WOMEN DEACONS

Elaine Bishop considers the biblical and patristic models for women's ministry

WOMEN DEACONS have become a fact of life in the Church of England. While some believe that women may proceed from deacon to priest to bishop, others hold that women may become deacons but must remain deacons: they must not move up. Yet others hold that women may not move across from the non-apostolic diaconate. And there are some who believe that women may not be deacons at all.

All the various convictions about the nature of the diaconate were canvassed in the early 1980s. When women began to be ordained into the hitherto all-male diaconate some bishops pointed out to them that theirs was a permanent diaconate, but some of the women disagreed. This chaotic state of thinking has persisted, but the 'ordinary churchgoer' does not hear much discussion of the subject.

I therefore welcome Clare King's article 'Can Women be Deacons?' (December New Directions ) because it courageously re-opens a question of great importance. I shall argue that women may not be deacons, not in a spirit of confrontation, but rather to open the subject further.

The origin of the diaconate has traditionally been seen in Acts 6. The Apostles' workload had become too heavy. Caring for the flock, an apostolic task given primarily to Peter, had brought upon them more than they had time or energy for. Hence the appointment of the seven deacons, all men, to shoulder part of the Apostles' burden. The grace of the Holy Spirit was transmitted to the deacons as the Apostles laid their hands on them. Deacons thus became an extension of the apostolic presence in the Church, and in this respect they can be compared with bishops. Acts shows the Church expanding. As time, space and death remove them to a distance from the Churches, the Apostles appoint bishops and elders/presbyters to take their place. The New Testament testifies to this, and corroboration comes in 1 Clement. Thus the apostolic presence was extended into all the new Churches as they were springing up.

Now, the apostolic presence is itself an extension of the presence of Jesus. In the Gospels we see our Lord giving the Apostles his three-fold commission: to administer the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, to pronounce absolution, and to pass on his teaching faithfully. And it is clear that when they act thus with his authority, it is Christ who acts, Christ who is present. (Mark 14: 22-4, 1 Cor 11: 23-6, John 20: 21-3, Matthew 28:16-20,) They are in fact icons of Christ, We must, however, press back further, even behind our Lord himself, for Christ is the icon of the Father. We therefore have a catena:

 

the Father - the Son - the Apostles < the Deacons - the Bishops - the Priests (Presbyters)

This is how Ignatius of Antioch understood Church order, for he wrote: 'Let all respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as also the bishop is a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the college of the Apostles. Without these the name of Church is not given.' (Trallians 3.) A congregation only becomes a Church when the apostolic ministry is in place, symbolising and guaranteeing the presence of the Father in the midst of his household. To take an Ignatian view needs no apology. He was much more likely to know the apostolic teaching than anyone can be today. He was there! Strenuous efforts have been made in recent years to show that, in spite of Scripture and Tradition, women did / might have / may actually serve as bishop, priest or deacon. But if the apostolic ministry is seen in Ignatian terms, it is difficult to see how a woman could be appointed without giving a very confusing message. However devout and able she may be, she could not be an icon of fatherhood.

Much ink has been spilt in endeavours to establish that there were women deacons in New Testament times. A case resting on Phoebe and relatively doubtful meanings of words applied to her is not strong. I believe a more interesting and profitable line to follow begins with a consideration of the opening verses of Luke 8. Here we have the pattern and prototype of women's ministry. Here are two groups, of men and of women, who followed the Lord: 'He went throughout every city and village ... and the Twelve were with him, and certain women which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene out of whom went seven devils . . . and many others, which ministered to him of their substance.' They do not form a mixed group with the Twelve, and it would be simplistic to state merely that a mixed group would have been socially unacceptable. The difference between the two groups, the men and the women, goes deeper. How did the men get there? In obedience to the command, 'Follow me.' And Jesus was to remind them later that really they had had no choice: 'You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.' (John 15: 16.) But the women did not follow in response to a command. They had been healed, and their response was to that touch of healing love. They occupy a most privileged position, close to Jesus and waiting personally on him. Jesus gives them no orders, and seems to trust himself to their hands, just as, in his infancy he trusted himself to the hands of Mary, and, on a memorable occasion later, to those of the woman who washed his feet with her tears. The diners rebuked her, but Jesus' own words were, 'Let her alone.' The women's ministry seems to be characterised by scope and freedom and personal service to Christ, and the apostolic ministry by duties and commands. Christ treated the men and the women in quite different ways.

We do well to keep this Biblical picture in mind when we survey women's ministries in the early Christian centuries. Scanty as the evidence is, does it at all reflect the practice of the Lord? As is well known, the evidence is scattered through several collections of early documents, and it has been summarised by many writers, of whom the most comprehensive and the most neglected is Aime Georges Martimort. His book Deaconesses: An Historical Study, was published in 1982, and has been available in English ever since 1986 (Ignatius Press San Francisco).

To summarise his findings in a few words: although 'deacon' was used of men and women until some time in the third century, a female deacon did not function as a male deacon. The passage from the Didascalia quoted by Clare King first echoes Ignatius and then mentions the woman deacon separately. The ministry of the bishop, deacon and priest is in line from the Father, the Son and the Apostles, a line of definite tasks and duties. 'As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.' The woman deacon's typology is the Holy Spirit, characteristically ranging freely and intuitively: 'The Spirit bloweth where it listeth.' This would seem to be in agreement with our Lord's practice and the passage in Luke 8.

Reference is often made to the 8th century Byzantine Ordination Rite. One hears it said that women deacons were ordained 'alongside' male deacons, as proof that they were ordained into the same order. The several significant differences are glossed over, one of which is that the male deacon, having received the chalice, communicates the people, but the female deacon, having received, replaces the chalice on the altar, She does not have a liturgical role.

But (some-one will say), if we are to follow the women in the Gospels, we shall be back sweeping the floor and nursing the baby. But look at Jesus at work with women. Martha is engrossed in the cares of this life. Jesus wants to draw her on to appreciate spiritual things, a stage which Mary has reached. He is not content to leave her where she is, and at the grave of Lazarus he tries again and succeeds. She reaches out and grasps the concept of eternal life in Christ, when he tells her, 'Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.'

The woman at the well comes with complicated domestic arrangements and an immediate need for water. In a short conversation Jesus shows her that there is another life, and nourishment for the soul through him. She seizes on it, it now takes precedence, and she 'left her water pot.'

Mary Magdalene comes to the garden on Easter morning in the certainty that earthly ties with Jesus are ended. Then when she recognises him it seems they are restored. But, 'Touch me not,' he says, and follows that seemingly cold rebuke with the unique message that was given only to her. 'I ascend.' So earthly ties are finished - but only because they are to be replaced by a spiritual link. 'I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' Henceforth the Church's link is to be with the Father through the ascended Son, a link that was to be realised with the descent of the Holy Spirit. And so personal service to Jesus widens out into service to his body the Church, and from the material to the spiritual.

Luke 8 and Mary Magdalene are, I suggest, the proper starting points for developing a theology of women's ministry, one quite distinct from the apostolic ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.

 

Elaine Bishop lives in Chichester. In the period immediately before 1992 she wrote much of the campaign literature for WAOW.

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Opening Page