23 October 2007

the historic diaconate

The text of the Euchologion comes down to us from the early centuries of the church in a version dating from the 8th century, though bearing witness to earlier practice. The Euchologion includes a variety of rites for setting apart individuals to service.

The following are prayers prescribed as a bishop sets apart a woman for the diaconate, with prayer and the laying on of hands:
Holy and All-powerful God, through the birth in flesh of your Only-begotten Son and our God from a Virgin you sanctified woman, and granted not only to men but also to women the grace and visitation of the Holy Spirit. Now, Master, look upon this servant of yours also, call her to the work of your diaconate and send down upon her the rich gift of your Holy Spirit. Guard her in your orthodox faith in a blameless way of life in accordance with what is well pleasing to you, as she fulfils her ministry at every moment.

Master and Lord, you do not reject women who offer themselves, and by divine counsel, to minister as is fitting to your holy houses, but you accept them in the order of ministers. Give the grace of your Holy Spirit to this servant of yours also, who wishes to offer herself to you, and to accomplish the grace of the diaconate, as you gave the grace of your diaconate to Phoebe, whom you called to the work of the ministry. Grant her, O God, to persevere without condemnation in your holy churches, to give careful attention to her way of life, to chastity in particular, and show her to be your perfect servant, that, when she stands before the judgment of Christ, she may also receive the fitting reward of her way of life.
An earlier text, from the 6th century Apostolic Constitutions, prescribes that as the bishop "lays hands" upon a candidate in "presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses," he shall pray:
O Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, creator of man and of woman, you replenished the Spirit upon Miriam and Deborah and Anna and Huldah; you did not disdain that your only begotten Son should be born of a woman; also in the tabernacle of the testimony and in the temple, you ordained women to be keepers of your holy gates - may you now also look down upon this your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of deaconess, and grant her your Holy Spirit, and 'cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit,' that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to your glory and the praise of your Christ, with whom may glory and adoration be unto you and the Holy Spirit for ever.
What are we to make of these ancient rites? How are we to interpret them? What is their relationship to the teaching and witness of the New Testament?

In the New Testament scriptures, we find the example of Phoebe to whom Paul refers as a "deacon of the church at Cenchreae" (Rom 16:1). There is also 1 Timothy 3 where, following the qualifications for overseers, the text speaks of "deacons likewise" and then "women likewise," perhaps suggesting a parallel between these women and their male diaconal counterparts.

Moreover, arguments against the ordination of women to the presbyterate typically turn upon what is understood as a prohibition against women "teaching or ruling" over men (1Ti 2:12), which would not apply directly to the issue of women in the diaconate as an office of service, especially to other women.

Thus, various ecclesiastical bodies, like the ancient church and in fidelity to their understanding of Scripture, have included women in some manner or another within the diaconal ministry of the church. In the denomination I grew up in - the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) - we had deaconesses who, though not ordained, were set apart by prayer and served as a body alongside deacons in the duties of the diaconate.

This was, admittedly, a default position since in 1976 a majority of a denominational study committee of the RPCES had determined that "some women, full of the Holy Spirit and with appropriate gifts from him, may be called of God to serve the body of Christ as deacons and that women so gifted and called may be set apart (ordained) to the office of deacons" (as they had been in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America since the late 19th century).

But the committee's recommendation did not finally pass in Synod, though it was raised again two years later in an Overture from the Michigan-Northern Indiana Presbytery.

Since that time there has always been a significant minority in the RPCES (and now the PCA, with which the RPCES joined in the early 1980s) who have held, on biblical grounds, to the propriety of ordination to women to the diaconate. When I was ordained as a deacon a decade ago, I took an exception to the Book of Church Order on this matter, an exception which hardly raised an eyebrow among the presbyters then examining me since it was an exception held by several of their number as well.

Whatever the ambiguities of the New Testament data may be and whatever the practices of contemporary church bodies, as we see in the prayers above, it is certain that by the early third century the church had deaconesses (or women deacons). The women were given both liturgical and catechetical duties (e.g., teaching women, taking communion to the sick, assisting with baptisms) and were set apart by bishops through the laying on of hands. Often these women were widows or celibates.

How this historical evidence is interpreted and evaluated is another matter. Some hold that these women were "ordained" to an ecclesiatical office like male deacons. Others see them as simply "set apart" to a duty like lectors or other lesser functions. There is also the question of the relation of the diaconate in the early post-apostolic centuries to the diaconate and "widows" we find in the New Testament, as well as their relation to the permanent diaconate revived in the Western church at the time of the Reformation.

In recent decades, there are two important contributions to the interpretation and evaluation of this historical evidence.

First, there is Aimé Georges Martimort's Deaconesses: An Historical Study (Ignatius, 1986). A French Roman Catholic scholar, Martimort gives an extended and excellent apology for the historical credibility of the position of the Roman Catholic church - that the deaconesses of the early church formed a non-clerical order to assist and subordinate to male deacons, who were not permitted certain functions open to their male counterparts, and whose setting apart by the hands of the bishop did not constitute "ordination."

Second, there is Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald's Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church (Holy Cross, 1999). An Eastern Orthodox theologian who has represented the Ecumenical Patriarch at conferences, FitzGerald winsomely argues that the deaconesses of the early Church were truly an ordained order, coordinate with, even if subordinate to, their male counterparts, and who ministered as deacons teaching and giving pastoral care primarily to women.

In my opinion, FitzGerald provides the stronger historical argument, even if Martimort shows that the ministry of deaconesses was more limited in some respects in comparison with male deacons. Neither author fully evaluates whether the analogous relationship between men and women in the diaconate, with differences as well as similarities, was primarily a matter of following biblical example or of allowing cultural accommodation.

Of course, the biblical argument is primary, but these authors provide much insight into how the relevant Scriptural data was understood in the early post-apostolic Church, relative to their own cultural context. As such, their work is one important piece to consider as churches continue to discern how God is calling women to use their gifts in service to Christ's body.