The Middle Ages
Among the theologians of the early Middle Ages there was frequent discussion about the meaning of the ‘ordination’ given to ‘deaconesses’, an institution they only knew from references in the Fathers and ecclesiastical canons. They showed abysmal ignorance in the matter, generally dismissing ‘deaconesses’ as:
- ‘readers of the gospel’ Rolandus Bandinelli (1148 AD);
- ‘some ministry in the Church, perhaps like abbesses’ Rufinus (1159 AD);
- ‘some ministry such as to proclaim the Gospel during matins or something similar’ Huguccio (1188 AD);
- ‘an abbess, or formerly a woman who ministered to a priest’ Guido de Baysio (1296 AD).(n.b. these links go to a sister site.)
When discussing Holy Orders in his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) does not even bother to mention ‘deaconesses’.
From 1650 AD
When scholars such as Goar (in 1647 AD), J. Morinus (in 1695 AD) and Joseph Assemani (in 1721 AD) had published ancient oriental manuscripts that brought out the ordination of deaconesses in detail, a first theological response was aroused.
The first serious study was published by S.Many, in Praelectiones de Sacra Ordinatione, Paris 1905, pp. 176 – 194. He utterly rejects the possibility of women being either ordained priests or deacons, for the same arguments now adduced by Rome. With regard to the historical question of women deacons, he gives as his main reason that “women have always been repulsed from ministry at the altar” which, he claims, “is essential to the sacramental diaconate”. He admits that “there is no universally valid, written law in the tradition of the Church by which this can be proved”, but he then turns to the decisions against the diaconate by local councils.
Other theologians of the day followed Many’s conclusions, hardly spending more than one or two pages to the argument, since ‘the incapability of women for holy orders’ seems so obvious to them.
A more recent study that concludes against the sacramentality of women’s diaconate was by Aimé Georges Martimort, Les Diaconesses. Essai historique, Rome 1982. Martimot rightly focusses on the ordination ceremony itself, but concludes that it did not stand on a level with that of male deacons. His reasons, in brief:
- There are differences between the two ordinations (pp. 150-155).
- Also sub-deacons and readers are at times ‘ordained’ by the imposition of hands; but he overlooks that these minor orders were done outside the sanctuary, etc.
- He claims that the manuscripts in question are fictitious, or reflect local customs (!); but see the evidence for yourself: Apostolic Constitutions, Syriac Ritual, etc.
- He claims that the First Council of Nicea denied the validity of the ordination of a deaconess, in spite of the fact it only dealt with deaconesses from the sect of Paul of Samosata (pp. 73-97).
- He states that deaconesses were kept away from the altar, which shows it not to be like the sacramental diaconate.
Martimort states: ‘However great the pomp that surrounded the rite of ordination, and the external similarity with the diaconate of men, the Byzantine deaconess is no deacon. This is a completely different ministry’ (p. 155). However, his conclusion is wrong:
- The similarity with the male deacon’s ordination is not external. It shows itself both in the matter and the form of the sacrament. Since a sacrament is by definition an external sign, expressed in the matter and form, it is nonsense to claim an ‘internal difference’.
- It is not right the define the diaconate, or even the priesthood and episcopate, only in terms of service at the altar. Christ’s priesthood is much wider and includes the whole spectrum of proclaiming the Good News, baptizing, guiding, healing and serving, many aspects of which are covered in the diaconate, also that of the historical women deacons.
Ernst Dassmann (‘Witwen und Diakonissen’, in Ämter und Dienste in der frühchristlichen Gemeinden, Bonn 1994, pp. 142-156) follows Martimort. Many other theologians have come to the conclusion that the deaconess’s ordination belonged to the sacrament of holy orders.
Read also: ‘The diaconate – a ministry for women in the Church’, by Ida Raming, Orientierung 62 (1998) pp. 8-11.