by John Wijngaards
The institution of ordained women deacons has enjoined the support of a number of Ecumenical Councils.
At the First Council of Nicea, 325 AD, deaconesses are only mentioned in passing, in a canon referring to the the reconciliation of ex-members of the sect of Paul of Samosata (260–272 AD). Paul was a Syrian Christian theologian who became the heretical patriarch of Antioch. He was a friend and high official of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Paul denied the three Persons of the Trinity. He taught that the Logos came to dwell in Jesus at baptism, but that Jesus possessed no extraordinary nature above other men, the Logos being entirely an attribute of God. Paul was repeatedly challenged and finally excommunicated by the local Council of Antioch (268 AD)
“With regard to Paulianists who take refuge in the Catholic Church, it has been decided that they definitely need to be [re]baptized. If, however, some of them have previously functioned as priests, if they seem to be immaculate and irreprehensible, they need to be baptized and ordained by a bishop of the Catholic Church. In this way one must also deal with the deaconesses or with anyone in an ecclesiastical office. With regard to the deaconesses who hold this position we remind [church leaders] that they possess no ordination [=cheirotonia], but are to be reckoned among the laity in every respect.” Council of Nicea, canon 19.
Note. The interpretation that the Council did not recognise the validity of any woman’s ordination to the diaconate is contradicted by the clear judgment of later Councils.
At the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD, an earlier minimal age of 60 years for women deacons was relaxed to 40 years. The earlier practice was based on 1 Timothy 5,9: ‘Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age.’ Voluntary celibacy was understood to be a condition.
“A Woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if, after she has had hands laid on her and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematized as well as the man united to her.” Chalcedon, canon 15.
The Council of Trullo, convoked in Constantinople in 692 AD, re-affirmed the minimum age set by the Council of Chalcedon for women deacons. Notice that the Council speaks of a real ‘ordination’ [cheirotonia] for women deacons, using exactly the same term for priests and male deacons! Though this term is occasionally also applied to minor orders, it is significant that the ordination of women deacons is mentioned in one breath with that of priests and male deacons. The Orthodox Theologian Evangelos Theodorou has pointed out that the use of the technical term ‘cheirotonia’ in these Council documents is highly significant (‘E “cheirotonia” e “cheirothesia” ton diakonisson’, Theologia 25 (1954) pp. 430-469, 576-601; 26 (1956) pp. 57-76.The “Ordination” or “Appointment” of Deaconesses? [in Greek], German synopsis: US 33 (1978) pp. 162-172). Together with other indicators it confirms the sacramental nature of the ordination.
“Let the canon of our holy God-bearing Fathers be confirmed in this particular also; that a presbyter be not ordained before he is thirty years of age, even if he be a very worthy man, but let him be kept back. For our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized and began to teach when he was thirty. In like manner let no deacon be ordained before he is twenty-five, nor a deaconess before she is forty.” Council of Trullo, canon 14.
The Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 787 AD also endorsed the Apostolic Canons, previous General Councils and local Councils to the extent they were in agreement with the General ones. This means that all the provisions regarding women deacons were re-affirmed.
“The pattern for those who have received the sacerdotal dignity is found in the testimonies and instructions laid down in the canonical constitutions, which we receive with a glad mind, . . . . and press to our bosom with gladness the divine canons, holding fast all the precepts of the same, complete and without change, whether they have been set forth by the holy trumpets of the Spirit, the renowned Apostles, or by the Six Ecumenical Councils, or by Councils locally assembled for promulgating the decrees of the said Ecumenical Councils, or by our holy Fathers.” Council of Nicea II, canon 1
What about Local Councils
It is true that two local Synods in Gaul tried to suppress the diaconate of women ‘for their region’.
“Altogether no women deacons are to be ordained. If some already exist, let them bend their heads to the blessing given to the (lay) people.” Synod of Orange (441 AD), canon 26.
“We abrogate the consecration of widows whom they call ‘deaconesses’ completely from our region. If they wish to convert, no more than the blessing of penance should be imposed on them.” Synod of Epaon (517 AD), canon 21.
These local Church Councils had no universal authority and by their opposition show that the institution clearly flourished elsewhere in the Church. Even in Gaul the suppression was not immediately successful. St. Remigius of Reims (533 AD) makes mention in his last will of his daughter, the deaconess Helaria.
Such local opposition as we find in Gaul cannnot unnerve the fact that Ecumenical Councils endorsed the ordained diaconate of women for over six centuries.
For a historical record of some of the many women who were ordained as deacons in the early church click here.