Thursday, December 4, 2014

Should We Restore the Order of Deaconess?

          Of late, a pan-Orthodox organization of Orthodox women called “St. Catherine’s Vision” has issued a “Call for the Rejuvenation of the Ministry of the Ordained Deaconess”.  The call is addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarch with the hopes of being blessed and acted upon by the upcoming Great and Holy Council, and is being widely distributed by them for “prayerful reflection by hierarchs, clergy and laity”.  That is, it is the latest salvo in the ongoing attempt to advance the cause of the ordination of women in the Orthodox Church.
            It is important to place this “Call” and invitation for “prayerful reflection” in its wider historical context.  The drive to legitimate the ordination of women to the presbyterate and episcopate within the Orthodox Church is not new.  It has been ongoing for some time now, reflected in the writings of Eva C. Topping, Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.  Even Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, usually a bastion of academic reserve and scholarly balance, has weighed in, observing in the revised version of his classic The Orthodox Church that, “There is a small but growing minority within Orthodoxy which feels strongly that the whole question [of women’s ordination] has yet to receive from Orthodox bishops and theologians the rigorous, searching examination that it requires”.  In his article “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ”, in the volume Women and the Priesthood (edited by Thomas Hopko), Ware further writes “As yet we are still at the very beginning of our exploration; let us not be too hasty or premature in our judgments”.
As a former Anglican one has a distinct feeling of deja-vu:  I well recall how Anglican theologians first pushed the envelope of women’s ordination by suggesting that it was an open question.  Not that they were necessarily asserting that women should be ordained, you understand.  No, no.  They were just asking the question.  Those declaring that the Biblical and universal practice of the Church for two millennia should be upheld were scolded for not being willing to give the whole question the rigorous, searching examination it required.  After all, one must not be too hasty or premature in one’s judgments.   
One can see now how the strategy was used and the game played.  By accepting that a closed question was in fact still an open one, the battle was effectively won by the proponents of women’s ordination before the first debate was held.  For just think about it:  if, for example, the Church decided that the question of the divinity of Christ or the legitimacy of icons were after all open questions, what would that tell you about the Church?  Would it not indicate that the Church no longer had faith in its own tradition?  And if that were so, clearly that tradition was no longer authoritative or binding.  That being the case, why not say that the Arians or the iconoclasts were right after all?—or that women may indeed be ordained?   It is important to discern which questions are open ones which require rigorous, searching examination, and which questions are closed, having been long ago authoritatively decided.  Clearly the issue of the ordination of women to priesthood and episcopate is among the latter, and placing it among the former simply questions the authority of our tradition.  It then becomes not an issue of the ordination of women, but of the authority of holy Scripture and apostolic Tradition.   
            The Anglicans did not move immediately to ordain women.  They already had an order of deaconesses, though the order was not much in parochial use.  The first move was to declare these deaconesses to be deacons—despite the fact that not all the deaconesses desired this.  Then, since there were female deacons, why not female priests?  Not bishops, you understand.  No, no.  Just priests.  And then (blink three times), after there were female priests, why not female bishops?  And voila.  Welcome to England 2014. 
            The women of St. Catherine’s Vision are treading upon this well-worn way.  The first step is push for the restoration of the order of deaconess (called its “rejuvenation”, which presupposes it just needs freshening up, despite the fact that it died out centuries ago).  It is true, of course, that centuries ago women were ordained deaconesses.  It is true that the deaconess was called a “deacon” (Greek he diakon, “he” being the feminine definite article). But it is historically incorrect and mischievous to assert that the female deacon was simply a feminine version of her male counterpart.  In fact, she was nothing of the kind.  Her ministry did not exist for the first two hundred years of church history, was never universal, and was restricted to ministering to her gender.  The difference between deacon and deaconess is even seen in the different ordination prayers and rituals used:  the deacon knelt on one knee and placed his head on the altar table during the ordination; the deaconess stood back with head bowed.  The deacon was given the Chalice, which he then used to administer Holy Communion; the deaconess was given the Chalice symbolically, and she gave it right back.  It is useless to attempt to evade the significance of these differences by saying (with  Professor Theodorou, quoted in the “Call”) that “the ordination of the female deacon took place in the presence of the whole Church, during the Divine Liturgy at the same time as the male deacon’s ordination” or that then the “two prayers of epiclesis of the Holy Spirit, ‘Theia Charis’ (‘the Grace Divine’) (are) proclaimed by the bishop, as with every ordination”.  Such similarity of detail does not prove that a male deacon and a female deaconess belong to the same order.  History reveals they did not.  Deaconesses existed largely to minister to women during baptism (for everyone was baptized naked in those early days) and during sickness.  It was obvious to all that a man could not anoint the naked body of female baptismal candidate, nor visit her in her sickroom to bathe her.  That was the task of the deaconess, and when adult baptism at length gave way to infant baptism, the order of deaconess was no longer needed.  That was why it died out, after becoming for a time merely honourific.
            The feminist strategy now is to push for women clergy in the form of deaconesses.  The order of deaconess is already being declared to be more or less identical to that of male deacons.  The next step is to push for women presbyters.  The Call, of course, explicitly denies this:  as Theodorou says, “liturgically speaking, deaconesses do not have it on their minds that they wish to be ordained to the presbyterate or episcopacy”.  One wonders how he knows what is on their minds, but little matter.  Recent history shows how quickly such a thin diaconal edge succeeds in advancing the progress of a presbyteral and episcopal wedge.  And writers like Topping and Behr-Sigel have already made clear that such ordination is “on their minds”.  It is either naïve or disingenuous to deny where this diaconal path leads.
            That St. Catherine’s Vision is not concerned with reviving the historical order of deaconess but simply advancing the modern feminist agenda is clear from their “Suggested Initial Parameters” of their “Pilot Program”.  In this pilot program, the proposed deaconess may be married.  Further, no minimum age is required.  This itself reveals that they are proposing an entirely different order than the historic one, for deaconesses in the early church had to be single, and (as the Quinisext Council ruled) at least forty years old.  (The minimum age for deacons was twenty-five.)  Also, theological education would be required for the candidate, as it never was for deaconesses.  It is nonsense to attempt to fudge these differences by saying that one “appreciate(s) how the structure and duties of a contemporary ministry of deaconesses may differ in some ways from place to place from the early centuries”, for it is not simply the structure and duties which have been changed in this proposal, but the entire life of the candidate and the nature of her ministry.  Greater honesty would compel one to admit the proposal of the creation of an entirely new order, and not the rejuvenation of an old one. 
            Even the Call admits that such a rejuvenated (or new) order is just the beginning.  It mentions with approval the Rhodes Statement of 1988, which “encourages further study for the possibility of women to enter into the lower orders [of Reader and Subdeacon]”.  One sees here how quickly the wedge’s thin edge will be pushed.
            The issue ultimately is not the restoration of an order of deaconess.  The true and underlying issue is whether the Orthodox Church will retain its confidence in its sacred past, its apostolic Tradition, and its Holy Scriptures.  The Anglican Communion, as a whole, did not retain such confidence, and has experienced the inevitable subsequent decline.  Orthodoxy must look at the Call issued by St. Catherine’s Vision and decide whether or not it will continue to be Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, or whether it will become simply a form of Byzantine Episcopalianism.


To hear Fr. Lawrence's interview with Fr. Chad Hatfield, Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary, click here.   

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