Women deacons in history | National Catholic Reporter


Pope Francis’ call for a discussion of reestablishing women deacons in the church has understandably renewed interest in the history of women deacons. Three very important questions are being asked:

  • First, were there ever women deacons in the church?
  • Second, if there were women deacons, what did they do? Was it the same as male deacons?
  • Finally, and most urgently, was the ordination of women deacons an ordination to a major order, that of the diaconate, or was it merely a blessing establishing women in a minor order or role?

First, there is no question that there were women deacons in the past, both in the Eastern and in the Western churches. I refer to “women deacons” in this article, not “deaconesses.” Though historical sources use diacona (women deacon) and diaconissa (deaconess) interchangeably, there were not two groups, only one. Using the one term removes any ambiguity.

That said, there is ample evidence for women deacons in Christian history. Starting with Phoebe, the only deacon named as such in Scripture, numerous references to women deacons appear in epigraphs, letters, chronicles and, most importantly, ordination rites for women deacons in the Western and Eastern churches.

Source:  National Catholic Reporter

Bishop Theodora – 9th Century Female Bishop!

Paul Collins. ‘Theodora the Bishop’: Pope Francis and Women Deacons



Santa Prassede is famous for its stunning mosaics over the high altar and in the small, extraordinary Chapel of Zeno. In the north lunette of the chapel there are four women who, in the Byzantine way gaze directly at you. The slightly taller one is Mary with her blue veil. She is surrounded by the sisters Praxedes (after whom the church is named) and Prudentiana. But it’s the first woman who stands out. She has an unusual rectangular nimbus (halo) around her head which means she was still alive when the mosaic was created. An inscription in gold lettering identifies her as ‘Theodo[ra] Episcopa’, ‘Theodora the bishop’. She was Paschal I’s mother, but that isn’t why she was called episcopa.

Episcopa means woman ‘bishop’, ‘presbyter’, or ‘elder’. This suggests that she exercised authority in the church equivalent to men who had the same title. The problem is tying down exactly what these titles meant at the time and what function Theodora fulfilled.


Read the full post at “Pearls and Irritations

The meaning of ordination and how women were gradually excluded | National Catholic Reporter

Two points are important to make about the development of leadership roles in the church in the period from the fifth to the 13th centuries. First, the definition of ordination changed radically during the 12th century. Second, women were considered capable of ordination up until the 13th century. This having been said, it is important to understand what ordination meant from the fifth to the 13th centuries. Only then can we understand what it meant to ordain women during that period.

During the first millennium of Christianity, ordination meant election by and installation of a person to perform a particular function in a Christian community. Not only bishops, priests, deacons and subdeacons but also of porters, lectors, exorcists, acolytes, canons, abbots, abbesses, kings, queens and empresses were all considered equally ordained. This makes perfect sense. An ordo (order) was a group in the church (or society) that had a particular job or vocation. In fact, any job or vocation was called an “order,” and the process by which one was chosen and designated for that vocation was an “ordination.”

To quote Cardinal Yves Congar, the French Dominican theologian who died in 1995 at age 91, “Ordination encompassed at the same time election as its starting point and consecration as its term. But instead of signifying, as happened from the beginning of the 12th century, the ceremony in which an individual received a power henceforth possessed in such a way that it could never be lost, the words ordinare, ordinari, ordinatio signified the fact of being designated and consecrated to take up a certain place, or better a certain function, ordo, in the community and at its service.” Ordination did not give a person, for instance, the irrevocable and portable power of consecrating the bread and wine, or of leading the liturgy, but rather a particular community would charge a person to play a leadership role within that community (and only within that community) and he or she would lead the liturgy because of the leadership role they played within the community. So any leader of a community would be expected to lead the liturgy.

Source:  National Catholic Reporter

Early women leaders: from heads of house churches to presbyters | National Catholic Reporter

The earliest references to local resident leaders in the Pauline churches are Philippians 1:1 and Romans 16:1-2. Paul addresses his letter to the community at Philippi with their episkopoi and diakonoi(both masculine plural titles in Greek, both terms borrowed from secular leadership). These are the terms that later came to mean “bishop” and “deacon.” The episkopoi cannot mean here “bishop” as we understand it because there are many in one community. The role of the diakonoi also had not yet evolved into that which was later understood as deacon. The revised edition of the New American Bible translates the words as “overseers” and “ministers” and acknowledges in a note that the later development had not yet taken place.

Masculine plural forms are used in Greek to refer either to groups of men or to groups of mixed gender. In Romans 16:1-2, Paul introduces to the letter’s recipients a woman named Phoebe, a benefactor who is also a diakonos of the church at Cenchreae, one of the seaports of Corinth. Thus we know that women could hold this title at the time, and therefore the diakonoi in Philippi could be a mixed group. If the episkopoi of Philippians were heads of house churches, as seems likely, it is not impossible that some of them were also women (for example, Nympha in Colossians 4:15).

The account in Acts of the Apostles 6:1-6 of the apostles choosing seven men to take care of table service is usually considered the origin of the office of deacon, yet no one in the story is called diakonosand the apostles appoint them for the diakonia of the table so that the apostles can devote themselves to the diakonos of prayer and the word. All perform diakonos of different kinds.

Source:  National Catholic Reporter