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.

Orthodoxy, African Deaconesses, and Missed Opportunities

by Kerry San Chirico

The headline from the official news agency of the Romanian Patriarchate read, “Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria performs first consecration of deaconesses.” There were mostly heartened and hopeful responses on my Facebook feed. I “liked” the page in the formal if shallow Facebook sense. As such news inevitably takes time to digest, those with keen eyes began to weigh in. “This is not an ordination but a consecration,” one scholar reminded us, noting critical differences between the words cheiriothesia (blessing) and and cheirotonia (ordination). Another pointed out that, given the photographic evidence, this rite was more akin to ordination of a subdeacon, a minor order. Was this then a minor occurrence? Some might wish that.

The whole thing took me back to days of the Soviet Union, when Western observers were forced to determine who was out of the capricious Soviet inner circle solely by looking at photos of waving Politburo members at the annual May Day parade. And this was amusing because we now live in the 21st century, and it’s not as though this liturgy was occurring in North Korea. I began to wonder, Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were some mechanism by which the various autocephalous Orthodox Churches could communicate with one another? Wouldn’t it be something if there was a global forum whereby Orthodox laypeople and clergy could assemble, discuss topical issues affecting the Church and world today, and propose solutions to problems great and minor? And this got me thinking about last summer’s fraught “Great and Holy Council,” with its absent patriarchs and rationalizations for sin that would get called out by any good father confessor. I was returned to a summer of so many missed opportunities—and for reckoning with hard truths about Orthodoxy today, as it really exists.

Patriarch Theodoros II and those he leads in Africa are obviously taking care of the felt needs of Orthodoxy in a landmass that could comfortably fit the United States, Eastern Europe, India, China, and Japan. Whether it was “consecration” or “ordination”—an important distinction, but still inside baseball to most—the point is that the decision reflects a verity about the Church in Africa: it is growing, just as it is for the Roman Catholic Church and the many Protestant churches, to say nothing of the rapid growth of Islam. Christianity is now well into a major demographic shift whose implications most have yet to fully comprehend. It is a fact now popularized in books by Philip Jenkins in The New Faces of Christianity (2006) and The Next Christendom (2011) that the geographical locus of Christianity has shifted to the world’s Southern and Eastern Hemispheres. Consider that in 1910 Christians in sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 10% of the total population; by 2010 that figure had risen to 63%. The Democratic Republic of Congo, location of the consecrations, has one of the top ten largest Christian populations in the world, with some 63.15 million believers. (Germany has 58.24 million Christians). While this shift may be lost on many non-Global Southerners and Easterners who spend much time hand-wringing over emptying and desiccated churches, it is apparently not lost on African Orthodox who have work to do and quite often lack the human and material resources to do it.

Frankly, some will never be convinced enough about the female diaconate to do anything about it here. It is curious that in the church that so prizes the normative weight of beliefs and practices of the early church, a time of active deaconesses, the burden of proof is placed on those seeking female diaconal restoration. Yet by our own historical reckoning, the burden of proof should fall on those arguing against the female diaconate and on those doing nothing to actively reinstate it. It is they who need to reasonably explain why deaconesses should no longer be part of Orthodox ecclesial life.

Throughout North American parishes male clergy are often forced to try to do almost everything by themselves. The married priest is liturgist, financial planner, spiritual father, biblical scholar, teacher, social worker, hospital chaplain, parish secretary, biological father, and husband. These men are understandably exhausted. Some leave the ministry altogether; I know them. Meanwhile, women are also doing the serious work of church—but they usually don’t get recognized for it. Why then do we not formalize their ministry, inspiring other women (and men) for a life of ecclesial service? Speaking about the women, Patriarch Theodoros explained, “We need them.” Do we not?

The female diaconate is not about mere or more recognition. It’s about meeting needs often left unaddressed because they go unmentioned, or because resources are tight, or because we are deaf to those voices refusing to shout. It’s about the normalization of lack and becoming so accustomed to the status quo that we fail to envision how enriched we would be by deaconesses in our midst. It is, as Carrie Frederick Frost argued in Public Orthodoxy, a failure of imagination. It is also a failure of leadership.

We are observing the Patriarch and African Synod do the needful. Admittedly, I am much more familiar with South Asia, but I can imagine these new deaconesses serving both women and men in various ways. See them traversing villages, seeking medical attention, visiting the sick, catechizing, remonstrating against abusive husbands, even (wait for it) praying out demons. They are doing diakonia—and one need not serve in the altar to do that. So why don’t we follow the lead of the African Church? What’s the hold up? All excuses now ring hollow. The refusal of the Church in North America to deal with the pressing needs of our parishes and society are calling the truth claims of our tradition into question. When the gap between the ideal and real widens to such an extent that the cognitive dissonance simply cannot be shaken, we are in real trouble. People become disillusioned. They leave without the fanfare of a podcast.

When I reflect upon the photo of those earnest women facing the iconostasis in expectation, I cannot help but think we are watching a Church embracing its mission. It is a Church more fully appreciating the contributions of more than half its members. It is the Church of the future and, as the numbers show, the present.

Meanwhile, here on this side of the world, one fears we are letting opportunities pass us by. Dubious notions of inevitable “progress” aside, there is certainly no guarantee Orthodoxy in North America will ever flourish. And we are way past the rhetoric of Orthodoxy being America’s best-kept secret. It’s not such a secret any more. Last summer, news of our Council spread far and wide. One Roman Catholic theologian told me he used to point to Orthodoxy as an alternative model of conciliar polity. “Now we’re not so sure,” he said soberly. In the age of the Internet, things are perhaps more public than we would want. There is then no place for triumphalism here, just the hardest thing to do in the world—to see things as they really are in our selves, communities, country, world, and Church.  We cannot do it alone. Africa can show us the way. Ss. Tatiana, Olympias, and Foebe, pray for us.

Kerry San Chirico is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.

This article originally appeared on Public Orthodoxy, a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Deaconess Presentation Scheduled in Chicago April 5

“The Deaconess in the Orthodox Church”
Dr. Helen Theodoropoulos
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
SS. Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church
1401 Wagner Rd.
Glenview, IL 60025

6 pm Presanctified Liturgy
Lenten meal and lecture immediately following
Registration is not necessary

We are grateful to be included in the SS. Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church 2017 Lenten Lectures. Hear St. Phoebe Center Board Member Dr. Helen Theodoropoulos speak on the deaconess of the early Church, her ministry, and how restoration of this ordained role could help build up Christ’s Church and His people.

DOWNLOAD FLYER

CHURCH WEBSITE

 

“Women Willing to Offer Themselves”: The Historic Consecration of Deaconesses in Africa

by Carrie Frederick Frost, St. Phoebe Board Member
published in The Wheel Journal
March 2, 2017

Several Orthodox women were made deaconesses in Democratic Republic of Congo on February 17, 2017. Though this is a remarkable and historical event not just in African Orthodoxy, but in Orthodoxy the world over, it took about five days for this news to travel into English-speaking quarters of the Church. This time lag is indicative of both the lack of communication channels among international theologians and hierarchs and the independent character of each of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches. The Synod of Alexandria, which had moved in November of 2016 to pursue the revival of the female diaconate, needed neither permission from, nor consultation with any other part of the Church to grant these women diaconal ministry earlier this month.

The information on the consecration of the deaconesses is scant. It appears that they were not ordained into a major order (cheirotonia) because their consecration took place at the end of Liturgy (rather than during it) and because the photographs show the laying on of hands by His Beatitude Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa happening at his throne, rather than at the altar (as during an ordination). Instead, it is likely understood in the Synod of Alexandria that these women were blessed into a minor order (cheirothesia), more like the sub-diaconate. The association with the sub-diaconate is further evidenced by photos showing the women holding bowls like male sub-deacons hold during their reception into the sub-diaconate (and, at the end of Liturgy, present to the faithful the blessed water therein so that they may bless themselves). All these signs not withstanding, these women are being referred to as deaconesses, not sub-deaconesses.

The information about the women themselves is also scant. One woman is named, Theano, and is described as a “Catechist elder” and one of the first members of the mission staff at the Missionary Centre of Kolwezi. She was given the title, “Deaconess of the Missions.” It appears that five other women were also made deaconesses, and are understood to be entering “ecclesiastic ministry” to help with missionary efforts including adult baptism, marriage, and catechism. From these descriptions, it seems like Deaconess of the Missions Theano may have a different ministry from the five others, with their “ecclesiastic ministry,” which would be in keeping with the historical record which shows deaconesses performing a variety of tasks according to personal talents and local needs.

Three of the newly consecrated deaconesses are nuns, and, from the photos, none of the deaconesses appears to be particularly long in years. This is of significance because the canons on the books about deaconesses call for a forty years of age minimum, and any revival of the female diaconate must address whether this restriction applies to today’s circumstances and needs.

As the apostles and the early Christians knew well, it is never easy to be the first person, or first group of people, to do something. This move to consecrate deaconesses in the Synod of Alexandria took courage. It took the courage of the Synod, as well as the courage of its leader, His Beatitude Theodoros II, who consecrated these women himself. It took the courage of the local hierarch, Metropolitan Meletios of Katanga.  But the courage that is most luminous is that of these women themselves, who are stepping forward into entirely unchartered territory in their Church and in their communities.

An extant ordination rite for deaconesses states, “O Lord and Master, you do not reject women who are willing to offer themselves, in so far as it is fitting, to minister in your holy houses, but rather you accept them into the rank of ministers.” Deaconess of the Missions Theano and her sister deaconesses are truly “women who are willing to offer themselves.” It is my prayer that they are gracefully and lovingly accepted into the ranks of ministers, and that more women soon join them in Africa, and around the Orthodox world.