Women in the Diaconate: A Tradition Across the Ages

More fruit from my doctoral research! I hope you enjoy. God Bless, Julian.

Introduction

This literature review will show, beginning in the Patristic era and moving into the Reformation and Modern eras, the important role that deaconesses have often played in the pastoral and liturgical work of the Christian Church. Careful attention will be given to the type of work these deaconesses performed as well as how they were viewed within the respective communions and traditions that utilized a female diaconate.

The Deaconess Tradition in the Patristic Era

Aided by helpful documentary surveys such as Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek’s Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, as well as many other sources, we see that the practice of ordaining women as deaconesses was widespread in the Christian East[1] during the Patristic era, though probably not elsewhere in the Church.[2] Patristics scholars Madigan, Osiek[3], and Corrado Marucci[4] note that we must distinguish in the records of the Fathers (as they seem to have done themselves) between the “widows” of the Church who though supported by the Church and performing pastoral work on behalf of the Church, were not ordained in the same fashion as women belonging to the order of deaconesses. Madigan and Osiek are gently critical of older scholars that tended to conflate these two distinct categories of women in ministry.

Marucci notes that Clement of Alexandria and Origen both mention in their writings the existence of women in the diaconate,[5] even though the practice was probably never common in their locale.[6] Furthermore, Pietro Sorci notes that both the Didascalia Apostolorum (an anonymous work belonging to the genre of church orders probably written in the 230s) and the Apostolic Constitutions (a similar work written sometime in the 380s) mention in some detail the ordination rite for deaconesses.[7] Most of the literature on deaconesses in the Patristics era generally focuses on 1) the ordination rites for deaconesses, 2) the types of ministry they performed, and 3) what was their relationship to the other orders of ordained ministry (e.g. bishop, presbyter, and deacon.)

Drawing on evidence from the Apostolic Constitutions  and the disciplinary canons of the Council of Chalcedon (451) Marucci notes that deaconesses were indeed ordained and considered a part of the clergy.[8] Furthermore, the Byzantine Church in particular has preserved a rite of ordination for deaconesses.[9] Patristics scholar Cipriano Vagaggini draws on much of the same evidence and echoes the conclusions of Marucci and argues that women were clearly ordained to the diaconate in the Christian East and were considered clergy.[10]

Vagaggini also explains in some detail the Byzantine rite of ordination for deaconesses. Drawing on text from the Apostolic Constitutions, he notes that deaconesses were ordained in the Church building (as opposed to lectors and subdeacons who were ordained outside of the Church building) via the laying on of hands by the presiding bishop. This ceremony would be conducted in the presence of the presbyters, deacons, and other deaconesses. The presiding bishop would then recite a proscribed prayer of blessing over the deaconess inviting the Holy Spirit to empower her ministry.[11] Marucci[12] and Vagaggini[13] generally agree that the ordination rite for deacons and deaconesses was quite similar.

As to the types of ministry performed by deaconesses the literature is reasonably united. Pietro Sorci reports that although the duties of deaconesses varied by region somewhat, most deaconesses in the Christian East would have anointed women prior to and immediately after baptism, catechized women prior to and after baptism, and aided ill women in the Church. Sorci mentions other tasks deaconesses may have performed that some scholars do not mention such as serving the elements of the Eucharist to women and children in extreme circumstances and even being a spokesperson for the bishop from time to time.[14] Corrado Marucci mostly echoes the claims of Sorci only diverging from him somewhat by noting that most likely deaconesses would have only served the elements of the Eucharist to sick women during Easter time. With Sorci and Marucci, Vagagginni reports that deaconesses would have anointed female candidates for baptism, catechized females, and provided support to ill women. He is less certain about whether they carried the elements of the Eucharist to women and children.[15]

There is less scholarly consensus as to the relationship of deaconesses to the other orders of ordained ministry during the Patristic era. Corrado Marucci notes while older scholarship tended to see the Patristic Church placing, in terms of prestige and honor, the office of deaconess between the “major orders” (e.g. bishop, presbyter, and deacon) and the “minor orders” (e.g. subdeacon, lector, cantor and so forth,) most scholars now think that the office of the deaconess was basically equivalent to that of the deacon at least in the Byzantine Church. However, deaconesses could perform far fewer ministerial functions than deacons and fell under their authority.[16] They could not preach nor teach publicly, they did not assist at the altar when the Eucharist was celebrated, nor could they baptize.

Offering a somewhat contrasting perspective, Cipriano Vagaggini notes that there was little consensus in the Patristic era as to where deaconesses should be placed in the respective orders of ministry with some sources placing them between the “major” and “minor” orders (or even below the “minor” order of subdeacon in some cases) and other sources giving them more honor.[17]

Both Marucci and Vagaggini mention that in the Didascalia Apostolorum vivid Trinitarian language is used to describe the respective orders of ministry with the bishops in some sense representing God the Father, the presbyters God the Son, and the deacons and deaconesses God the Holy Spirit.[18] For the Church Fathers, just as the Holy Spirit always exercises it’s ministry in such a way as to point to and glorify the Son, so does the deacon or deaconess in regards to the presbyter.

Thus, if we know quite a great deal about the deaconess tradition in the Patristic era and its’ relative vibrancy in the Christian East, why does this tradition gradually disappear from the historical record? In answer to this question the literature is united. Sorci notes, with Marucci and Vagaggini concurring, that one of the most important duties of deaconesses was the anointing of adult female baptismal candidates and thus as infant baptism became more common, with adult baptismal candidates becoming simultaneously less common, the deaconess tradition gradually lost much of its’ necessity in the Christian East.[19]

The Deaconess tradition in the Reformation Era

It has already been noted that the deaconess tradition was never widespread in the Western Church. However, during the Reformation era (1517-1648) this tradition saw a small revival. Reformation scholar Kenneth J. Stewart notes that John Calvin, more so than any other magisterial reformer, voiced support for a female diaconate.[20] Furthermore, Calvin thought that the deaconess tradition was of Apostolic origin. Calvin conceived of a female diaconate working closely under the authority of male deacons and dispensing aid to needy families in the local church.[21] Stewart does note that the deaconess tradition was ultimately never revived in Calvin’s Geneva nor in the other Reformed Churches until much later. He also finds it curious that this aspect of Calvin’s thought on church order has not received very much scholarly attention, even in Reformed circles.[22]

Offering a somewhat contrasting perspective to Stewart, Baptist Scholar Charles W. Deweese notes that in Calvin’s ecclesiastical system he only recognized four offices in the Church, that is, pastors, doctors (teachers), elders, and deacons. In his schema, deaconesses are not mentioned. Furthermore, in a commentary on 1st Timothy, Calvin concludes that the term “deaconess” was a reference to the wives of clergymen. However, Deweese does note that Calvin did think that the wives of clergymen would be highly involved in their ministries and may even minister to the needy on behalf of their husbands.[23] Perhaps Stewart and Deweese’s respective views on Calvin and the deaconess tradition need not be pitted against one another. By synthesizing their respective views, we could surmise that Calvin conceived of women in the diaconate, most of them wives of clergymen, not ordained in the same fashion as a deacon, and working under the close supervision of a clergymen.

If we accept that the Reformation ended with the ratification of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (as most scholars do) then the Baptist tradition is to be accepted alongside the Reformed and Lutheran traditions as a genuine, if second generation, Reformation tradition. Charles W. Deweese notes that the deaconess tradition was revived in the Baptist tradition very early in the 1600s. Indeed, some of the earliest Baptist leaders such as John Smyth and Thomas Helwys voiced support for women in the diaconate. Deweese notes that several early Baptist confessional documents explicitly state that the Church has the power to “ordain” both male and female deacons. Somewhat confusingly, these early Baptist documents often use the terms widows, deacons, and deaconesses interchangeably.[24] Deweese is noncommittal as to whether early Baptist congregations appointed very many deaconesses, though support for the existence of deaconesses undoubtedly developed very early in the Baptist tradition.

Remarkably, relatively little scholarly attention has been given to the development of the deaconess tradition during the Reformation. Many scholars who study women’s issues and the Reformation have appraised the Reformation’s contribution to women’s empowerment as at best a mixed one because the most common outlet for female religious expression during the Medieval period, that is, the convent, declined during the Reformation era.[25] Other scholars such as Kirsi Stjerna[26] and Beth Allison Barr[27] have pointed out that the rediscovery of doctrines such as the “priesthood of the believer” and the “spiritual equality” of all persons during the Reformation probably did create some space for women to minister publicly, at least in later eras. However, most of the scholarship on women’s issues and the Reformation has ignored the (admittedly) small revival of the deaconess tradition that that did take place then. Only Barr alludes to how certain “Reformation doctrines” (e.g. the “priesthood of the believer” and the “spiritual equality” of all persons) may have created space for the latter mass revival of the deaconess tradition in the Protestant churches during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[28]

The Deaconess Tradition in the Modern Era

During the modern era, the deaconess movement would be most noticeably revived in the Methodist tradition as well as in the various “Holiness” groups that broke from the Methodist tradition. However, the literature also reflects that some Pietist communities revived the deaconess tradition as well. Martin Marty has called “Halle Pietism” his “favorite” strain of Pietism due to its’ emphasis on social justice and it’s revival of a female diaconate.[29] The literature also reflects that the Moravian Pietists began appointing and ordaining deaconesses in the 1730s and 40s.[30] Moravian deaconesses probably performed a very wide range of duties including dispensing relief to the poor, assisting the priest at worship services including during communion, and maybe even preaching under extraordinary circumstances.[31] Despite the evidence of deaconesses playing at least some role in Hallensian and Moravian Pietism, the literature has given this aspect of the Pietist story rather scant attention. Certainly, more research needs to be conducted in this area to flesh out the story of Pietism.

Emilie G. Briggs, writing in 1913, reports that the deaconess movement became more widespread in Europe largely through the work of Theodore Fliedner, a German Lutheran Clergyman, who in 1836 founded the “League of Kaiserswerth,” an order for deaconesses.[32] Briggs reports that the “League” expanded and chapters were founded in other parts of Europe. These deaconesses were largely ministers of mercy and provided relief to the poor. They were not ordained in the same sense as deacons, presbyters, or bishops, and they worked closely under the leadership of a male clergyman.[33]

Briggs notes that the “League” inspired a revival of the deaconess movement in the Anglican Church and the Church of Scotland in the mid-1800s with deaconesses in these traditions largely doing the same kind of work as their continental counterparts. However, she does note that in the Church of Scotland deaconesses were regularly “ordained” at the “kirk-session,” thus enjoying more honor than their counterparts in the rest of Europe. However, the ordination of the deaconess was not regarded as on par with that of a deacon.[34]

Fleshing out Brigg’s story, Benjamin L. Hartley notes that Methodist missionaries to Germany and India were inspired to create deaconess movements of their own. Hartley notes that the inspiration to revive a female diaconate within a Methodist context was largely due to their missionaries reportedly losing some of their female converts to the Lutherans of Germany and India due to the Lutheran Church already having an established female diaconate.[35]

Briggs also reports that the deaconess movement was transplanted to the United State in the mid-1800s with Lutherans, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists and others all establishing deaconess orders. She notes that the Wesleyan/Methodist movement has perhaps embraced the deaconess movement most visibly and widely.[36] Furthermore, their deaconesses often performed the most varied work as they nursed the sick, taught, and even preached in some circumstances.[37]

Further Fleshing out Brigg’s story, Priscilla Pope-Levinson notes that while social work in largely urban environments was an important part of the work of Methodist deaconesses in late 1800s and early 1900s, many Methodist deaconesses were also very actively involved in evangelism.[38] Levinson emphasizes the evangelistic work that Methodist deaconesses performed far more than Briggs does. Levinson notes that the revival and later expansion of the Methodist deaconess movement is largely due to two women named Jane Bancroft Robinson (1847-1932) and Lucy Rider Meyer (1849-1922) who, though often at odds with one another, both helped carve out space for the Methodist deaconess movement to grow and flourish. These women founded schools to train deaconesses. Institutions such as the “Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions” as well as the “New England Deaconess Training School” produced many highly trained deaconesses and inspired the founding of many more deaconess schools and academies.[39]

Pope-Levinson notes that deaconesses in the Methodist Church engaged not only in private evangelism but public evangelism as well, frequently leading revivals and even pastoring small churches on occasion.[40] Laceye Warner concurs with the judgement of Pope-Levinson and notes that women “deaconess-evangelists” frequently led revival meetings and movements in the Methodist Church in both Britain and America[41] There was a conservative backlash within the Methodist Church in America against deaconesses moving outside of their traditional purview (e.g. providing relief to the poor) though they were largely unsuccessful in curbing the rapidly expanding duties of deaconesses in the Methodist Church in late 1800s and early 1900s.[42]

Echoing the claims of Emilie G. Briggs, though relying on far more archival data, Barbara B. Troxell notes that although most of the major Protestant denominations in America revived the deaconess tradition in the late 1800s, the Methodist movement embraced it the most wholeheartedly and allowed their deaconesses to perform the widest range of duties. She reports that out of 2000 deaconesses serving in America at the turn of the century, 1200 of them were Methodists.[43] She also notes that other Wesleyan groups such as the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Association created deaconess orders in the early twentieth century.[44] With Pope-Levinson, Troxell emphasizes the important role of Lucy Rider Meyer in reviving the deaconess movement in the Methodist tradition.[45]

Many of the various “Holiness” offshoots of the more mainstream Wesleyan tradition also embraced a female diaconate. According to theologian and historian Paul L. King, my own tribe, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, licensed and ordained women as deaconesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Deaconesses in the early Christian and Missionary Alliance often served on church staffs and were occasionally leaders in inner city missions.[46] Deaconess in the Christian and Missionary Alliance engaged in youth ministry, evangelism to women and children, mercy ministries, and occasionally public “Gospel preaching.”[47] King does note that while deaconesses were typically not allowed to administer the ordinances of communion and baptism, they sometimes did so in the absence of a male clergyperson.[48]

Conclusion

When the literature on this subject is carefully consulted, we see quite clearly that deaconesses played a significant role in the pastoral ministry of the Eastern Christian Churches during the Patristic era (100-451.)We know in some detail as least one of the ordination rites (The Byzantine rite) that was used for deaconesses in the Christian East, as well as the kind of pastoral and liturgical work they typically performed. The deaconess tradition does not seem to have been widespread in the Western Church nor in Egypt. Only during the Reformation would voices like John Calvin, Thomas Helwys, and John Smyth give support to the appointment of deaconesses. However, it does not seem that their support for deaconesses immediately resulted in a widespread revival of the practice. Moving into the modern period, some Protestant groups such as the Pietists of Halle, the Moravians, and later the Methodist and Holiness Churches spawned vibrant deaconess movements of their own employing them to do a variety of pastoral work such as mercy ministries, women and children’s ministries, teaching, and in some cases public preaching.

Notes

[1] Pietro Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 59-86. Sorci’s article demonstrates well how widespread the deaconess tradition was in the Christian East by showing its’ presence in the Byzantine, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian Churches.

[2] Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.) 1-2

[3] Madigan and Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, 2-4.

[4] Corrado Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 42.

[5] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 42.

[6] See Ugo Zanetti, “Were there Deaconesses in Egypt?,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 136-140.

[7] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 66.

[8] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 43-47.

[9] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 46.

[10] Cipriano Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, ed. Phyllis Zagano (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016), 96-103.

[11] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 103-107.

[12] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 48.

[13] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 106.

[14] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 77.

[15] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 90-120.

[16] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 51-55.

[17] Vagaggini, “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition,” 112-114.

[18] Marucci, “History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church,” 42.

[19] Sorci, “The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women,” 77.

[20] Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.) 230.

[21] Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, 231.

[22] Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, 231.

[23] Charles W. Deweese, Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2005.) 21-22.

[24] Deweese, Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service, 27-29.

[25] Fleur Houston, “Reformation: a Two-Edged Sword in the Cause of the Ministry of Women,” Feminist Theology 26, no.1 (2017): 19.

[26] Kirsi Stjerna, “Reformation Revisited: Women’s voices in the Reformation,” Ecumenical Review 69, no.2 (2017)

[27] Beth Allison Barr, “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howards ‘Discriminating Sifter’,” Fides et Historia 48, no.2 (2016): 85.

[28] Barr, “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howards ‘Discriminating Sifter’,” 88.

[29] Martin Marty, “God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: The Story of Pietism,” Produced and Directed by Tim Frakes, 2017, Documentary, 24:00-25:30.

[30] Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.) 182.

[31] Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership, 183.

[32] Emilie G. Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconess” The Biblical World 41 (1913): 382.

[33] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconess,” 383-384.

[34] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 385.

[35] Benjamin L. Hartley, “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 40, no. 2 (2002): 182.

[36] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 386-390.

[37] Briggs, “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses,” 386.

[38] Priscilla Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 47, no. 2 (2009): 108-114.

[39] Hartley, “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History,196-197.

[40] Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement,” 114-116.

[41] Laceye Warner, “Wesley Deaconess-Evangelists” Exploring Remnants of Revivalism in Late 19th Century British Methodism” Methodist History 38, no. 3(2000): 176.

[42] Pope-Levinson, “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement,” 115-116.

[43] Barbara B. Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition” Methodist History 37, no. 2 (1999): 120.

[44] Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition,” 120-121.

[45] Troxell, “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition,” 121.

[46] Paul L. King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance (Tulsa: Word and Spirit Press, 2009.) 74.

[47] King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance, 74.

[48] King, Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance, 232.

Bibliography

Barr, Beth Allison. “What did the Reformation mean for Women? A Medieval Perspective on Howard’s ‘Discriminating Sifter’” Fides et Historia 48, no. 2 (2016): 80-88.

Briggs, Emilie G. “The Restoration of the Order of Deaconesses” The Biblical World 41, (1913): 382-390.

Deweese, Charles W. Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service. Macon: Mercer University, 2005.

Hartley, Benjamin L. “Salvation and Sociology In The Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 40, no. 2 (2002): 182-197.

Houston, Fleur “Reformation: a Two-Edged Sword in the Cause of the Ministry of Women.” Feminist Theology 26, no. 1 (2017): 19-33.

King, Paul L. Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Tulsa: Word and Spirit Press, 2009.

Madigan, Kevin and Carolyn Osiek. Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Marty, Martin, “God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: The Story of Pietism,” Produced and Directed by Tim Frakes, 2017, Documentary, 24:00-25:30.

Marucci, Corrado.“History and Value of the Feminine Diaconate in the Ancient Church” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 40-58. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Muir, Elizabeth Gillan. A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.

Pope-Levinson, Priscilla. “A ‘Thirty Year War’ and More: Exposing Complexities In The Methodist Deaconess Movement” Methodist History 47, no. 2 (2009): 101-116.

Sorci, Pietro.“The Diaconate and other Liturgical Ministries of Women” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 59-86. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Stewart, Kenneth J. Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.

Stjerna, Kirsi “Reformation Revisited: Women’s voices in the Reformation.” Ecumenical Review 69, no. 2 (2017): 201-2014.

Troxell, Barbara B. “Ordination of Women in the United Methodist Tradition” Methodist History 37, no. 2 (1999): 119-130.

Vagaggine, Cipriano.“The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Tradition” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 90-120. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Warner, Laceye.“Wesley Deaconess-Evangelists” Exploring Remnants of Revivalism in Late 19th Century British Methodism” Methodist History 38, no. 3(2000): 176-190.

Zanetti, Ugo.“Were there Deaconesses in Egypt?” in Women Deacons: Essays With Answers, edited by Phyllis Zagano, 136-139. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.

 

 

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