The ancient diaconate of women was a sacrament

Facing up to Women in Holy Orders: deacons in the past, priests for now

by John Wijngaards

In the discussion on admitting women to Holy Orders, the ordination of the first-millennium women deacons has assumed a new role. For one of the key arguments the Vatican handles 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.

A word about terminology

Some people reject the use of the word sacrament here. They say it is an anachronism. In its full technical sense, they point out, this term had only been developed in the middle ages. And, indeed, during the first millennium Christians did not yet use the term ‘sacrament’ as we use it today. Yet the reality of sacrament existed in the Church at the time and no theologian today would dispute that bishops, priests and male deacons truly received holy orders and thus ‘the sacrament of holy orders’ in today’s terms.

The same applied to the Byzantine bishops who ordained women deacons. They did not know the word ‘sacrament’, but they understood its substance. The circumstance that people at a particular time did not have a clear term for an object or an event, or did not define it theologically as we do today, does not disprove the reality of that object or event.

From the ritual of the ordination rite it is clear that ordaining a deacon, whether man or woman, was a very holy and solemn act, through which the power of the Holy Spirit was bestowed on the ordinand for a sacred task. Here is clear evidence of the sacramental order of sacred symbols through which Christ is present to his community. Pseudo-Dionysius (around 500 AD) says that only three kinds of leaders belong to the ‘order of sacred ministers’ [ταξις των ‘ιερουργων]: those who purify (deacons), those who enlighten (priests) and those who perfect (bishops).

Such considerations make it clear that "both in the West and the East there were equivalent notions to sacramentality . . . There existed a widely received theology that understood cheirotonia or cheirothesia [the imposition of hands] as the act that mediated the empowerment and the grace of the Holy Spirit on the ordinand. It clearly entails the substance of ‘sacrament’ even if the word is not used" (Peter Hünermann). "From at least 400 AD a clear distinction between major and minor orders began to emerge . . . Ordination is understood in terms of what we today would call a sacrament" (A. C. Lochmann).

In other words, Byzantine Christians recognised the ordination to the diaconate as a sacrament, just as baptism, confession, the eucharist and the anointing of the sick were sacraments for them, even if they used other terms.

A word about the historical reality of women deacons

It is not my intention here to spend time on describing the original women deacons in detail. May it suffice to say that they served especially in the Byzantine communities of the Eastern part of the Catholic Church from at least the third to the ninth centuries. There have been tens of thousands of them. Their record is preserved on tomb stones, in literary accounts and in the veneration of more than 20 women deacon saints.

About this and everything else in this paper, full details are provided in my book: No Women in Holy Orders? The Ancient Women Deacons, Canterbury Press 2002. ISBN 1-85311-507-X.

PART ONE. The Ordination Rite for Women Deacons

In many ancient manuscripts the precise rite through which women deacons were ordained, have been preserved for us. I will print here the text as found in the Codex Barberini gr. 336 (780 AD).

Prayer for the ordination of a deaconess

’ευχη ’επι χειροτονιαι διακονισσης

"After the sacred offertory, the doors are opened and, before the deacon starts the litany ‘All Saints’, the woman who is to be ordained deacon is brought before the pontiff. And after he has said the ‘Divine Grace’ with a loud voice, the woman to be ordained bows her head. He imposes his hand on her forehead, makes the sign of the cross on it three times, and prays:


"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 of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maid servant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate [της διακονιας], and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit. Preserve her so that she may always perform her ministry [λειτουργιαν] with orthodox faith and irreproachable conduct, according to what is pleasing to you. For to you is due all glory and honour."
After the ‘Amen’, one of the deacons now starts this prayer: ‘Let us implore the Lord in peace. For peace from above, let us pray the Lord. For peace in the whole world. For this our Archbishop, for his priestly ministry, his reward, his endurance, his peace and salvation and the work of his hands, let us pray the Lord. For so-and-so [name of the woman] who is to receive the diaconate and for her salvation. That God who loves people grant her a pure and immaculate diaconate, let us pray the Lord. For our pious Emperor who is protected by God, etc., etc.’
While the deacon makes these intercessions, the archbishop, still imposing his hand on the head of the ordinand, prays as follows:
“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 [λειτουργων]. Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maid servant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfil in her the grace of the diaconate [διακονιας], as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate [διακονιας], whom you had called to the work of the ministry [λειτουργιας]. Give 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 maid servant 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."
After the ‘Amen’, he puts the stole of the diaconate [το διακονικον ‘ωραριον] round her neck, under her veil, arranging the two extremities of the stole towards the front.
When the newly ordained has taken part of the sacred body and precious blood, the archbishop hands her the chalice. She accepts it and puts it on the holy table."

PART TWO. The early Women Deacons received a truly ‘sacramental’ ordination

Did women deacons receive the sacrament of holy orders?

What matters is whether the bishops at the time intended to impart a full ordination to women. Now there is no way we can establish that intention except by studying what the bishops said and did while performing the ordination. The fact that women were ordained through an ‘imposition of hands’ [χειροτονια] was significant. However, it does not by itself prove the sacramental character of the ceremony, for during the first centuries this gesture was also employed for the imparting of minor orders.

To determine whether an ordination was a sacrament or not, depends crucially on the form used, that is: what the bishops in their ordination prayers said they wanted to do, and the additional ceremonies which helped to define the precise nature of the matter, namely whether hands were imposed for a full ordination. From this we can establish the objective intention of the rite.

1. The setting of the ordination

It is significant that women deacons were ordained in the sanctuary, before the altar and right within the eucharistic celebration. Its significance was not only to indicate 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.

Theodore of Mopsuestia (350 - 429) explains the classic distinction. He defines the diaconate as a ‘ministry to sacred things’, which certainly also included baptism.

It is worth adding that we should not be surprised at the fact that he [Paul] does not mention subdeacons or lectors here. For these [functions] are actually outside the orders of real ministry in the Church. They were created later on by the need of many things that had to be done by others for the good of the mass of the faithful. That is why the law does not permit them to receive ordination in front of the altar because they do not minister at this mystery. For the lectors look after the readings and the subdeacons in the sacristy prepare what is needed for the service of the deacons and look after the lights in church. However, only the priests and deacons perform the ministry of the mystery: the former by fulfilling their priestly role, the latter by ministering to sacred things.

The Orthodox liturgist Simeon of Thessalonika confirms this in his classic work on ordination, written between 1418 and 1429:

Two ordinations are given outside the sanctuary, that of the reader and subdeacon. There are also others for administrators, deputees, acolytes . . . But the exalted ordinations are imparted inside the sanctuary.

The ordination of women deacons in the sanctuary ‘right in the heart of the Divine Liturgy’ ranks it among the orders of the higher clergy (Evangelos Theodorou, Orthodox expert on women deacons).

2. The public character of the ordination

Women deacons were ordained before the whole congregation and "in the presence of the priests, deacons and deaconesses" (Apostolic Constitutions; 380 AD). This is also clear from the standard Byzantine ordination rite which mentions the other clergy.

This ‘public’ character of the ceremony marks the ordination as one of the higher orders. A study of the procedure at ancient ordinations shows that the public election of the new minister belonged to the ordination itself. St. Jerome (347 - 419), for instance, records this in one of his letters:

In Alexandria, since Mark the Evangelist until Bishops Heraclas and Dionysius, the priests always instituted as their bishop one of their own, after having elected him and enthroned him; as soldiers do when they proclaim their emperor; or the deacons who elect one of their own as archdeacon because of his zeal.

At times, as in this example, there seems to have been no imposition of hands. Normally, the imposition of hands with the invocation of the Spirit followed on the election. The point is that the ecclesial context of the ordination, expressed in the common election and public recognition by the congregation, was crucial at higher ordinations. Private ordinations, outside the congregation, were ipso facto invalid. The public setting of the ordination of women deacons confirms its status as a major ordination.

3. The ‘Divine Grace’ proclamation

We read this rubric in the ordination rite for women deacons: "The bishop says the ‘Divine Grace’ with a loud voice". This proclamation was only performed for the higher orders.

We can be sure that the ‘Divine Grace’ was the same in the case of women deacons and of male deacons, for a number of reasons. The rubrics explicitly say that everything is the same for male or female deacons except where indicated. If the Divine Grace proclamation had been different for women, this would certainly have been mentioned. Also, the classic ‘Divine Grace’ proclamation had a very rigid form with only three variable elements. This is the actual text:

Divine Grace which always heals what is infirm and completes what is missing chooses so-and-so [name] as bishop [or priest, deacon] of [name of the location]. Let us therefore pray for him/her that the grace of the Holy Spirit may descend upon him/her.

Research has shown that this Byzantine form is very old indeed, going back to at least the 3rd century. It was considered the distinctive characteristic of Christian ordination.

The ordaining bishop speaks the proclamation with a loud voice. This mystery signifies that the ordainer, who is loved by God, is the herald of the divine choice. It is not he himself who leads the ordinand to ordination by his own grace, but he is moved by God in all ordinations (Pseudo-Dionysius; ca. 500 AD).

[I never aspired to the priesthood], all the more because many of these ordinations happen through human ambition, not really by the divine grace (St. John Chrysostom; 344 - 407).

[On the disorderly election of a bishop.] I would almost believe that political authorities are more ordained than ours over which one proclaims the ‘Divine Grace’ (St. Gregory of Nazianze; 330-389).

The great liturgist Bernard Botte thought that the proclamation itself was the ordination, at least orginally. But later studies disproved this. Ordination consisted of two distinct stages of one and the same liturgical action, each equally essential: the election and the ordination proper. The election indicated who was chosen for the ministry. It proclaimed God’s choice of candidate. It manifested the intention of the Holy Spirit. The imposition of hands was the sacrament through which the Spirit actually descended on the ordinand. The ‘Divine Grace’ proclamation was therefore the public act of election which designated a candidate to a particular ministry in a specific church. In 398 Emperor Arcadius urged the bishops to "grant the Divine Grace to John [Chrystostom] to ordain him bishop of Constantinople".

At ordinations, and particularly at Byzantine ordinations, the ‘Divine Grace’ was only proclaimed for bishops, priests and deacons. The fact that the ordaining bishop proclaimed the ‘Divine Grace’ to announce the divine election of a woman deacon, shows that he ranked her ordination, without any shade of doubt, within the sacrament of holy orders, like that of male deacons.

4. The calling down of the Spirit

The central action of ordination is the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the ordinand while the bishop imposes his hands on her.

Do now look upon this your handmaid, who is to be ordained [προχειριζομενην] to the diaconate [εις διακονιαν], and grant her your Holy Spirit.

Dedicate her to the task of your diaconate [της διακονιας], and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit.

Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maid servant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfil in her the grace of the diaconate [διακονιας], as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate [διακονιας].

In the Eastern tradition, the calling down of the Holy Spirit is technically known as the epiclesis. During the divine liturgy, it is not so much the ‘words of consecration’ but the epiclesis that brings about the transformation of the bread and the wine. Epiclesis, in one form or other, occurs in all the sacraments, for the sacraments come about through the action of the Spirit. Every epiclesis means a drawing on the Spirit Christ obtained for us at Pentecost. The Church asks to receive from God here and now, what she has already historically received in Christ as a promise. This also applies to the ministries. The Pentecostal Spirit ‘who provides all things’, pours its fulness into the bishop, the priest and the deacon.

Being the action of the Spirit in the Church, the full epiclesis always takes place in the context of the assembled church community. The epiclesis of ordination also specifies the ministry for which the Spirit is imparted: as in the case of the woman deacon who receives the Spirit in view of the diaconate. Though indirect mention is made of the gifts of the Spirit in the installation prayers of some of the minor orders, it is only bishops, priests and deacons on whom the full epiclesis is called down.

5. The second ordination prayer

Having two ordination prayers for a woman deacon is another indication that a major order was imparted.

The second ordination prayer, also known as the ekphonese, because the bishop spoke it softly, was a later development at the higher ordinations, probably starting from the 4th century. It may have been inspired by the need of the ordaining bishop to make sure that the conditions for ordination had been fulfilled. It may also manifest the typical eastern trait of prayers spoken softly out of religious ‘awe and dread’, as we encounter during the eucharist.

By speaking the ekphonese prayer over the woman candidate, the bishop again indicated her being raised to the full sacrament of the diaconate.

As to the contents of the second ordination prayer, both in the case of the man and the woman, the substance is the same. The man receives the Holy Spirit "for the ministry of the deacon", the woman "for the grace of the diaconate [διακονιας], as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate [διακονιας], whom you had called to the work of the ministry [λειτουργιας]." Could the ordaining bishop be more outspoken? The woman is even more explicitly, forcefully, deliberately and undeniably ordained to the diaconate than the man!

6. Parallelism in all essentials with the ordination of male deacons.

The ordination of men to the diaconate runs parallel to that of women in all essentials. The main differences are for gender propriety (the man kneels, the woman bows her head) and male/female adaptations in the prayers (Phoebe is the example for women, Stephen for men). The male deacon is made to "fan" the gifts with the rhipidion (since he was to serve at the altar) and to distribute communion.

Most scholars consider the close parallel between the two ordination rites a strong argument for accepting women’s diaconate as having been as much a sacrament as the diaconate of men. "It cannot be denied that the ordination ritual puts women deacons and male deacons on entirely the same level".

This is also the considered opinion of the Orthodox scholar Kallistos Ware. He wrote classic books such as The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. He co-authored and co-translated into English a number of important Orthodox liturgical and spiritual texts, including a multi-volume edition of the Orthodox classic collection of spiritual writings, The Philokalia. Since 1966, he has been Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford, becoming a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford in 1970. In 1982, he was consecrated titular Bishop of Diokleia and appointed assistant bishop in the Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Bishop Kallistos judges women deacons to have been truly ordained.

"The order of deaconess seems definitely to have been considered an ‘ordained’ ministry during early centuries in at any rate the Christian East . . . Some Orthodox writers regard deaconesses as having been a ‘lay’ ministry. There are strong reasons for rejecting this view. In the Byzantine rite the liturgical office for the laying-on of hands for the deaconess is exactly parallel to that for the deacon; and so on the principle lex orandi, lex credendi -- the Church’s worshipping practice is a sure indication of its faith -- it follows that the deaconess receives, as does the deacon, a genuine sacramental ordination: not just a χειροθεσια but a χειροτονια.".

No one denies that the ordination of male deacons during the first millennium was a true sacrament. The same applies to women deacons.

Conclusion

All the symbolism surrounding the imparting of ordination to the women signified its being a real sacrament:

  1. *** its setting in the heart of the eucharist,
  2. *** the presence of the clergy and the faithful,
  3. *** the proclamation of divine election through the hallowed ‘Divine Grace’ formula,
  4. *** the epiclesis of the Holy Spirit on the ordinand
  5. *** and the addition of the second, ekphonese prayer of ordination.

Through this symbolism the ordaining bishop indicated, both to the ordinand and to the assembled congregation, his unmistakable intention to impart a full, sacramental diaconate ordination to the woman.

If this was not a full sacrament, then neither was the ordination of bishops, priests and male deacons.

PART THREE. If women could be deacons then, they can be priests now.

The real issue at stake behind this seemingly obtuse historical argument is a question that rocks the Catholic Church of our time: "Can women be ordained priests?" In spite of the quite legitimate distinction between diaconate and priesthood as separate ministries, the women deacons of the past are inextricably linked with a wider inquiry about holy orders themselves. For if the diaconate of women was a true diaconate, if it was one valid expression of the sacrament of holy orders, then women did in fact receive holy orders and the priesthood too is open to them.

Now it is true that some theologians consider the diaconate a ministry that stands on its own, so that any objections to ordaining women to the priesthood would not apply to their being ordained to the diaconate. They are abolutely right in the sense that the diaconate is a separate ministry and was considered as such in the Early Church. This is also how it has been reactivated by the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, whereas in the Middle Ages the three major orders were unified in the priesthood, with the focus on eucharistic sacrificial service at the altar, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has expressly rejected this view. Deacons are ordained "not unto the priestly ministry [sacerdotium], but unto a ministry of service [servitium].

For such reasons, some theologians contend that it would be perfectly possible for the Church to separate the two ministries in such a way that women could be given the sacrament of the diaconate, even though the priesthood was withheld from them. This is, for instance, the opinion of the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware and the Catholic theologian Phyllis Zagano. I believe that they are mistaken. A real and important distinction between the three ministries does not destroy their sacramental unity.

Vatican II speaks of one "divinely established ministry which is exercised on different levels by those who from antiquity have been called bishops, priests and deacons". It thus confirms the unity of the sacrament already proclaimed by the Council of Trent. On the 15th of July 1563 that Council had declared that "holy orders is one of the seven sacraments of the Church" and that "in the Catholic Church there exists a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and deacons". The implication is that the Council of Trent considered all three major orders, including the diaconate, as fully sacramental, without fully resolving their inner connection.

Vatican II sees Jesus Christ as the main unifying factor of the sacrament. He is the founder, the origin, the source, the main inspiration from which the variety of ministries originate. Bishops, priests and deacons all participate to various degrees in Christ’s saving work which he continues in the one sacrament of holy orders.

Theologians discuss this unity in more detail. Peter Hünermann, for instance, gives the oneness a Trinitarian dimension. "The unity of these distinct ministries lies in their common source: the grace of God the Father, the mercy of the incarnate Son and the goodness of the Holy Spirit. Their unity also lies in their common, ultimate purpose: salvation of people". Christoph Böttigheimer sees the bishop as ‘the construction joint, the focus of the ministry’. Theology will no doubt continue to refine its concepts in line with the new impulses received from Vatican II.

However, for our purpose it suffices to note the unity of the sacrament. While the Council of Trent was somewhat ambiguous about the sacramentality of the diaconate, this was re-affirmed clearly by Vatican II which stated that deacons are ordained and are strengthened by the grace of the sacrament. This unity of the sacrament directly affects the question of women in the ministries. Since women in the past did receive the sacrament of the diaconate, they are obviously capable of receiving holy orders as such, that means: also the priesthood and episcopacy.

This is the opinion of the dogmatic theologian Hans Jorissen: "The possibility of women receiving the sacramental diaconate stands or falls with the possibility of women receiving the priesthood." His view is shared by the theologian Dirk Ansorge: "If women are ordained deacons, the unity of the sacrament of holy orders will demand their access to the sacramental priesthood." The canon lawyer Charles Wilson expressed it in this way: "If the Church does admit women to diaconal ordination, it seems to me that this action would give rise to the formidable challenge of performing the difficult mental gymnastics involved in asserting that women can validly be admitted to one grade of orders while at the same time reaffirming the definitive teaching of the Church that they cannot be admitted to the others."

Well, the Church did impart a full sacramental diaconate ordination to tens of thousands of women during the first millennium of its existence. If it could ordain women then, it can, and should, do so now.

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