The disappearing deaconess

A comment on the post below about the disappearing deacon has led me to read Brian Patrick Mitchell, The disappearing deaconess (Alexandra VA: Eremia, 2021).

Although there is some historical material here (some of which is outside the period of my competence), the book is also a contribution to the ongoing debate in Orthodox circles about the restoration of a female diaconate. As a matter of policy I never comment on internal issues relating to another part of Christ’s vineyard (DA1) which restricts me somewhat. Beyond that, Mitchell’s book is largely a work of theology, a field in which I can claim a complete lack of distinction.

I therefore limit myself to a few observations on the first chapter, which is concerned with history. Two points emerge from my reading.

The first is that Mitchell states that the first evidence for female deacons is found in Didascalia apostolorum which derives, he says, from the third century (“around 230”, p11). Sadly he appears to have overlooked more recent work on the Didascalia, which tends to date it somewhat later. As such we cannot be so sure that this is the first evidence. With due recognition of the uncertainties of interpretation of the 19th canon of Nicaea, I still often think that this is the first certain evidence of such an order. However, Mitchell believes that the female diaconate was a new institution in the church of the fourth century. Here I agree, and suggest that a later dating for the Didascalia material might strengthen his case.

My second major observation is that the attempt to deny any female diaconate or office in the first century or so of Christ-confession (pp5-10) misses the mark. In Original bishops I suggest that there may well have been female episkopoi and diakonoi in the first century, but that female leadership rapidly disappears with the re-institutionalization of the church as associational (whilst clinging on in separated communities). To accept this would do no harm to Mitchell’s thesis since, as he states in his preface, “History is not tradition. History becomes tradition only when it is handed down.” (pxi)

The book is a light reworking of a dissertation dating from 2017; it thus inevitable that the treatment of deaconesses in Testamentum Domini does not deal with my own (2020) contribution, though what it has to say (pp16-17) is largely fair. He notes Martimort’s suggestion that the Testamentum knew only of deaconesses from his sources (unlikely I think) and also suggests that there is a reaction against the presence of deaconesses. I don’t think either is correct; I think the Testamentum is just puzzled at this new order and doesn’t really know what to do with them!

I hope that the author and his readers and supporters will take these comments in the constructive spirit with which they are offered.

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Filed under Anything else, Didascalia Apostolorum, Testamentum Domini

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