In the course of the 3rd century a practice originated in the Church of demanding from bishops, priests and deacons that they and their wives abstain from sexual relationships.
The wives often received some kind of ‘ordination’ and acquired a new status.
The custom itself
When a married man offered himself for ordination, he was required first to commit himself to sexual abstinence from his wife (Canon 21 in the Council of Orange – 441 AD). His wife too was expected to make a similar commitment. In the course of time her explicit approval was required (Canon 16 in the Council of Agde – 506 AD).
Some typical examples of Church legislation:
Canon 33. “We decree that all bishops, priests and deacons in the service of the ministry are entirely forbidden to have conjugal relations with their wives and to beget children; should anyone do so, let him be excluded from the honour of the clergy.”
Council of Elvira in Spain – 305 AD. G. Martinez Díez & F. Rodríguez, La colección canónica hispana, Madrid 1984, vol. IV, p. 253.
Canon 29. “Moreover, (concerned with) what is worthy, pure, and honest, we exhort our brothers (in the episcopate) to make sure that priests and deacons have no (sexual) relations with their wives, since they are serving the ministry every day. Whoever will act against this decision, will be deposed from the honour of the clergy.”
First Council of Arles – 314 Corpus Christianorum . Series Latina, 148,25.
Pope Leo the Great explained the custom in a letter (458):
“The law of continence is the same for the ministers of the altar, for the bishops and for the priests; when they were (still) lay people or lectors, they could freely take a wife and beget children. But once they have reached the ranks mentioned above, what had been permitted is no longer so. . . .
In order for the union (of bishops, priests, deacons) to change from carnal to spiritual, they must, without sending away their wives, live with them as if they did not have them, so that conjugal love be safeguarded and nuptial activity cease.”
Epistola ad Rusticum Narbonensem episcopum, PL 54, 1204a.
The motivation behind this ecclesiastical custom was, no doubt, the fear of menstruation. Women were considered a liability to liturgical purity on account of their monthly periods. Moreover, they could pass on their impurity to their husbands by sexual contact.
The thinking was: How can priests and deacons etc. handle sacred things when they might have been contaminated by their wives? In one of the False Decretals this is clearly expressed.
“If, after ordination, a minister [=’deacon’?] happens to encroach on the private bed space of his wife, he may not enter the sanctuary, nor carry the sacrifice, nor touch the altar, nor receive the offerings for the holocaust from [the faithful who] present them, nor take part in the Body of the Lord . . . “
“Anyone should make sure not to share company with a menstruating woman, for this is considered loathsome by the law of God.”
The names of clergy wives: presbytera, diaconissa, episcopa
The wives of clergymen were often called: priestess (Latin: presbytera, presbyteria, presbyterissa), deaconess (Latin: diacona, diaconissa) or female bishop (Latin: episcopa).
This can be seen in the following examples:
Canon 19. “ . . . If a priest is found (to have intercourse) with his priestess, or a deacon with his deaconess, or a subdeacon with his subdeaconess, he will be held excommunicate(d) for an entire year and deposed from every clerical office.”
Second Council of Tours – 567 AD.
The terms ‘priestess’ or ‘deaconess’ should therefore be treated with great care in the West. Often these terms do not express a female priest or female deacon carrying the full priestly or diaconal responsibility. They denote women committed to a state of chastity because their husbands are clergymen.
Canon 5: “That no man presume to join to himself in a criminal marriage a presbytera, a diaconissa, a religious sister or nun or his own godmother. For the man who commits such a crime should know that he is burdened under the chain of anathema and condemned in God’s judgement and removed from the sacred body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
Synod of Rome – 743 AD
The ‘ordination’ of a ‘presbytera ‘ or ‘diaconissa ‘
How did wives of presbyters or deacons acquire their title? Just by being wives, or was there a ceremony of installing them in this new state?
From the official liturgical order for ordinations in the diocese of Rome it is clear that presbyterae and deaconesses were ‘ordained’ in some sense of the word:
“Similarly their women: deaconesses or presbyterae, who are blessed [= ordained] on the same day.” Ordo Romanus IX
The ordination rite for women deacons used in Rome at the time is known to us from the socalled Hadrianum Sacramentary of 786 AD.
The ordination of wives is also confirmed by the action of Sergius, Archbishop of Ravenna in 755 AD:
“He was a layman and had a wife. When he took upon himself responsibility for the [local]Church [as bishop], he consecrated his wife Eufimia as a deaconess.”
History of Sergius