The ordination of women deacons in the early Greek and Syriac speaking dioceses was clearly a real, sacramental ordination, equal to the ordination of male deacons.
The ordination ceremony
This follows from the following facts:
In the ordination rituals, both the ordination of a deacon and of a deaconess is called cheirotonia, i.e. Greek for ‘imposition of hands’, ‘ordination’.
Both the male and the female deacon are ordained by the Bishop.
Before the ordination of both the male and female deacon the Bishop publically declares his intention of ordaining the ordinand deacon in the ‘Divine Grace’ statement, as in all major holy orders.
The ordination of both male and female deacon takes places in the sanctuary before the altar, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist and at a very solemn moment, namely after the sacred Anaphora. So-called minor orders, such as the lectorate and subdiaconate, are imparted by a simple imposition of hands outside the sanctuary and not during the Eucharist.
The Bishop ordains both by imposing his hands on the head of the person to be ordained (the materia of the sacrament of orders).
The Bishop invokes the Holy Spirit both on the male and the female deacon with the same invocatory prayer, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit . . . ’, (the forma of the sacrament of orders).
Both the man and the woman selected for the diaconate stand waiting on the steps in front of the holy doors leading into the sanctuary, and are then conducted to the sacred altar and there ordained by the Bishop.
The Bishop speaks two prayers of ordination, characteristic for higher orders.
For both the male and the female deacon, the Bishop speaks the ekphonese (=soft-spoken) prayer ‘The divine Grace . . . .’, something that is characteristic of the higher orders.
Because of the presence of the rest of the clergy and the people, the ordination has a public character.
Both the male and the female deacon receive the stole as a sign of their ecclesiastical rank.
Both the deacon and deaconess receive the chalice for communion, which the deaconess returns personally to the altar.
The actual text of the ordination rituals for women deacons has been preserved in a few precious manuscripts:
an abbreviated form in the Apostolic Constitutions (500 AD);
a Greek Byzantine ritual, as found in the Barberini gr. 336 manuscript (the manuscript dates to around 780 AD);
a Greek Byzantine ritual, as found in the Grottaferrata gr. Gb1 manuscript (around 1020 AD);
a Greek Byzantine ritual, as found in Vatican manuscript gr. 1872 (the manuscript is from the 11th century or older);
a Greek Byzantine ritual as found in the Coislin gr. 213 Manuscript;
in seven Greek manuscripts from which a reconstructed rite for the ordination of women deacons was compiled by Goar;
a Syriac ritual in an Indian, Nestorian manuscript;
There are some small differences which do not affect the essence of the ordination.
The sacramental character of the ordination of women deacons is indisputable. In particular, both the matter and form of the ordination are identical for men and women, and express the bishop’s intention to ordain a true minister.
“If anyone says that, through sacred ordination, the Holy Spirit is not given, and that therefore the Bishop says in vain: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’, or that through this ordination the character [of holy orders] is not imprinted . . . , let him be anathema.”
The Council of Trent, Canon 4. Denzinger no 964.
The judgement of experts
While some traditional theologians still deny the sacramentality of the deaconesses’ ordination, more and more experts concur in stating that the ordination of women deacons undoubtedly belonged to the sacrament of order:
J. Morinus, Commentarius de sacris ecclesiae ordinationibus, Antwerp, 1695, P. III. ex. X. f. 143ff.
A. Ludwig, ‘Weibische Kleriker in der altchristischen und frühmittelalterlichen Kirche’, in Theologisch-praktische Monatschrift 20 (1910) pp. 548-557, 609-617; 21 (1911) pp. 141-149.
“The cheirotonia of the deaconess with its ceremonies is in form parallel to that of the deacon. All consecration formulas, from those of the Apostolic Constitutions and the Testamentum to those of the Monophysites and the Nestorians and that handed down by Matthaeus Blastares, bear witness to this fact.” A. Kalsbach, Die altkirchliche Einrichtung der Diakonissen bis zu ihrem Erlöschen, Freiburg, 1926, p. 109.
“The ordination of deaconesses is an exceptional case in the history of the Church. It belonged , without any doubt, to the higher orders.” Evangelos Theodorou, ‘Die Weihe, Die Segnung der Diakoninnen’ (in modern Greek), Theologia 25 (1954) pp. 430 – 469. “The ordination of deaconesses possessed an absolute morphological sameness to the cheirotonia of the higher clergy”; Evangelos Theodorou, ‘Das Ambt der Diakoninnen in der kirchischen Tradition. Ein orthodoxer Beitrag zum Problem der Frauenordination’, US 33 (1978) pp. 162-172.
J. Funk, “Klerikale Frauen?” in Österreichisches Archiv für Kirchenrecht 14 (1963) pp. 274-280.
L. Zscharnack, Der Dienst der Frau in den ersten Jahrhunderten der christlichen Kirche, Göttingen, 1902, pp. 130ff.
J. Daniélou, “Le ministère des femmes dans l’Église ancienne, ” in La Maison-Dieu 61 (1960) pp. 70 – 96.
“To push the argument against the sacramentality of the ordination of deaconesses too far would be in fact to deny the sacramentality of the ordination of deacons. ” Ch. R. Meyer, ‘Ordained Women in the Early Church’, in The Catholic Citizen 53 (1967) p.118.
Cipriano Vagaggini, ‘L’Ordinazione delle diaconesse nella traditione greca e byzantina’, Oriente Christiano Patristico (OrChrP) 40 (1974) pp. 145 – 189.
Roger Gryson, Le ministère des Femmes dans l’Église ancienne, Gembloux, Duculot 1972; ‘L’Ordination des Diaconesses d’après les Constitutions apostoliques’, MSR 31 (1974) pp. 41-45.
Herbert Vorgrimler, Sacramental Theology, The Liturgical Press, Minnesota 1992, pp.272-273: “The possibility of ordaining women as deacons is quite another matter. There was such an ordination in the early days of the Church . . . The question whether their ordination is sacramental could not be asked before the reflections on sacramental theology in high Scholastics. In the Byzantine liturgy, it has all the characteristics of a major ordination.”
Andreas Christof Lochmann, Studien zum Diakonat der Frau, Siegen 1996.
Walter Gross, Frauen Ordination. Stand der Diskussion in der katholichen Kirche, München 1996.
A. Jensen, ‘Das Amt der Diakonin in der kirchlichen Tradition des ersten Jahrtausend’, in Diakonat. Ein Amt für Frauen in der Kirche — Ein frauengerechtes Amt?, ed. P. Hünermann et al., Schwabenverlag, Ostfildern 1997, pp. 53-77.
P.Hünermann, ‘Theologische Argumente für die Diakonatsweihe von Frauen’, in Diakonat. Ein Amt etc., pp. 98-128.
B.J.Hilberath, ‘Das Amt der Diakonin: ein sakramentales Amt? Ein Zugang von der Gemeinde her’, in Diakonat. Ein Amt etc., pp. 212-218.
D.Sattler, ‘Zur Sakramentalität des Diakonats der Frau’, in Diakonat. Ein Amt etc., pp. 219-224.
Last not least: Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, ‘Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church’, Brookline 1998.
Read also: ‘The diaconate – a ministry for women in the Church’, by Ida Raming, Orientierung 62 (1998) pp. 8-11. (n.b. This link goes to a sister site.)