Greek Orthodox in Africa Move Toward Restoring Deaconesses

The Patriarchate of Alexandria may become the latest Church to restore the ancient order of deaconess.

Icon image of St. Olympias the deaconess
Icon image of St. Olympias the deaconess (photo: Public domain via CNA)

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa has announced its first formal step toward restoring the ancient office of deaconess. A commission of bishops will now examine how the restoration would unfold in the modern era.

But should the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate eventually restore the office, it is not foreseen that this could serve as a modern-day precedent for the Catholic Church to ordain women deaconesses.

According to the statement released by the patriarchate, the bishops decided on Nov. 16, the second day of their holy synod, to move forward with reinstituting deaconesses. This was after a presentation by Metropolitan Gregory of Cameroon, who “spoke on the institution of deaconesses in the missionary field,” followed by an involved theological debate and discussion.

“On the issue of the institution of deaconesses, it was decided to revive it and elect bishops on tripartite committee for detailed consideration,” the patriarchate’s media release stated.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria and All Africa is just one of the 14 Eastern Orthodox Churches, so any decision that it takes on deaconesses would be limited to its jurisdiction. However, George Demacopoulos, a professor of theology at Fordham University and co-director of its Orthodox Christian Studies Center, told the Register that the decision is significant for the world of Orthodoxy, which has been discussing the restoration of the deaconess for decades. The patriarchate is second in prestige only to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and could encourage other Orthodox Churches to move in this direction.

Demacopoulos predicted that the patriarchate commission will examine how to implement the will of the synod and restore the office of deaconess in a modern context. But he acknowledged that others have read the statement as saying only that the bishops will look into the matter. Either way, it is a significant step forward.

“There’s absolutely no doubt the female diaconate existed in the early Church: In the third, fourth, and fifth century, it was significant,” he said.

However, he cautioned that an incomplete historical record makes a determination of the full scope of their duties difficult.

In the Greek Orthodox Churches, he said, deaconesses had a liturgical role to the extent that certain Churches had choirs of deaconesses for the Divine Liturgy. Deaconesses served as catechists for women who were considering conversion, assisted at baptisms for female adult converts and distributed the Eucharist to female shut-ins.

Demacopoulos said the historical record indicates that the female diaconate was reserved for celibate women and only for those over 40 years old. While the ordination rites for deacons and deaconesses in the Greek Orthodox tradition are almost identical, they were parallel institutions — not interchangeable roles, Demacopoulos explained.

The female diaconate died out around the 12th century, he said, although, beginning in the 19th century, there were sporadic efforts in Eastern Orthodoxy to revive the institution. In more recent times, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has encouraged discussion toward its restoration throughout Orthodoxy.


Oriental Orthodoxy’s Deaconesses

The Coptic Orthodox Church most recently revived the office of the deaconess under the previous Coptic pope, Shenouda III, in 1981.

Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, told the Register that the women’s diaconate in the Coptic Church provides an opportunity for women who discern active service in the Church as consecrated celibates.

While the Latin Catholic Church developed within the established framework of monastic life communities for men and women that could be contemplative or active, in the Coptic Church, monasteries for men and women have always been ordered toward the contemplative life.

Before the re-establishment of the office of deaconess, said Bishop Angaelos, “There wasn’t an avenue for them to serve [in public]. If they went into a convent, they would be in a prayerful life in a contemplative order.”

“This way,” he added, “we offer an alternative to young women who want to serve in a community, but who also want to be part of a celibate order.”

In the Coptic Church, the role of active ministry, seeing to the needs of its members and dependents, has been filled by deacons and deaconesses. In many ways, the process resembles that of becoming a religious sister in the Latin tradition. Bishop Angaelos explained that, typically, young women are drawn to the vocation of deaconess, although widows have become deaconesses as well. Celibacy is part of the ministry these women embrace, and they serve the day-to-day needs of their communities.

But unlike deacons, the deaconesses have no liturgical function in the Coptic Church. Bishop Angaelos said it uses the term “consecration” rather than “ordination” regarding deaconesses, since they are never in line for priestly orders.

The Armenian Apostolic Church also has a long history of deaconesses, with the practice becoming more important at different times through the centuries, noted Father Daniel Findikyan, professor of liturgical studies at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in Armonk, New York.

Father Findikyan told the Register that deaconesses were not present everywhere in the Armenian Church, but they had once been particularly strong in parts of modern-day Iran, and deaconesses are among its saints and martyrs.

The women who become deaconesses in the Armenian Church are all nuns, he explained, and so live celibate lives. Father Findikyan explained the deaconesses are ordained with the same rite used to ordain men as deacons, and they actually exercise the same liturgical privileges. He said they serve alongside male deacons on the altar and can chant the Gospel during the Divine Liturgy.

“Ordaining a nun a deaconess would have given her a real, tangible liturgical presence in ministry, at the altar, with the priest, which they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

He said the Armenian Church saw its own revival of the deaconess in the 1960s in Istanbul. At that time, he said, the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople selected a group of nuns who were involved in orphanages and charity work to be ordained sub-deacons, and he ordained their abbess a deacon.


The Catholic Church

The steps taken by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria come as the Catholic Church under Pope Francis takes a renewed look at the history of deaconesses in the early Church.

While Pope St. John Paul II stated definitively in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) that the Church has “no authority whatsoever” from Jesus Christ to ordain women to the priesthood, he did not declare anything definitive regarding women and diaconal ordination.

Part of what fuels the continuing discussion among Catholic scholars about deaconesses is that while the Eastern Churches have tended to retain a broader use of the word “ordination,” the Latin Catholic Church’s scholastic theology over time restricted the term to refer to participation in the progressive degrees of holy orders (deacon, priest and bishop).

“The whole understanding of ordination changed so dramatically, it’s just not the same thing anymore,” Gary Macy, a theology professor at Santa Clara University and co-author of Women Deacons: Past, Present and Future, told the Register. “There was a good understanding of ordination back then; it’s just a different [understanding] now.”

In the Medieval West, he explained, as the 11th-century reform movement gained steam, “ordination became tied specifically to the Eucharist.”

The Second Vatican Council later clarified in Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, that priests and bishops are ordained to a ministry of priesthood, but deacons are ordained “unto a ministry of service.”

The Vatican’s International Theological Commission, in its 2002 document “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles,” concluded that deaconesses “were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons” and reaffirmed the Church’s tradition holding “[t]he unity of the sacrament of holy orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other.”

The document also noted that while deaconesses did exist in the Western Church prior to the 11th century, “It should be pointed out that in the West there is no trace of any deaconesses for the first five centuries.”

The 2002 commission’s view tends to affirm the conclusion advanced by Sister Sara Butler, of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, author of The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, that when the Church had ordained women, it ordained them to their own order of “deaconess” and not to the diaconal grade of holy orders. Others, such as Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, have argued that the Church ordained both men and women to the same diaconal order, while only men could be candidates for priestly ministry.

The 2002 Vatican document stopped short of making a definitive statement on the question of deaconesses in the Catholic Church and whether the office should or could be restored.


Pope Francis

The Catholic Church’s special commission on the history of deaconesses has just begun to examine those questions more thoroughly with its first round of meetings on Nov. 25.

Pope Francis has suggested that active religious sisters in the modern era are already fulfilling the role of the deaconesses from the early Church. The Holy Father has also expressed open reluctance to make any moves that would “clericalize” the laity.

However, he agreed, in response to a query from a sister from the International Union of Superiors General in May, that it would be helpful for the Church “to clarify this point.”

Nicholas Wolfram Smith is a Register correspondent.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.