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Reconstruction of the ordination rite of women deacons

Illustrated lecture style

by John Wijngaards


This document is a script for the commentated reconstruction/dramatization of the ancient liturgical rite through which women were ordained as deacons in the Catholic Church. The rite we have derives from the Greek-language, Byzantine part of the Early Church (Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, Crete, South Italy).
Discussion in the Roman Catholic Church on admitting women to Holy Orders has found a new focus. It revolves around a seemingly obsolete historical fact: did the tens of thousands of women ordained as deacons during the first millennium of the Christian era receive a true ordination or not? One of the key arguments the Vatican handles against the ordination of women is the assertion that women were never admitted to Holy Orders. Historians point out they are wrong. For women did receive a valid ‘sacramental’ ordination to the diaconate, and the diaconate is part of Holy Orders.
According to Catholic doctrine: if women can be deacons, they can be priests, and bishops for that matter. Read a fuller explanation here.

A word about sacrament. According to Catholic terminology, ‘sacraments’ are signs through which Jesus Christ continues his presence in the Church. Most people are familiar with two sacraments: baptism and the eucharist. The Catholic Church recognises five more sacraments: confirmation, marriage, confession, the anointing of the sick and holy orders. Church Councils (Trent, 16th cent. and Vatican II, 20th cent.) taught the unity of the sacrament of holy orders, with three ministries: the diaconate, the priesthood and the episcopacy.

The setting

To understand the reconstruction it is important to grasp the lay out of the sanctuary in the ancient churches of Byzantium.


Diagram of the sanctuary
1. The altar, also called the ‘holy table’, the ‘sacred throne’.
2. The bishop’s chair.
3. The deacon’s table that holds the liturgical vestments of priests and deacons, the books and the sacred vessels.
4. The prothesis, the credence table for the gifts: bread, wine and water.
5. The iconostatis or sacred screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave.
6. The holy doors in the sacred screen.
7. Chairs for priests.
8. The ambo or lectern from which the readings were read.


For this simple reconstruction we need four persons:
*** The bishop
*** the archdeacon [to his left]
*** the ordinand [woman to be ordained deacon, to the right of the bishop]
*** the commentator [far left from bishop].

sanctuaclick on any thumbnail to enlarge

I am adding illustrations from the reconstruction we held at Hobart, organised by the Ordination of Catholic Women Australia, on Saturday the 23rd of November 2002. The photographs were taken by Michele Kennon and Jackie Clackson.

The commentator’s role

I am printing out a full text for the commentator. Depending on the needs of the audience, the commentator may want to add more information at each stage. He/she should consult:

1. No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church, by John Wijngaards.
2. The documents on this website, especially the text of the ancient rite itself.


1. Beginning [before the doors of the sacred screen are opened]

“From apostolic times, sacred ministers have been enrolled into their services by ordination. “The apostles prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6,6)”. This practice has continued throughout the centuries until our own day. The diaconate has always been part of the Church’s sacramental order, even if there have been changes in the diaconate ministry from one period to the next. During the first millennium not only men, women too were ordained as deacons. This is a crucial fact for Church reform today. For one of the key arguments the Vatican Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith offers against the ordination of women is the assertion that women were never admitted to Holy Orders. Well, they are wrong. Women did receive a valid ‘sacramental’ ordination to the diaconate.”

“Since the Council of Trent, the Church acknowledges one sacrament of Holy Orders. If women were deacons, they can be priests too, or bishops for that matter. The ordination rite we will reconstruct is found in the ancient ordination rituals used by bishops. The rite is confirmed by manuscripts in major libraries: Oxford, Paris, Cairo, Athens, Mount Athos and Rome. All the texts are published in full in John Wijngaards’ book: No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church. ”

From contemporary records we know that at any one time, thousands of women served their parishes as deacons.

2. The opening of the sacred screen [The doors of the iconostatis or sacred screen are opened. We see the bishop standing before the altar with the archdeacon at his side. The ordination ritual is on a lectern before the bishop. While the commentator speaks, the archdeacon leaves the sanctuary, seeks out the woman candidate and brings her up into the sanctuary.]

On this occasion the sacred screen was symbolised by boards carrying life-size icons, painted by Jackie Clackson.

“In the ancient Catholic liturgy of the Greek-speaking part of the Church, a sacred screen, the socalled iconostatis that is, ‘icon bearing screen’ divided the body of the Church, where the faithful stood, from the sanctuary which surrounded the altar. This screen was about six feet high. It owed its name to the icons of Christ, Mary and the Apostles that adorned its front”.
“The ordination took place after the readings and the homily at the heart of the eucharistic celebration. The ritual tells us: “After the sacred offertory, the doors [of the sanctuary] are opened and, before the [arch]deacon starts the litany ‘All Saints’, the woman who is to be ordained deacon is brought up.’’”
“It is significant that women deacons were ordained in the sanctuary, before the altar. This was done, not only to indicate the deacon’s access to the altar, but to mark the ordination as one of the ‘major orders’, to distinguish it from minor ministries such as the subdiaconate and the lectorate. The fourth-century Father of the Church, Theodore of Mopsuestia, explains that readers, subdeacons and-so-on were ordained in the sacristy. Only bishops, priests and deacons were ordained within the sanctuary ‘because they minister to sacred things’. For the sake of this reconstruction we call today’s ordinand ‘Sophia’”.

3. The public election of the candidate [The candidate comes up to the bishop, makes a bow to him, makes a deep bow to the altar on the right hand of the bishop, then turns round to face the congregation. The archdeacon stands on the left side of the bishop.]
“Women deacons were ordained before the whole congregation and “in the presence of the priests, deacons and deaconesses” (Apostolic Constitutions; 380 AD). This ‘public’ character of the ceremony marked the ordination as one of the higher orders. Moreover, a study of the procedure at ancient ordinations shows that a public election of the new minister belonged to the ordination itself.”
“Bishops, priests and deacons were publicly designated through the socalled ‘Divine Grace’ proclamation through which the bishop announced that so-and-so was elected to this-or-that ministry in a specified locality. This proclamation was only used for the major orders.”


[The bishop stretches out his right hand, pointing to the candidate.]
‘Divine Grace which always heals what is infirm and completes what is missing chooses Sophia to be deacon of this parish. Let us therefore pray for her that the grace of the Holy Spirit may descend upon her.’
‘Amen! Lord, have mercy on us!’

4. First imposition of hands and ordination prayer [The woman to be ordained turns round, bows her head and the bishop imposes his right hand on her head]


“The bishop signs the candidate’s forehead three times with the sign of the cross, then lays his right hand on her head. Throughout the centuries the actual ordination was performed by the imposition of hands accompanied by the invocation of the Holy Spirit”.

“In the text that now follows, notice how clearly and explicitly the ministry of the diaconate is bestowed upon her”.
“Holy and Omnipotent Lord, through the birth of your Only Son our God from a Virgin according to the flesh, you have sanctified the female sex. You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming down from above of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maidservant and dedicate her to the work of your diaconate, and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit. Preserve her so that she may always perform her ministry with orthodox faith and irreproachable conduct, according to what is pleasing to you. For to you is due all glory and honour.”
‘Amen! Amen! Amen!’
“Notice that the granting of the ministry to a woman is justified with an appeal to the fact that in Christ God has sanctified the female sex. The bishop knows what he is doing. Clearly and explicitly he calls down the Holy Spirit on the woman for the ministry of the diaconate. She is therefore sacramentally ordained. Note also that the laying on of hands is performed for all the faithful to see and the sacramental prayer is said aloud for the whole congregation to hear and is endorsed by them”.
5. The Intercessions [The archdeacon steps forward and reads from a sheet of paper.]
The archdeacon now intones a long litany of intercessions. We will only listen to a part of it since it mentions the newly ordained woman deacon among prayers for the clergy.
For heavenly peace and the welfare of the whole universe, let us pray the Lord.
Lord have mercy.
For our Archbishop, for his priesthood, help, perseverance, peace, wellbeing, health and the works of his hands, let us pray the Lord.
Lord have mercy.
For Sophia, who has just been ordained deacon, and for her salvation, let us pray the Lord.
Lord have mercy.
That the most merciful Lord may give her a sincere and faultless diaconate, let us pray the Lord.
Lord have mercy.

6. Second imposition of hands and ordination prayer [The bishop still imposes his hand on Sophia’s head.]

The bishop who still imposes his right hand on Sophia’s head, now says a second ordination prayer. Only the three major orders have two ordination prayers. Note also that candidates of minor ministries were only blessed. Only a true ordination contained the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

“Lord, Master, you do not reject women who dedicate themselves to you and who are willing, in a becoming way, to serve your Holy House, but admit them to the order of your ministers. Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maidservant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfil in her the work and the office of the ministry of the diaconate, as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate, whom you had called to the work of this ministry. Grant her, Lord, that she may persevere without guilt in your Holy Temple, that she may carefully guard her behaviour, especially her modesty and temperance. Moreover, make your maidservant perfect, so that, when she will stand before the judgement seat of your Christ, she may obtain the worthy fruit of her excellent conduct, through the mercy and humanity of your Only Son.”
This second ordination prayer by itself, with the imposition of hands, would constitute a complete sacramental ordination”.
“Why have two ordination prayers? Probably because in the case of bishops, priests and deacons the Church wanted to make sure that the sacrament had been truly imparted!”

7. Investiture [The archdeacon fetches a large tray with a diaconate stole lying on it. He offers it to the bishop who imposes it on the deacon, lifting her veil and sliding it under her veil over her shoulders with the two extremities hanging down in front.]

click on any thumbnail to enlarge!

According to ancient practice, the newly ordained minister now received the diaconate stole, the distinctive vestment by which she could be recognised as a deacon. The ritual explains that the stole should rest on the deacon’s shoulders, under her veil, but with the two extremities hanging in front so that people could see it.
Only ordained deacons were allowed to wear the diaconate stole. The fourth-century Council of Laodicea forbade subdeacons, readers or singers to wear it, and threatened non-ordained persons who presumed to wear the stole with excommunication.

8. Communion [The doors of the sacred screen are closed for a while]
The ordination itself is almost completed. Now the central eucharistic functions begin with the various rites characteristic of the ancient liturgy. The sacred screen is closed. Only the bishop and the clergy are in the sanctuary. The newly ordained woman deacon too remains in the sanctuary.
We pick up the ordination again at the time of Holy Communion. The doors of the sacred screen will only be opened when the people receive Holy Communion. For this reconstruction we will open the screen to show what happened in the sanctuary.

[The doors of the sacred screen are opened.]
At that time it was the custom, as it still is in the Orthodox Church today, for the faithful to receive holy communion from a chalice in which the bread had been soaked in the wine. Part of this mixture was given them on the tongue with a small spoon. The priests and deacons on the other hand received communion under two species and directly from the bishop.
This also applied to the newly ordained woman deacon. She would bow before the bishop who would then give her communion under both kinds.

[The woman deacon bows before the bishop. He holds the tray with sacred bread in his left hand and puts part of the bread into her hands. Before he does so she kisses his right hand.]
“To you, deacon Sophia, is imparted the precious, and holy, and immaculate Body of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, unto forgiveness of your sins and unto life eternal.”

[The bishop takes the chalice from the archdeacon and offers the chalice to the woman deacon to drink from. Before he does so she kisses his right hand. Afterwards the archdeacon takes the chalice away.]
“Unto you, minister of God, deacon Sophia, is imparted the precious and holy Blood of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, unto forgiveness of your sins and unto life eternal”.

It is highly significant that the new woman deacon was present in the sanctuary with the other clergy, that she was given the host on her hand by the bishop as her male colleagues were, and that she drank from the chalice as they did.

9. Handing over of the chalice as sign of ordination
Now a special rite was added. For it was customary for a new male deacon to be introduced to his task by making him share in the distribution of holy communion to the laity. The woman deacon did not normally distribute communion in church. It was the male deacon who assisted the bishop or priest at the altar simply because in most parishes there were only two ministers, and it would not be proper for a priest and woman deacon to be screened off from the congregation for any length of time. Women deacons brought communion to the sick.


[The archdeacon brings the chalice back, and gives it to the bishop. The bishop hands the chalice to the woman deacon who walks round with it and puts it on the altar.]

To show that the woman deacon too received the ministry of distributing communion, the bishop handed her the chalice with its mixture of bread and wine. The ancient rite tells us: ‘At the time of the partaking of the sacred mysteries, the woman deacon shares of the divine body and blood with the other deacons. When the newly ordained has taken part of the precious body and blood herself, the bishop hands her the holy vessel. She accepts it and, without distributing it to others, puts it back on the holy altar.’
Hereby she was empowered to have access to the altar and to distribute communion.’

10. Conclusion
Thus we conclude that the ordination rite of a woman deacon was a full ordination.

  • Publicly performed within the sanctuary,
  • with the proclamation of election by divine Grace,
  • followed by the imposition of hands
  • with two explicit ordination prayers each calling down the Holy Spirit for this ministry,
  • and the investing of the diaconate stole
  • and the handing over of the chalice of holy communion it all proves without doubt that women deacons did receive the full sacramental holy order of the diaconate.

Moreover, male deacons were ordained with exactly the same rite of ordination and no one has ever called their sacramentality into question. Let us round off with the words of the Council of Trent:

“If anyone says that, through sacred ordination, the Holy Spirit is not given, and that therefore the bishop says in vain: “Receive the Holy Spirit, or that through this ordination the character [of holy orders] is not imprinted . . . , Let him be anathema”.

‘Amen! Amen!’ [applaud]

Scene from the final concluding prayer at Hobart.

The end

See also the script for the solemn model.