Thursday, July 30, 2015

Is the "deaconess" a female deacon?

Deacon Greg Kandra on Deacon's Bench notes today a recently-published interview with Austrian theologian Dietmar Winkler of Salzburg University.  The English version is picked up by the Tablet, hardly a reliable source, and my German isn't up to reading the original.  Dr. Winkler is reported to have said, among other things,

“Married priests and women deacons should be reintroduced as soon as possible. That would bring new dynamism to the Church”, the future dean of Salzburg University’s Catholic theological faculty, Professor Dietmar Winkler, told the Austrian daily Salzburger Nachrichten

What Dr. Winkler and so many who promote the ordination of women to the diaconate don't know (or at least don't seem to know) is that the ancient order of "deaconess" was never seen by the Latin Church as a female version of the Order of Deacons.  Rather, it was parallel to the Lector - a ministry, certainly, but not a consecrated ministry of the sort reserved to the sacrament of Holy Orders.  Deaconesses did not ever receive that sacrament.  Deaconesses had several roles, nearly all of which were serving other women in situations where it would be improper or scandalous for men to do so.  The most common role was in the baptism of women, which was often done disrobed; from that also came a catechetical roles forming those women.  Other liturgical roles, like reading and ushering, were predominantly in women's monastic houses or groups, where men (apart from priests) were not present.

This distinction is deeply embedded in the liturgical texts of the "ordination" of deaconesses.  (One can, in the broad sense, speak of "ordination" of a deaconess.  The root meaning of "ordination" is simply "induction into an order," and no one is arguing that deaconesses did not constitute an order, like that of the Order of Widows, say.  But this should never be confused with the special sense of "ordination" which means "induction into one of the orders of the sacrament of Holy Orders.")  Even if the symbols of the diaconate (laying on of hands, giving of a stole) could be used for deaconesses sometimes, the words (and therefore the meaning) of the rituals remain quite different.  For example, here's the earliest known pair of ritual texts, from the Apostolic Constitutions from Syria in the 4th century (Book III has other interesting info on deacons and deaconesses):

Prayer for a deacon:  "...[H]ear our prayer, Lord, and give ear to our supplication, and let your face shine on this your servant who is appointed to you for ministry, and fill him with spirit and power, as you filled Stephen the protomartyr and imitator of the sufferings of your Christ.  And grant that he, acceptably performing the sacred ministry entrusted to him, may be worthy of a higher rank through the mediation of your Christ..."*

Prayer for a deaconess: "Eternal Father..., creator of man and woman, who filled with the Spirit Miriam and Deborah and Anna and Huldah; who did not disdain that your only-begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tent of the testimony and in the temple appointed women to be guardians of your holy gates: now look upon this your servant who is being appointed for your ministry, and give her the Holy Spirit and cleanse her from every defilement of body and spirit so that she may worthily complete the work committed to her, to your glory and the praise of your Christ..."*

Note the key distinctions.  The ministry of the deacon is "sacred," it is done "with spirit and power," and it may lead to "a higher rank" (namely the priesthood).  The ministry of the deaconess is simply "ministry," not sacred (Holy Orders) ministry, it is done with the spirit but not "power," and it is completed worthily without any indication of "higher rank."  The text for a lector from the same source uses, for a lector, the same "ministry" (not sacred ministry) and the same "spirit" (not spirit and powe), but then does indicate the "higher rank" that follows. 

One might also note that the Old Testament typology and the New Testament roots of the deaconess are likewise completely different from those of deacons, as elaborated in other version of the rituals.  So there's really no question that deaconesses are not female versions of the Holy Orders rank of deacon, but rather female versions of something like the lector, with a few differences specific to their unique context (lectors don't baptize, for example, except in case of emergency, but they do catechize).  Finally, one might point out that, in fact, we have already "restored" the deaconess in the modern Church - they're now called "Lay Ecclesial Ministers."

*(Source: Paul Bradshaw, Ordination Rites of the Ancient Churches of East and West (New York, 1990) 116-7.)

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