Can Women be Deacons?

 

Clare King considers the evidence of the first four centuries and more

Let us first look to the New Testament and the role of Phoebe. Phoebe is described in the NIV of Romans 16:1 simply "as a servant of the Church". However, the Greek describes her as a diakonos of the congregation, using exactly the same term as is used elsewhere of men, (Col. 1:7; 4:7; & Eph. 6:21). However, in those passages the addition of phrases such as "of Christ" or "in the Lord" seems to indicate a general sense. Here with regard to Phoebe the additional phrase of the congregation suggests ecclesiastical office.

Some biblical translations render diakonos as deaconess (RSV, NJB), but the use of this feminine term suggests something different from or inferior to the male office. However, it is worth noting that the New Testament never uses the feminine diakoissa, which first occurs in post-biblical times.

Phoebe is also described as Paul's 'prostatis', derived from the verb to set over. In its masculine form it is translated as chief, president, champion or patron. However, in the New Testament when used of Phoebe it has been translated as helper, right-hand woman, suggesting that certain exegetes might not wish to admit that women had a significant role or office within the New Testament Church.

From the patristic period until now biblical scholars have differed as to whether "the women" mentioned in 1Tim 3 were themselves deacons or the wives of deacons.

St. John Chrysostom and the Church at Antioch had no doubt that this passage referred to women deacons and the Syrian Church made considerable use of women in this ministry. John Chrysostom in Epist. 1 ad Timoth. 3, Homil. ]]:].

While in the Western Church the diaconate becomes an order restricted to men in the Eastern Church a different picture is emerging. This is illustrated most clearly in the third century writings called the Didascalia.

"...the bishop sits for you in the place of God almighty. But the (male) deacon stands in the place of Christ, you must love him: and the woman deacon shall be honoured by you in the place of the Holy Spirit: hold the presbyters in the likeness of the holy apostles."

This quotation points to the complementarity of ministry, just as the Godhead is a communion of persons equal but distinct so in the diaconate the equal but different ministries of men and women are revealed.

Bishop Graham Leonard echoes this when he writes: if

... one reason 1 have never had any difficulty about women being deacons, (is) because 1 believe it is a complementary ministry." Epworth Review Vol. 1 1, Jan. 1984.

Judith Lang in her book Ministers of Grace says this:

"Three things stand out: the accepted place of the women deacon, her honouring "in the place of the Holy Spirit", and the high status of the male deacon above that of the presbyter." 1989, p63

The role of the woman deacon was exercised within the context of a segregated society. Therefore a woman who was a deacon was able to move freely among the women and children of the community she served. Her task was to care for the sick and the needy, to instruct and evangelise families and in particular to encourage those women she brought for baptism in their ongoing Christian life, in short she was to work in an area of ministry closed to the male deacon.

 

Deacons or Deaconesses ?

The word deaconess is used for the first time by the author of the third century Didascalia. It has been suggested that this was a separate lay order and that women were never ordained deacons. As has been noted above the evidence seems to rest on the translation of the word deacon in relation to a female subject. The fact that the word deaconess does not appear until the third century and even then is used inter-changeably with the term woman deacon suggests that this was an issue for conservative biblical translators rather than the early Church community. Women's diaconal ministry was widely accepted and especially evident in the Eastern Church.

The revival of a diaconate for men and women is now receiving ecumenical support throughout the Church. Within the Orthodox Church a diaconate of men and women was never altogether abandoned although at times it fell into disuse. The prospect of its revival has been received positively and in 1988 the Rhodes consultation on the ministry of women specifically recommended the re-admittance of women to this order. It is interesting to note that the Roman Catholic Church's official pronouncements refusing to ordain women to the priesthood carefully refrain from any reference to the diaconate.

In 1971 the Catholic Theological Society of America in a study commissioned by the U.S. Bishops Committee on the Permanent Diaconate recommended the ordination of women to the diaconate of that church. (See Research Report, Women in Church and Society, ed. Butler, The Catholic Theological Society of America, 1978,p47. The Bishops' Committee's own report states that among their candidates for the diaconate and the directors of diaconal programs "there is a growing conviction that women would strengthen the diaconal ministry immeasurably". Bishops' Committee on the Permanent Diaconate, Permanent Diaconate in the United States: Guidelines on their Formulation and Ministry, 1971.

 

The decline of the diaconal ministry

Towards the end of the fourth century we see the development of an increasingly complex hierarchical structure in the Western Church. Originally the Church's ministry had been defined as belonging both to the whole Church and to each member of it, even when one member functioned specifically for all.

The Church's preoccupation with hierarchy and the accompanying practice of passing through the orders to achieve higher office weakened the position of the diaconate. Baptism was originally the only sacramental prerequisite for ordination to any office. Orders now came to be regarded as rungs on a ladder and the bishop became the one who had all the orders of ministry, rather than the Church to whom all ministry belongs.

From the fourth century onwards the following factors led to the decline of the diaconate:

The Constantinian period of tolerance led to the growth of Christianity and the increasing numbers of bishops and presbyters. As the geographical responsibilities of bishops grew so the need for presbyters grew, effectively taking the bishops place in the local congregation.

The Church's hierarchy was greatly influenced by the secular society in which it was set. Therefore, the ministries of the Church find their parallels in the officers of the state. This can be seen not only in the responsibilities and functions of the ministers, but also in their dress, in the increase in the numbers of full-time paid professional ministers and the way in which passing through the clerical ranks came to be regarded as promotion.

However, the blame does not rest entirely with the Church's desire to replicate society's structures. The atmosphere was ripe for the downfall of the deacon in many places within the Church. The deacons had become too important and in many cases too self-important. Their close relationship with the bishop only added to the tensions which existed between deacons and presbyters and highlighted their differences. Basil Minchin records these differences as follows:

... presbyters as their title suggested, tended to be the staid and elderly, whilst the deacons were ... younger and more active" p78 Every Man in his Ministry , 1960

A new approach to the Church's care for the poor and needy had its impact upon the deacon's role and ministry. The original functions of deacons, except for the liturgical ones, tended to become redundant when the practice of tending to the sick and poor moved from the private house to the institution. The sick were gathered into hospitals, orphans into orphanages, the aged into almshouses, the poor into poorhouses and the strangers into guest houses. These institutions would have presbyters not deacons as their chaplains, or would later become the responsibility of monastic houses.

The advent of compulsory clerical celibacy didn't help either. It had now become accepted that the diaconate was the lowest of the orders and the numbers of men who vowed themselves to celibacy and chose to remain only a deacon were few indeed. By the ninth century there were men who were ordained deacon and never priest, but these were certainly the exception. The diaconate had become primarily a probationary period for the priesthood, with its functions defined more by what the deacon could not do rather than any distinctive role.

 

The Renewal of the Diaconate

The renewal of the diaconate has been most apparent in the last thirty years with the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Churches rediscovering the order of deacon and reflecting theologically upon the nature of the diaconate and its social and liturgical expressions. 1 am aware that this is an area that Anne will focus on later in the day and therefore the following is but a brief footnote.

The Protestant Churches have used the title deacon to describe a variety of lay ministries usually of a social and pastoral nature. These ministries range from the local ministry of lay members of a congregation to professional diaconal orders such as the Methodist order of deacons. Their functions tend to be pastoral rather than liturgical.

 

The Roman Catholic Church : Second Vatican Council

In 1964 in article 29 of its dogmatic constitution on the church, (Lumen gentium) the Second Vatican Council asked Paul VI to restore the permanent diaconate. He did so on 18th June 1967 the feast of St. Ephraem, deacon.

He says this:

"The deacon is at the disposal of the bishop in order that he may serve the whole people of God and take care of the sick and the poor .... Furthermore, he is entrusted with the mission of taking the holy Eucharist to the sick confined to their homes, of conferring baptism and of attending to preaching the word of God in accordance with the express will of the bishop." Paul VI, Ad Pascendum, 1972

All deacons are men and most are married.

The use and abuse of the diaconate in the Church of England

The decision to ordain women to the diaconate in 1986, the first ordinations took place in 1987, proved to be less of a revival of the permanent diaconate and more of an opportunity for women to exercise an ordained ministry. It was certainly a mixed blessing for those committed to a permanent diaconate. At first sight the Church of England appeared to be a Church which was encouraging and taking seriously the distinctive ministry of the diaconate, however, the situation was far more complex. The revival of a permanent diaconate was obscured by the admission to it of women who saw their own call to be to the priesthood and therefore saw the diaconate as a frustrating transitional stage.

Following the Church of England's decision to ordain women to the priesthood the transitional deacon's year was once again common place. Obviously, the number of non-transitional deacons declined and it then became increasingly difficult for those remaining deacons to find posts and for those with diaconal vocations to have them tested by the Church.

Anne will share with us her knowledge of recent developments and ecumenical discussions which shed more light and hope on the future of diaconal ministry.

In conclusion we have passed through an all too brief history of the diaconate concentrating particularly on developments in the Western Church. We have seen the diaconate change from something important, distinctive and even at times influential to a transitional probationary period.

There is much to rediscover and reclaim. It is a process in which the wider Church is very much engaged and as we shall hear the renewal of the diaconate presents the

Church with a challenge not only in the way it sees its ordained ministry, but

also how it defines itself as a diaconal, a serving, community.

 

Selected Bibliography

James Monroe Barnett, The Diaconate: A Full & Equal Order, 1981

Andrew Burnham, The Deacon at the Eucharist, 1992 ed.

Christine Hall, The Deacon's Ministry, 1991

Michael Kwatera, The Liturgical Ministry of Deacons, 1978

Ormonde Plater, Many Servants: An Introduction to Deacons, 1991

 

Claire King is deacon in the parish of Staveley and Barrow Hill, in the diocese of Sheffield. This article is excerpted from a longer paper on the Diaconate delivered to John Keble Conferences of the Cost of Conscience

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