Home » Letters concerning Women Deacons published in the Tablet, 29 May 1999

Letters concerning Women Deacons published in the Tablet, 29 May 1999

These letters referred to the article entitled ‘Women were  ordained deacons.

Letter from Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald

Sir, John Wijngaards’s succinct article, “When women were deacons” (The Tablet, 8 May), is an accurate and fair presentation of the issue. He also recognises the efforts of the Orthodox theologian, Professor Evangelos Theodorou, who joins “a number of Catholic theologians in declaring the diaconate of women to be as sacramental as that of men”.

John Wijngaards is indeed correct when he states that “50 years ago, church historians and theologians alike routinely dismissed the women’s diaconate as obviously a historical sop to women. . . ” Sadly, this is still tbe case in a number of places. Nevertheless, Professor Theodorou had “gone public” with his conclusions regarding this issue long before the vast majority of his Orthodox and Roman Catholic contemporaries. As early as the year 1945, in the Greek periodicalAnagenisis, Theodorou’s research concluded that women were indeed ordained (cheirotonia) as deacons in the Christian East, at least until the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, Theodorou’s conclusions have been debated among the Orthodox until fairly recently. The issue was not essentially put to rest until the inter-Orthodox theological symposium convened in 1988 by the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople in Rhodes, Greece. The subject was “The place of woman in the Orthodox Church and the question of the ordination of women”.

Representatives from the 14 autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches, as well nearly 50 other theologians, were invited to take part. A third of the invited participants were women theologians. The consultation formally and unanimously advocated the restoration of the order of the woman deacon. While the participants recognised that women have not been ordained as presbyters or bishops in the Orthodox Church, they did affirm that women had been ordained to the diaconate.

The official statement says: “The apostolic order of deaconesses should be revived. It was never altogether abandoned in the Orthodox Church though it has tended to fall into disuse. There is ample evidence from apostolic times, from the patristic, canonical and liturgical tradition, well into the Byzantine period (and even in our own day), that this order was held in high honour. The deaconess was ordained within the sanctuary during the Divine Liturgr with two prayers, she received the orarion (the deacon’s stole) and received Holy Communion at the altar…. The revival of this ancient order should be envisaged on the basis of the ancient prototypes testified to in many sources . . . and with the prayers found in the Apostolic Constitutions and the ancient Byzantine liturgical books.”

Furthermore, the consultation strengthened its recommendations by stating that the recovery of the order of women deacons “would represent a positive response to many of the needs and demands of the contemporary world. This would be all the more true if the diaconate in general (male as well as female) were restored in all places in its original, manifold services (diakoniai) with extension into the social sphere, in the spirit of the ancient tradition and in response to the increasing specific needs of our time.”

I was honoured to take part at this important meeting, where I also delivered a paper. I have also recently published a study on the topic of the ordination of women entitled Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church: called to holiness and ministry. I am familiar with the primary sources used by Wijngaards and wish to express my appreciation to him for his courage in expressing his conclusions as he did and for his valuing Orthodox contributions to these discussions. Furthermore, I wish to encourage your readers to visit his magnificent website on this topic (www.womenpriests.org), as for the first time he makes the bulk of the primary source material easily accessible in English for scholars and others who are interested to examine it for themselves.

Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald
PO Box 477
Massachusetts 02561. USA

Letter from Fr. William Jacobs

Sir, The article by John Wijngaards (The Tablet, 8 May) focused on rediscovered sources revealing the ordination of women deacons at one time in the East. But there were also women deacons in the Church of the West. We find the Council of Nimes (394-396) vetoing the ordination of women deacons to no avail, apparently, for in 441 another local council in Orange had to reiterate the ban.

As Michael Rouche points out, however (Clovis, Librarie Anthème Fayard, 1996), this did not stop Saint Germain, bishop of Auxerre, from ordaining Saint Geneviève a deaconess by a “laying on of hands”, as ancient sources attest. Which explains why she held the key to the baptistery of Saint Étienne, where she instructed women and led them in prayer.

Fr. William Jacobs
Hagendorenweg 1
6436 CR Amstenrade
The Netherlands

Letter from Dr. Ida Raming

Sir, I read with great interest and approval John Wijngaards’s article, “When Women Were Deacons” (The Tablet, 8 May). It discloses important information about the history of women deacons in both the Eastern and Western Church, supported by data on the Internet.

As one of the women theologians who have studied the question of the admission of women to the ordained ministry in the Catholic Church right from the Second Vatican Council, I can endorse Wijngaards’s findings, in particular regarding the sacramental nature of the diaconate of women. My special research (published in English in 1976 as The Exclusion of Women from the Pnesthood – Divine Law or Sex Discrmination.?) unearthed the sources in the medievalCorpus Iuris Canonici of the canon in church law (at present canon 1024) that excludes women from ordination. My study revealed several sources that witnessed to women’s diaconate, for instance canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) which dearly speaks of a cheirotonia (imposition of hands) that mediated grace to the woman deacon.

The conclusion which I reached at the time has now been vindicated, namely that, although the deaconess was not in every respect treated on an equal footing with the deacon, this was no doubt due to the fact that women were considered inferior, and not to any lesser quality of her ordination. Discrimination against women is the reason why the office was contested even while it existed and why finally it was condemned to perish.

As Wijngaards says in his article, “women also had to battle with the prejudice of presumed ritual uncleanness during their monthly periods”. But on the basis of my own research I fully agree with him that “it is wrong to infer from this that, therefore, a woman deacon was ordained to a lower form of diaconate than a man. The ordination rite of the woman deacon itself contradicts this”.

I and many women in many countries hope that the discovery of the sources about women deacons and their ordination will bring about the far-reaching implications for the ministry of women in today’s Church which you mention in your preface to the article.

Ida Raming
Überwasserstrasse 8
D 48268 Greven