- 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
On Wednesday next I am taking part in a round table discussion on the ordination of women in Rome. This is organised by Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW). It is not, as you can guess, taking place in the Vatican!!
But I am glad to be there. Over the past few years I have become more and more convinced that the full equality of women is the most fundamental problem in the Catholic Church. It is not something that is going to go away; on the contrary, it will become more important as time goes on, and will be the cause of many more women leaving the Church.
My position on this matter is summed up well in a letter recently written to the Cardinals advising the Pope by John Shea, an Augustinian priest I met in my travels in the States, and who impressed me greatly.
Below is the text of his letter:
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.
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
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
Pope Francis’ announcement Thursday to create a commission to examine the history of female deacons in the Catholic church has left many longtime advocates with a sense of hope, joy and drive moving forward in their efforts to enhance female leadership in the church.
“I am standing on my head, I am happy, I am crying,” Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch, told NCR in a phone interview Thursday morning. “It is just a historic breakthrough of enormous proportion and the implications are far-reaching, as far as what women will be able to take on in the church.”
Rose-Milavec said while the pope is likely to run into opposition from members of the Roman Curia and some theologian and scripture scholars, she does not believe it will deter him. “I don’t have any doubts about it. … No concerns,” she said of the opposition. “The UISG spoke very directly about this to him, and I think when he makes a promise to them in that way, it’s not going to go away.”
Source: National Catholic Reporter
The Guardian reports that the Anglican Church is expected to name its first female bishop by Christmas 2014 – and one of the leading candidates produced a report “friendly to gay clergy” as far back as twenty years ago.
Church of England could appoint first female bishop by Christmas
Secretary general of church’s governing body says law could be changed in time for committee meeting in December
The Church of England could name its first female bishop by Christmas, its most senior bureaucrat has said – a move that would end nearly 20 years of wrangling since the church decided in 1993 that women could be made priests but must not be promoted to bishops.
The Church of England’s General Synod in November last year. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
William Fittall, secretary general of the church’s governing body, the General Synod, said that if the synod voted as expected at its next meeting, next month, the arrangements to promote women could become law in November after being approved by the dioceses and then by parliament.
The committee that chooses bishops has a meeting scheduled for December. If the legislation has been approved by then the committee is almost certain to choose a female candidate for one of the six posts currently free.
Christina Rees, one of the synod’s most prominent campaigners for female clergy, said of next month’s vote: “I think it will sail through. I expect the first woman bishop to be named and appointed before Christmas.”
Among the candidates most frequently mentioned are two women who have already been promoted as far as the law currently allows – Vivienne Faull, the dean of York, and June Osborne, the dean of Salisbury.
(….. Faull is the least controversial candidate). Osborne produced a report friendly to gay clergy 20 years ago that frightened conservatives
via The Guardian.
The Church of England has still not resolved the difficult issue of approving women bishops while still satisfying the die – hards resisting reform. However, the Church in Wales has led the way, in approving, by convincing margins, the ordination of women bishops. I doing so, they, resisted strong pressure to make special provision for the minority who had been trying to hold the church to ransom.
Church in Wales backs women bishops Continue reading
Dr Rowan Williams acknowledged that the Church was still “scratching its head” about where it stands on issues like same-sex marriage despite its vocal public opposition to the Government’s plan to legalise it.
In his most frank public comments to date on the subject, the Archbishop accepted that the Church was in a “tangle” over homosexuality.
On one hand many Christians may themselves be “wrestling” with their own sexuality while others appeared to display only strong feelings of revulsion, he said.
The issue of women bishops – due to come to a head at the Church of England’s General Synod in York next week – was another matter which helped give the impression that sex was “the only thing the Church is interested in”, he remarked.
His comments came during a discussion day for a group of Christian teenagers at Lambeth Palace.
– full report at Daily Telegraph.
- Archbishop of Canterbury: who’ll get the impossible job? (mytechnologyworld9.blogspot.com)
- ‘Church Times’ article on the July General Synod of the C.of E. (kiwianglo.wordpress.com)
- Pressure mounts to put off women bishops vote (telegraph.co.uk)
- Archbishop of York stokes anti-marriage equality flames (queeringthechurch.com)
- Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams dismisses David Cameron’s Big Society as a ‘ploy’ (independent.co.uk)
- Views on the Potential Dilemma for the next Archbishop of Canterbury (kiwianglo.wordpress.com)