Orthodox Church Ordains Female Deacon

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa has been on the way to diaconal ordination of women for several years.

Angelic Molen of Zimbabwe was ordained a deaconess in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and of All Africa, a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Angelic Molen of Zimbabwe was ordained a deaconess in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and of All Africa, a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. (photo: St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess)

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa ordained Zimbabwean Angelic Molen as a deaconess in the Orthodox Church. Taking place on May 2, Orthodox Holy Thursday, the ordination was conducted at St. Nektarios Mission Parish near Harare, Zimbabwe, by the archbishop of Zimbabwe, Metropolitan Serafim. 

The St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, a U.S.-based organization that has advocated for reviving the ancient female diaconate, said in a press release that Molen’s ordination would prepare the way for the restoration of the role in other branches of the Orthodox Church. The group’s board chair, Dr. Carrie Frost, wrote: “Being the first to do anything is always a challenge, but the Patriarchate of Alexandria has courageously chosen to lead the way with Metropolitan Serafim laying his hands on Deaconess Angelic.” 

According to the release, Molen said: “At first I was nervous about going into the altar, but when Metropolitan Serafim blessed me to enter the altar as part of my preparation this week, those feelings went away and I felt comfortable. I am ready.” According to the St. Phoebe Center, Molen was well received by her community and parish.

“The Alexandrian Patriarchate in Africa felt the need to revive this order to serve the daily pastoral needs of Orthodox Christians in Africa,” the release read. Metropolitan Serafim said that Molen will have both liturgical and pastoral roles. He said: “She is going to do what the deacon is doing in the liturgy and in all the sacraments in our Orthodox services.”

Metropolitan Serafim said that Angelic Molen will have both liturgical and pastoral roles. Credit: St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess
Metropolitan Serafim said that Angelic Molen will have both liturgical and pastoral roles. Credit: St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess

Serafim added that “one of the most important fields of work of the deaconess was the exercise of the works of love. They were the angels of mercy and the visiting sisters of the sick, the ‘grieving’ and poor women, imparting to them the gifts of Christian love.”

One of the important functions of deaconesses will be to distribute the Eucharist, even while their role will not be identical to the work of their counterparts of more than 1,000 years ago. However, he noted that “we must admit that women can offer the Orthodox Church a great missionary work,” as well as evangelism and teaching, and highlighted their missionary, catechetical, and teaching work. After her ordination, Molen distributed the holy Eucharist, which in the Byzantine rite is given via spoon and includes the body and the blood.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa has been on the way to diaconal ordination of women for several years. At a 2016 synod in Alexandria, Egypt, the Patriarchate voted to reinstate the female diaconate. In 2017, the Patriarchate ordained six sub-deaconesses in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Among the functions of deaconesses may be baptism, which in Orthodox churches is conducted by full immersion. In the early Church, full immersion for adults was followed by anointing of the whole body, which required the assistance of deaconesses for the sake of propriety.

According to the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, the only mention of a deaconess in the Bible is in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (16:1), which refers to Phoebe as diakonos or “servant,” even while no official status was implied. However, citing testimony by Roman author Pliny, the encyclopedia says “there can be no question that before the middle of the fourth century women were permitted to exercise certain definite functions in the Church and were known by the special name of diakonoi or diakonissai.” The fourth-century apostolic constitutions include instructions for the ordination to the female diaconate.

Despite the ancient practice, Pope Francis has declared it is impossible for women to be ordained to the priesthood or diaconate.

Pope Francis (R) embraces new Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich after he appointed him during an Ordinary Public Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, 2019 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Pope Francis vs. Cardinal Hollerich

EDITORIAL: The Pope’s comments regarding women’s ordination in his interview with CBS put a damper on the movement to alter the Church’s teaching on the priesthood and diaconate.