest; others want a deacon; some have taken the healthy step of sharing their ministry with the laity, by deputizing lay women and men to visit the sick in the hospital and pray with them, and blessing laity to pray the Liturgy of the Hours without a priest. Even rectors of small parishes feel strained, especially when they have other employment obligations to satisfy the daily needs of their families.

The Orthodox Church is a Church of orders: our body of Christ has the orders of laity, episcopate, priesthood, and diaconate. Each order has its own distinct ministry designed to contribute to the building up of the communion of the Holy Spirit. A significant feature of the rites of ordination to the order of bishop, priest, deacon, and deaconess – but not subdeacon – is the ancient “Divine Grace” formula: “The Divine Grace, which always heals that which is inform and supplies what is lacking, appoints the [designated order] N., beloved by God, as [designated order]. Let us pray therefore that the grace of the Holy Spirit may come upon him/her” (translation, adapted from Paul Bradshaw, Ordination Rites of the Ancient Churches of East and West [Pueblo, 1990], 133).  The presiding bishop calls upon the “Divine grace” to supply what is lacking, a reference to God appointing this particular minister to work in the Lord’s vineyard. The Divine Grace has always supplied men and women to “supply what is lacking” in the Church.

Something is lacking in Orthodox pastoral ministry: there is a dire need for the Church to appeal to God to supply people who can fill that which is “lacking” in the life of the Church, because priests cannot do it all. For centuries, the Church has depended almost solely on the work of the priests. I do not mean to dismiss the life-giving contributions made by bishops and deacons in the Church; my message is an appeal for all who are invested in ecclesiology, mission, and the question of the female diaconate to acknowledge the proverbial “elephant in the room.” How much more blood might be given to the Church were we to expand the diaconal ministry beyond liturgical performance, aesthetically-pleasing as it is?

The Patriarchate of Alexandria appears to be responding to pastoral needs in the life of the Church through action. Their example indicates that building up the body of Christ supersedes our ideological debates about gender and power – the world needs people who are willing to bear Christ’s Divine Grace to them by offering their particular gifts to the Church, to supply that which is lacking. The debate on the need for a female diaconate is sure to continue. For those of us willing to continue the debate, it is essential that we assess all of the orders of the Church and imagine how they might work together so that each order – laity, episcopate, priesthood, and diaconate – is truly working with the others to be the body of Christ. If we want this body of Christ to be healthy, and to be animated in working for the life of the world by the grace of God, the time has arrived for us to be honest about how the parts of the body we do not exercise enough might be rehabilitated and strengthened so that the body does not depend solely on priests. The life of the Church does not depend on ideological absolutism: it depends on the offerings of Christ as the head together with the rest of the Church.

Nicholas Denysenko is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University. He is an ordained deacon of the Orthodox Church in America. He is scheduled to speak at the St. Phoebe Conference “Renewing the Male and Female Diaconate in the Orthodox Church” October 6-7, 2017 in Irvine, California.