The Order of Deaconess: Liturgical Thoughts

St Phoebe of Cenchreae, by the hand of Suzanne Schleck

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.
- From the rite for the ordination of a deaconess
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.

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.

3 responses:

deacnaumann said...

Michael, I found your post fascinating. In my denomination (Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod), deaconesses are "commissioned" to a ministry of mercy that complements the pastoral office ministry of Word and Sacraments. We view the diaconate as a separate office, only for women and different than the position of deacon. I found your comments about liturgical practice very enlightening, and also helpful as a Confessional Lutheran who does not believe that God desires women to Celebrate at the altar.
Deaconess Cheryl D. Naumann

Michael said...

Hello, Cheryl. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. Thank you for your enlightening comment. It seems that you have a model in many ways resembling ancient practice, which may be useful for Orthodox to observe.

As a reader, I have seen in other parishes a model where the parish reader not only performs his own functions, but also trains and looks after a team of laypeople who share in that role to some dgeree. (I would like to see this in my own parish in time). It seems that something similar existed at one time with the diaconate, whereby a deacon would perform his functions but that this would be but one part of the diakonia of the parish community. There would be people dedicated to the ministry of catechesis, pastoral care, visiting the sick, and so forth, and it seems to me that this could once again be the model for an Orthodox order of deaconess: women ordained for merciful service, so that the roles of deacon and deaconess would complement each other.

There is an interesting article on the diaconate here. One interesting point made is that, in the Orthodox Church, it is the deacon who, during the Liturgy, leads the people in the the litanies, offering petitions for the Church, the world, those in civil authority, and people in various sttaes and conditions. In some of the litanies, there is provision for the deacon to insert specific petitions for particular people: the sick, the berevaed, those affected by war, travellers, expectant mothers, and so forth. This is because, properly, it should be the deacon (and those who work with the deacon) who visits these people throughout the week, caring for them, counseling them, listening to their troubles, and offering practical help where possible. Therefore, the deacon should know who is sick, who has lost loved ones, who is about to travel, and so forth, and should bring bring those concerns back to the eucharistic gathering of the faithful, for the community to offer those prayers along with the the Holy Oblation.

Sadly, this model has been lost in some quarters, with deacons being ordained depending on whether they can sing well, because of their liturgical function, but there have been moves, (very successful in some places, such as in the Carpatho-Russian diocese in North America), towards restoring a proper sense of the diaconate in parish ministry and I firmly believe that there is a place for deaconesses within that restoration. I have heard of it having been done on the small scale in women's monasteries during the 20th century, and St Elisabeth the New Martyr herself was keen for this to happen, but I really think that there is a desperate need. This is especially true in non-Orthodox countries where resources are limited and parishioners are often spread far and wide, easily becoming isolated, which is bad enough during good times but can be awful during times of difficulty, sickness, and sorrow.

O Anagnostis Stephanos said...

There is no prohibition on ordained readers touching or removing/placing items on the Holy Table or the Holy Prothesis in the Rudder; those are old wives tales from the Slavs. There is a prohibition on anyone not a hierarch or clergyman from entering the Altar, except a designated nun at a monastery.

But, the Canons give direction on the reception of Holy Communion. All clergy are to receive Holy Communion by orders: hierarchs, presbyters, deacons and then outside the Altar, subdeacons, readers, non-ordained monastics, then deaconesses and then the laity.

Let's bring back the deaconesses, they can do their sole role of helping adult women prepare for Holy Baptism! But makes sure they are age 40+ and are either widows or virgins (the only ones that existed in antiquity).

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