Saturday, May 14, 2016

Female deacons: why not?

A male-dominated sanctuary at the LMS Priest Training Conference at Prior Park.
It is often pointed out that there are women described as 'deacons' in the early Church. Indeed, they continued to exist in the East into the 9th century. It's all there in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

This shouldn't be alarming, however, once a few pertient facts are remembered. These ladies were not ordained into the order of deacon: it was a non-sacramental ministry with distinct functions from that of ordained deacons. They would, for example, assist women who were being baptised when this meant full immersion. They ceased to exist because their special functions, like the one just mentioned, ceased to be necessary, after a period in which it it had been just an honorary role. There is no reason to imagine they existed in the primitive Church in a formalised way: there is no reference to them in Acts or St Paul's letters, though naturally women worked for the Church in all sorts of ways, by contrast with the order of (male) deacons, who were clearly quite significant.

This role could in principle be revived, as Pope Paul VI revived (or tried to revive) various other roles, like Lector and Acolyte, which had become simply steps on the way to ordination to the priesthood, and the permanent diaconate. It wouldn't be so easy to revive the things which they used to do, but maybe they could do something else. After all, women do all kinds of things in the Church.

One powerful reason against such an act of archaeologism is that it would be misunderstood. The ordination of female deacons was a major step towards having women priests in the Anglican Communion, and however much it was explained that this was different, it would create the impression that we were going down the same road, and create not only confusion but frustration and anger among the women who want to see the role of deacon as just such a stepping-stone to sacramental ordination. I have no doubt that this kind of argument will be sufficient to kill off the propsal in Rome.

Another reason is that giving out permanent ministries to the laity, instituted by special blessings or even, in the case of permanent deacons, by sacramental ordination, carries with it a huge danger of clericalisation. I should concede that at least some of the roles are perfectly real; having people trained and ready to perform them is genuinly a service to the Church; and having a blessing or formal induction can hardly be a bad thing in itself. Nevertheless, the multiplication of these ministries tends to embed the idea that involvement in 'the Church' is involvement as a cleric or quasi-cleric. It reinforces the unfortunate idea that it is only clerics who have real power and prestige in the Church, and that to get a slice of the action you need to become a cleric too. Thus, if women are to be given power in the Church, they must at least become quasi-clerics.

This is a disastrous road to go down, because far from undermining clericalism, it reinforces it, and buries still more deeply the reality of the separate, important, and dignified role of the laity. The laity, whether male or female, don't need to inducted into some footling role in the parish as the priest's little helpers in order to have something to do for the Kingdom of God. As Vatican II taught with great emphasis, our work for the Church is principally in the world, not in the liturgy or the parish office.

Apostolicam actuositatem 7:
The laity must take up the restoration of the temporal order [ordo temporalis] as their own special task. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere.

The connection between the liturgical role of acolyte - server - and the priesthood has been the subject of a great deal of discussion: see this blog here.

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  1. A lot of the misinformation about the historic role and status of the "deaconess" is due to the ignorance of Latin theologians about Greek Catholic tradition. In those parts of the Catholic Church which have maintained a married diaconate for over a millennium, the appellation "diakonissa" was and is simply an honorific title which is bestowed on the deacon's wife. Greek Catholic friends refer to my good wife in this way - much to her chagrin.

    It is fairly easy to imagine why deacon's wives would have been happy to accompany naked female neophytes into the baptismal font rather than have their husbands do it. And I imagine those naked female neophytes would have been more comfortable with that state of affairs as well.

    Strangely enough, there are women in my parish who seem to prefer to consult with my good wife about some matters, than confer with either my PP or me. Both I and my PP are quite happy with this state of affairs too. Although we are not a Greek Catholic parish, any outside observer might assume that the ancient role of diakonissa has already been revived here. Though if they were brave enough to even suggest the idea of ordaining women to the diaconate, they would think twice before repeating their mistake after this particular "diakonissa" had finished with them!

  2. You pertinently use another word with a health warning: "archaeologism"

  3. I coincidentally posted an article about this subject as well, saying many of the same things you did:

    I am undoubtedly in favor of a broader application of what it means to be a "cleric", though. In much of the medieval world, one out of every ten men was a cleric because this also encompassed the minor orders. I'm very much in favor of tonsuring and ordaining all long-time altar servers and schola chanters to the minor orders at the parish level, rather than restricting them to the walls of the seminary. This is, indeed, what the Council of Trent envisioned in its decrees on the sacrament of Order. From Trent session 23:

    "That the functions of holy orders, from the deacon to the janitor,-which functions have been laudably received in the Church from the times of the apostles, and which have been for some time interrupted in very many places,-may be again brought into use in accordance with the sacred canons; and that they may not be traduced by heretics as useless; the holy Synod, burning with the desire of restoring the pristine usage, ordains that, for the future, such functions shall not be exercised but by those who are actually in the said orders; and It exhorts in the Lord all and each of the prelates of the churches, and commands them, that it be their care to restore the said functions, as far as it can be conveniently done, in the cathedral, collegiate, and parochial churches of their dioceses, where the number of the people and the revenues of the church can support it; and, to those who exercise those functions, they shall assign salaries out of some part of the revenues of any simple benefices, or those of the fabric of the church,-if the funds allow of it,-or out of the revenues of both together, of which stipends they may, if negligent, be mulcted in a part, or be wholly deprived thereof, according to the judgment of the Ordinary. And if there should not be unmarried clerics at hand to exercise the functions of the four minor orders, their place may be supplied by married clerics of approved life; provided they have not been twice married, be competent to discharge the said duties, and wear the tonsure and the clerical dress in church."