By John Wijngaards
Three factors militated against a sizeable increase in women deacons: prejudice against women in traditional Roman law, the lack of the the strong pastoral demands for women deacons found in the East and a cascading of liturgical prejudice against women.
In contrast, in the East women deacons flourished. Practically every parish church had its own local female deacon, a hundred of whom we know by name. The ordination rite for women deacons was certainly sacramental and virtually identical to that of male deacons. The rite as been preserved in in eight ancient manuscripts all of which are published on our website. Women deacons in the East played a key role in preparing women catechumens for baptism, assisting at their baptism and ministering to them in church and in their homes.
The weakened status of women deacons in the West is also apparent from two other features:
Since the expectation grew that male deacons, like priests, should abstain from sex, their wives became ‘deaconesses’ – after having given their consent and after their being ordained deaconess in their own right. More information here
In many places the true function of deaconesses was not known. So it soon became identified with a form of monastic dedication. This kind of deaconess was a ‘glorified nun’. This is clear from, for example, the life of Sigolena and from glosses to ancient texts. Theologians in the Middle Ages reveal an appalling lack of understanding of what the ancient women deacons stood for – apart from some exceptions.
However, women deacons did function in the West.