The place of women among the clergy is a particularly pressing topic today, especially with moves in groups, such as the Anglican Communion, to ordain women into the Priesthood. This paper will only address the matters pertaining to the minor clergy rather than the issue of Priesthood. It will also include within its scope the Deaconess, who, although perhaps considered a female Deacon, is in some places referred to as a servant of the Deacons along with the other minor clergy.
There is generally silence among the canons regarding women’s ordination to the ranks of the minor clergy. There is an assumption in the canons that the clergy are male because all the canons regarding marriage assume that the cleric is male. The only reference to female ordinations or clerical roles in the canons is that of the Deaconess, so it would seem from the silence and assumptions that only males where chosen for the minor orders. This seems to be consistent with historical evidence that only men were chosen for the minor orders and the only role permitted to women with official sanction was that of Deaconess. This is also supported with the evidence from the extant ordination prayers for a Deaconess, which specifically mention that it has been “granted not only to men but also to women the grace and visitation of the Holy Spirit” and “you do not reject women who offer themselves, and by divine counsel, to minister as is fitting to your holy houses, but you accept them in the order of ministers.” It would seem superfluous to mention that women were also permitted to minister in the holy houses in this rite, unless this was the only ministry open to women. Also, of significance in this issue, which will be referred to later in regard of the functions of a Deaconess, is Paul’s canon that women are to remain silent in the churches. This would be particularly inconsistent with them serving as Lectors or Canters, whose primary function is to speak aloud the divine words either in plain voice or by song for the congregation to hear.
The functions of a Deaconess seem to have been focused on ministry to women. The Apostolic Constitutions give the clearest statement and state that “A Deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of Presbyters or Deacons, but only is to keep the doors, and to minister to the Presbyters in the baptising of women, on account of decency.” Here there is no mention of any service at the altar but only assistance at the doors and with baptism such as anointing the body of an adult female with oil before the baptism and helping her into the water. She may also have been able to take communion to women at home who were unable to come to church. This may explain why the Deaconess is permitted to take the chalice after her communion and place it on the altar, an interesting action not found in any of the other ordination rites. Being a minister of the Eucharist would be consistent with her being permitted to enter the Sanctuary. However, there is no mention of her giving the chalice to communicants during the liturgy, as was done by the male Deacons, so her ministry seems only to have been taking communion to women outside church gatherings. Even though the ordination of Deaconesses was performed in the liturgy at the same time as a Deacon’s ordination (unlike the ordinations of minor clergy, which are generally performed outside the liturgy,) and apart from speaking of her ministry as being in the diaconate and as receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the extant ordination rite does not include mention of ministry at the Holy Mysteries but only in the holy house, which is similar to the prayer for a Subdeacon. Also, the rite does not include any circling, nor kissing of the Holy Table, nor is there any exclamation of “Axios” by the people. She receives a stole but put around her neck and not worn in the same manner as a Deacon. She doesn’t have any other vestments. She does not kneel but only stands, which according to Dionysius the Areopagite, means that she does not have a position of leadership in the Church. This conforms with her being a servant to the Deacons, as mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions and also with the writings of Paul, who in his epistle to Timothy says that a woman is not permitted to have authority over a man. Finally, she does not say any litanies as does a male Deacon after his ordination, which means that her role is a silent one and does not involve leading the congregation in prayer. Again, this fits with the commandment given by Paul for women to be silent in church. Thus, the evidence indicates that the role of a Deaconess is different than that of a male Deacon, even if she is considered a member of the major clergy.
Other requirements for a Deaconess include that she is 40 years of age or older at her ordination, again unlike a male Deacon who is required to be 25 years old, and she must be unmarried: either a virgin, that is a nun, or a widow. There are severe penalties for breach of this requirement. This is again different from the male clergy, who are permitted to be married and continue married at ordination. It is difficult to know exactly why there are these differences but it is clear that remaining free of martial or sexual relations is beyond what is expected of male clergy, at least in the East. The maturity required for her to serve is also greater than required of a Deacon. This may relate the requirement for her to remain unmarried with some parallel to the age restriction for widows. It would also suggest that the Deaconess was not ordained for mechanical functions in the services but a range of functions for women including teaching, which would require her to be more mature. Her freedom from a husband would help prevent a conflict of interest regarding obedience to the Bishop and permit to live in communities of women. The sexual purity being unmarried is no more than expected of an unmarried male clergyman.