A Brief Note on Deaconesses in Orthodox Church


A Brief Note on Deaconesses in Orthodox Church

 

The study of the office of deaconess needs to begin with Jesus Christ and his attitude to women. It is evident from the New Testament that Jesus accorded women a higher position than she ever had before. In the Orient woman was a mere possession of man. In Jewish tradition man blessed God as he was not made a gentile, a slave or a woman.  But Jesus’ attitude towards women was of respect and participatory. Later in the time of Apostles too the faithful women were active in the ministry. 

 

The word deacon comes from the Greek word diakonein which means servant. This was a common gender word and was used for all voluntary services.  It was for Phoebe the word was used first as a title (Rom. 16:1. Of course, in the book of Acts of the Apostles, the seven chosen ones are called deacons these days, but it was not used on them in Acts as a title).  The use of the word for Phoebe tells us that it was a neutral word.  The words of Paul in the epistle tell that, women enjoyed a respectable position in the community and she was doing a ministering service.  The next reference to the title is in 1 Tim. 3:8 ff. may suggest that a deacon has to be male. But scholars of NT suggest that there is an editorial work which changed the setting. Originally it should have referred to both men and women deacons as diakon is a common gender word. It could also point to a shift that took shape in the Church to the effect that only men can be a deacon. Taking the example of Phoebe, we could very well say that in the initial stage there was no distinction between male deacons and female deacons. But as we see in the edited text in 1 Tim. this was changed to say that the title deacon referred only to male.  But there is no doubt that the office of the female deacons is of apostolic origin.  This is testified by both Clement of Alexandria (155-220 A.D) and Origen (185-254 A.D).

 

The first reference to deaconesses outside the New testament occurs in a letter written about the year 112 A.D by Pliny, Roman Governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, asking how to deal with the Christian sect.  The Apostolic Didascalia gives the need for the office of the deaconess in Ch. 17. It says:  “Wherefore, O Bishop, thou shalt appoint unto thee laborers of righteousness, helpers with thee unto life.  Those that seem good to thee out of all the people thou shalt choose and appoint Deacons, a man for the doing of many things that are needed, and a woman for the ministration to the women.  For there are houses where thou canst not send the Deacon unto women because of the heathen; but thou shalt send the Deaconess.  For also in many other things the Office of a woman [that is, a Deaconess] is required”.

The Apostolic Constitution tells of the Church practices perhaps a century or so later than the Syriac Didascalia, both before and after Nicaea.  In this the deaconess is mentioned after the deacon and before the sub-deacon.  The constitution also provides a prayer that is used during the ordination of deaconess which is same as the ordination of deacons.  She receives the laying of the hand just as the deacon does.  The Testament of the Lord, A fourth Century document, lists the duties of the deaconess as:

1. Assist at the administration of the baptism of women (“It is required that those who go down into the water [of baptism] shall be anointed with the oil of anointing by a deaconess”).

2. Instruct newly baptized women (“When she that is baptized cometh up from the water, the deaconess shall receive her, and shall teach her and instruct her how the seal of baptism may be unbroken in chastity and holiness”).

3. Take messages of the bishop to women, where he could not send the deacon.

4. Ministering to the sick and poor.

5. Ministering to the martyrs in prison.

6. Presiding over the women’s entrance into the church; examining the commendatory letters of strangers and assigning them places.

7. Oversight of the widows and orphans.

8. Take the Eucharist to women who were sick.

 

The Council of Nicea (325 AD) while talking about readmitting some of the apostate people into the Church in Canon XIX talks about the re-ordination of deaconesses. Most of the leading Greek fathers ( eg. St. Basil -326-379 A.D., St. Gregory of Nyssa -died 396 A.D., Epiphanius – died 403 A.D., Chrysostom – 344-407 A.D., Theodoret – 393-457 A.D.) have spoken of the office as an honorable one held by persons of rank, talent and good conduct.  It was his deaconess assistants helped St. Chrisostom, bishop of Constantinople, escape from Constantinople while the emperor was trying to exile him.  After the sixth century the order began to decline, both in number and position.  But it was never abolished.

 

In the SyriacChurch, the office of the deaconess was not taken very seriously during recent centuries. It is now limited to the membership in the Choir. However, I have witnessed in St. Gabriel Monastry in Turkey, a nun who was a deaconess as well assisting a monk baptize a girl child. She undressed the child (only a year or so old) after all the prayers before immersion by the monk, immersed her in the water while the monk laid his hand on the child’s head and later anointed the child and dressed her. I also have performed an ordination service of deaconess (they are called msamronito) in the mission Church of Thrissur diocese in Los Angels, California which is an ethnically Syrian congregation. The liturgy used is the same as that of the ordination liturgy of the male singers otherwise called Msamrono. This office can not be spoken strictly as that of a deacon. I do not think that this could happen in the near future in the Indian Church. A Kalpana from H. H. Catholicos after a decision of the Episcopal Synod (1982) to permit women to read the Old Testament lessons before the Eucharistic service in the Church was never put to practice in most of the Orthodox Churches in Malankara.

 

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