Greek Orthodox restore female diaconate - 'Grant Her Your Spirit'
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Sent: Wednesday, February 02, 2005 9:23 PM
'Grant Her Your Spirit'
America (americamagazine.org), Vol. 192 No. 4, February 7, 2005
By Phyllis Zagano
The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece voted in Athens on Oct. 8, 2004, to
restore ordination of women to the diaconate. All the members of the Holy
Synod-125 metropolitans and bishops and Archbishop Christodoulos, the head
of the church of Greece-had considered the topic. The decision does not
directly affect the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is an
eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Greek
ecclesiastical provinces of the Ecumenical Patriarchate received their
independence from Constantinople in 1850 and were proclaimed the
Autocephalous Church of Greece.
While women deacons had virtually disappeared by the ninth century,
discussion of the restoration of women in the diaconate in Orthodoxy began
in the latter half of the 20th century. Two books on the topic by Evangelos
Theodorou, Heroines of Love: Deaconesses Through the Ages (1949) and The
"Ordination" or "Appointment" of Deaconesses (1954), documented the
sacramental ordination of women in the early church. His work was
complemented in the Catholic Church by an article published by Cipriano
Vagaggini, a Camaldolese monk, in Orientalia Christiana Periodica in 1974.
The most significant scholarship on the topic agrees that women were
sacramentally ordained to the diaconate, inside the iconostasis at the
altar, by bishops in the early church. Women deacons received the diaconal
stole and Communion at their ordinations, which shared the same Pentecostal
quality as the ordination of a bishop, priest or male deacon.
Despite the decline of the order of deaconesses in the early Middle Ages,
Orthodoxy never prohibited it. In 1907 a Russian Orthodox Church commission
reported the presence of deaconesses in every Georgian parish; the popular
20th-century Orthodox saint Nektarios (1846-1920) ordained two women as
deacons in 1911; and up to the 1950's a few Greek Orthodox nuns became
monastic deaconesses. In 1986 Christodoulos, then metropolitan of Demetrias
and now archbishop of Athens and all of Greece, ordained a woman deacon
according to the "ritual of St. Nektarios"-the ancient Byzantine text St.
Multiple inter-Orthodox conferences called for the restoration of the order,
including the Interorthodox Symposium at Rhodes, Greece, in 1988, which
plainly stated, "The apostolic order of deaconess should be revived." The
symposium noted that "the revival of this ancient order should be envisaged
on the basis of the ancient prototypes testified to in many sources and with
the prayers found in the Apostolic Constitutions and the ancient Byzantine
At the Holy Synod meeting in Athens in 2004, Metropolitan Chrysostom of
Chalkidos initiated discussion on the subject of the role of women in the
Church of Greece and the rejuvenation of the order of female deacons. In the
ensuing discussion, some older bishops apparently disagreed with the
complete restoration of the order. Anthimos, bishop of Thessaloniki, later
remarked to the Kathimerini English Daily, "As far as I know, the induction
of women into the police and the army was a failure, and we want to return
to this old matter?"
While the social-service aspect of the female diaconate is well known, the
Holy Synod decided that women could be promoted to the diaconate only in
remote monasteries and at the discretion of individual bishops. The limiting
decision to restore only the monastic female diaconate did not please some
synod members. The Athens News Agency reported that Chrysostomos, bishop of
Peristeri, said, "The role of female deacons must be in society and not in
the monasteries." Other members of the Holy Synod agreed and stressed that
the role of women deacons should be social-for example, the care of the
The vote of the Holy Synod to restore ordination of women to the diaconate
under limited circumstances may be the most progressive idea the Orthodox
Church can bring to the world. The document only gives bishops the option,
if they wish, to ordain senior nuns in monasteries of their eparchies.
Bishops who choose to promote women to the diaconate will use the ancient
Byzantine liturgy that performs the same cheirotonia -- laying on of
hands -- for deaconesses as in each major order: bishop, priest and deacon.
Even so, some (mostly Western) scholars have argued that the historical
ordination of women deacons was not a cheirotonia, or ordination to major
orders, but a cheirothesia, a blessing that signifies installation to a
minor order. The confusion is understandable, since the two terms were
sometimes used interchangeably, but other scholars are equally convinced
that women were ordained to the major order of the diaconate. The proof will
be in the liturgy the bishops actually use. At present there is only one
liturgy and one tradition by which to create a woman deacon in the Byzantine
rite, and it is demonstrably a ritual of ordination for the "servant who is
to be ordained to the office of a deacon."
Even the document on the diaconate issued by the Vatican's International
Theological Commission in 2002 admits that "Canon 15 of the Council of
Chalcedon (451) seems to confirm the fact that deaconesses really were
'ordained' by the imposition of hands (cheirotonia)." Despite the pejorative
use of quotation marks here and elsewhere in the document when historical
ordinations of women deacons are mentioned, this Vatican commission seems
unwilling to deny the history to which the Church of Greece has now newly
returned. Further, the Vatican document points out that the practice of
ordaining women deacons according to the Byzantine liturgy lasted at least
into the eighth century. It does not review Orthodox practice after 1054.
The rejuvenation of the order of deaconess in the Church of Greece is
expected to begin during the winter of 2004-5. The contemporary ordination
(cheirotonia) of women provides even more evidence and support for the
restoration of the female diaconate in the Catholic Church, which has
acknowledged the validity of Orthodox sacraments and orders. Despite the
distinction in Canon 1024-"A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination
validly"-one can presume the possibility of a derogation from the law, as
suggested by the Canon Law Society of America in 1995, to allow for diaconal
ordination of women. (The history of Canon 1024 is clearly one of attempts
to restrict women from priesthood, not from the diaconate.)
In fact, the Catholic Church has already indirectly acknowledged valid
ordinations of women by the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the churches
of the East that ordains women deacons. There are two recent declarations of
unity-agreements of mutual recognition of the validity of sacraments and of
orders-between Rome and the Armenian Church, one signed by Paul VI and
Catholicos Vasken I in 1970, another between John Paul II and Catholicos
Karekin I in 1996.
These agreements are significant, for the Armenian Apostolic Church has
retained the female diaconate into modern times. The Armenian Catholicossate
of Cilicia has at least four ordained women. One, Sister Hrip'sime, who
lives in Istanbul, is listed in the official church calendar published by
the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey as follows: "Mother Hrip'sime
Proto-deacon Sasunian, born in Soghukoluk, Antioch, in 1928; became a nun in
1953; Proto-deacon in 1984; Mother Superior in 1998. Member of the Kalfayian
Order." Mother Hrip'sime has worked to restore the female diaconate as an
active social ministry, and for many years was the general director of Bird'
s Nest, a combined orphanage, school and social service center near Beiruit,
Lebanon. Her diaconate, and that of the three other women deacons, is far
The future Catholic response to the documented past and the changing present
promises to be interesting. The tone of the International Theological
Commission document reveals an attempt to rule out women deacons, but the
question is left remarkably open: "It pertains to the ministry of
discernment which the Lord established in his church to pronounce
authoritatively on this question."
It is becoming increasingly clear that despite the Catholic Church's
unwillingness to say yes to the restoration of the female diaconate
as an ordained ministry of the Catholic Church, it cannot say no.
Prayer for the Ordination of a Woman Deacon
O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and
of woman, who replenished with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah,
and Anna, and Huldah; who did not disdain that your only-begotten Son should
be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the
temple, did ordain women to be keepers of your holy gates-look down now upon
this your servant who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and
grant her your Holy Spirit, that she may worthily discharge the work which
is committed to her to your glory, and the praise of your Christ, with whom
glory and adoration be to you and the
Holy Spirit for ever. Amen."
-Apostolic Constitutions, No. 8 (late fourth century)
Phyllis Zagano is adjunct associate professor of philosophy and religious
studies at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., and author
of Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in
the Catholic Church (Crossroad, 2000).
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