O Lord and Master, Who didst not reject women who were willing to offer themselves, insofar as is meet, to minister in thy holy houses, but didst receive them into an order of ministries; do Thou also bestow the grace of thy Holy Spirit upon this thy handmaid who desireth to offer herself unto Thee, and fill her with the grace of the diaconate, as Thou didst bestow thy diaconate upon Phoebe, whom Thou didst call to the work of ministry. O God, grant that she may blamelessly remain in thy holy houses, diligent in appropriate and prudent conduct. And prove thy handmaid perfect so that she, standing at the judgement-seat of Christ, may receive the worthy reward of her good conduct. Through the mercy and love for mankind of thine only-begotten Son, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.There are differing thoughts within the Orthodox Church on the subject on the order of deaconess and its revival. I have sympathy with a number of them but discussion of those matters isn't really the purpose of this post. Rather, I just find a little liturgical exploration interesting to bring some clarity to exactly what it is that we are talking about when we refer to deaconesses.- From the rite for the ordination of a deaconess
Byzantine practice has always drawn a distinction between the forms of ordination to minor orders (chanters, readers, and subdeacons), and those to major orders (bishops, priests, and deacons). Here are some of the differences.
Major orders are given inside the altar and within the context of the Divine Liturgy, at the point appropriate to the particular order concerned. So bishops are ordained after the Lesser Entrance, in time for the hierarch to be able to take his place at the cathedra/presbyterium. Priests are ordained at the Great Entrance, in time to take part in the Liturgy of the Faithful, specifically at the consecration and distribution of Communion. Deacons are ordained immediately after the anaphora, just before the Litany of the Lord's Prayer: just before the time when a deacon would re-arrange his orar to take up the practical assistance of the distribution of Communion.
By contrast, ordinations to minor orders take place outside of the altar and in a context separate from the Divine Liturgy.
Ordinations to major orders always involve the invocation of the divine grace which is absent from minor ordinations. This is considered an important distinction between cheirotonia (the laying on of hands to confer the Mystery of Holy Orders) and cheirothesia (the laying of hands for the setting apart of the candidate for particular service within the Church). Here is the example from the ordination of deacons:
The divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm, and supplies that which is lacking, ordains N., the most pious subdeacon, to be a deacon. Therefore, let us pray for him, that the grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him.This invocation is absent from minor ordinations.
In major ordinations, this invocation is followed by two prayers of ordination, while there is only one prayer of ordination in minor orders.
Finally, those in major orders receive Communion in order within the altar while those in minor orders receive Communion outside the altar, with the laity.
The reason for my listing the above is that we have an extant text of the ordination rite of deaconesses dating back to the 8th century, and on each of these points of difference, the rite has the characteristics of an ordination to major orders. The ordination of a deaconess takes place within the Divine Liturgy (at the same point as that of a deacon), inside the altar, the divine grace is invoked, two ordination prayers are used, and the deaconess receives Communion inside the altar, receiving the chalice from the hands of the bishop and replacing it herself upon the Holy Table. This last point is itself significant for, as anybody familiar with altar service will know, the minor clergy, (with the exception of the subdeacon), are not permitted to touch the Holy Table or to lay anything upon it. The rite also mentions the vesting of the new deaconess in the diaconal orar (stole).
This certainly gives a different impression from what is often heard, which is that the female diaconate was a minor order and in no way comparable to that of the deacon. However, before we are too hasty in drawing firm conclusions from this - especially the temptation present within certain quarters to suggest that all major orders at one time included women - it should be pointed out that, while there is every mark of major orders here, there are also differences between this rite and the rite for the ordination of deacons.
Here, for instance, is the invocation of the divine grace from the ordination of a deaconess:
The divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm, and supplies that which is lacking, ordains N., beloved of God, to be a deacon. Therefore, let us pray for her, that the grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon her.You will notice that there is no reference to the candidate for ordination already being a subdeacon. It appears to be assumed that she is a laywoman being ordained directly to this order. For no other order do we have any parallel rite such as this for a female equivalent, so it appears that the order of deaconess does indeed stand alone and is not part of a progression through the orders.
Secondly, while two ordination prayers are used, they are not the same prayers as those used to ordain a deacon.
The third, and most significant, difference concerns the "Dance of Isaiah". In major ordinations, the candidate is led around the Holy Table three times, each time prostrating himself before it and the bishop, and venerating it by kissing its four horns. This symbolises his marriage to the service of the Holy Mysteries at the Table and it draws on the imagery of the similar threefold circling of the marriage table by the bride and bridegroom at the wedding service. In fact, the same hymns are sung on both occasions. This is entirely absent from the rite for the ordination of a deaconess, indicating that this ordination is not to service in the altar. This limitation also seems to be hinted at in the second of the ordination prayers, quoted at the beginning of this post, which says that women offer themselves to serve in God's holy house, "insofar as is meet".
I'm not sure that we can draw any definite conclusions from an ordination rite in isolation from other scriptural, historical, and doctrinal study, and I would resist any temptation to do so, but I do think that this is an interesting exercise to challenge many preconceptions that we may hold and assumptions that we may make.
The text of the ordination rite that I have appears in Women and the Priesthood, edited by Fr Thomas Hopko. It includes interesting perspectives from Orthdodox writers and is well worth a read.