Divine grace. . . which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking, ordains N., beloved of God, as deacon. Let us pray for her, that the grace of the Holy Spirit may come upon her.
This Byzantine ordination rite for the deaconess, dating at least from the eighth century and possibly from the fourth century, is just one of the many treasures Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald unearths in Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church: Called to Holiness and Ministry. Little-known marvels of the glorious history of women in the diaconate constantly surprise the reader. Dr. Fitzgerald also bids the reader to peruse twentieth-century documents relating to the female diaconate and introduces a subject heretofore pondered by select historians and theologians.
Dr. FitzGerald's initial analysis of this topic appeared in the early l980s as a contributing article to Women and the Priesthood, edited by Thomas Hopko. Hers was the first scholarly examination of the ordination of women to the diaconate written in English for a specifically Orthodox audience. It served as a catalyst for the present work, greatly expanded in historical detail and more daring in theological expression.
The stunning retelling of the lives of deaconesses unveils a history foreign to modern Orthodox. Who is aware of St. Olympias, a deaconess and close confidant of St. John Chrysostom, who wrote her seventeen letters with the greeting: "To my dear Lady the Reverend and God-Loved, Deacon, Olympias"? Who would imagine in certain areas of Greece, monastic communities existed where women wore the diaconal stole, censed and decorated the holy sanctuary, read the Gospel when a clergyman was not present, and brought the presanctified gifts to nuns who were ill? Who could guess that in the twentieth century, in 1911 on Pentecost, Bishop Nektarios, subsequently canonized, ordained a nun to the diaconate on the Greek island of Aegina?
These accounts flesh out the mystery surrounding the work of the deaconess. One can no longer assume that their main function was to assist with the anointing with chrism on women's bodies during baptism. Rather these holy women offered spiritual direction, Christian education, medical care, philanthropy, care of children, and aid to the destitute and elderly. Both male and female deacons served as ambassadors of the bishop and fulfilled the many pastoral needs of the community.
The author admits that male deacons had priority in the liturgical and social domain because of cultural norms, but female deacons had accessibility to the private domain where men were barred for the sake of propriety. In antiquity no woman was allowed to speak to the bishop or deacon without first speaking to the deaconess. A woman grounded in holiness and recognized as such by the Church might be ordained as a deacon, and used "for many things" needed by the Church, as the ancient texts indicate.
This is not to suggest that women used or would use the diaconate as a stepping stone to the priesthood or episcopacy. To her credit Dr. Fitzgerald identifies this thought pattern as a deviant perception borrowed from the Medieval Western Catholic Church. "As with the male deacon," writes the author, "the woman deacon's ordination was not an ordination to the presiding priesthood, but rather, this was an ordination to priestly (or sacred) ministry. The focus of this ministry was essentially service to the Church." Each order has its function, particular charism, and permanent character, with the bishop acting as the unifying center of this three-fold ministry.
The author also makes a sound case that women were ordained rather than appointed to the diaconate. Citing the work of two highly respected and dedicated Orthodox theologians, Professors John Karmiris and Evangelos Theodorou, both of the University of Athens, the author fairly debates the point. Her evidence suggests that the Byzantine ordination rite for women had essential characteristics that distinguished it as a major order. For example the formula "The Divine grace. . . ." was used, the ordination took place at the altar during the Eucharist [the same time as that of the male deacon], and the deaconess received her stole and Holy Communion at the altar.
However, the author sometimes assumes much on some threadbare evidence. She overstates that there is "powerful evidence" that the male and female deacons participated in worship on more or less an equal basis. In addition, she speculates that: ". . . much evidence which indicated that women were ordained to the diaconate has been changed or destroyed by subsequent editors who were either ignorant of or unable to tolerate the idea of women, and especially married women, being called to this form of ministry within the life of the Church." Finally, she herself admits that the lives of some of the women saints she cites are not uniformly identified as deaconesses. Moreover, the reader may be taken aback by the term "woman deacon" used by the author in preference to "deaconess" or "female deacon." Dr. FitzGerald explains, "It was not unusual for the expressions: 'deacon' with the feminine article before it, 'woman deacon' or 'deaconess' to be used interchangeably within the Byzantine Church at least to about A.D. 1200." That notwithstanding, it would seem more natural to translate the phrase as "female deacon" or "deaconess" in English since we have no grammatical construct equivalent to the Greek noun preceded by a feminine article.
Nevertheless the dignity and grace and direction it affords Christian women can only be welcomed. The author's ecclesial concerns, that are related to the female diaconate and ordination generally, are handled with patience, refinement, gentleness, and intelligence. Certainly any author who garners the privilege of having both the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Patriarch of Antioch write cover endorsements deserves attention. Thank you, Dr. Fitzgerald for your twenty years of labor. Axios.
Deborah Belonick is a frequent speaker and writer about Orthodox theology. A graduate of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, she is the author of Feminism in Christianity: An Orthodox Christian Perspective and has written numerous articles focusing on women in the faith. She has also served as a representative to the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches and as a delegate to four international World Council of Churches consultations that focused on women in the Church.
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