I was recently intrigued to notice that in the Church of England’s lectionary Macrina was kept alongside Gregory of Nyssa on 19th July, and described as a deaconess.
As I prepared for mass I wondered what the evidence was for this characterization, and how this might fit with the role and function of deaconesses in Testamentum Domini, which I believe to derive from fourth century Cappadocia, and thus to try and see Macrina in this light.
The only study I can find (though I am open to correction) is Sister Teresa CSA, “The development and eclipse of the deacon abbess” in E.A. Livingstone (ed.), Studia patristica 19 (Leuven: Peeters, 1989), 111-116; although Sr Teresa makes no use of Testamentum Domini, she does concern herself with the Cappadocians and with Macrina. She charts a process of development within forming monasticism in which deaconesses might be given charge of groups of consecrated virgins. As to Macrina, she is rightly cautious, whilst open to the possibility that she was a deaconess. In my opinion the evidence is thin to the point of non-existence.
Deaconesses make occasional appearance in the Testamentum. They stand within the veil, and receive communion before other women but after all others (1.23), and are classed with the readers and subdeacons in the deacon’s litany (1.35). They are to be trained by the widows (1.40). They have a residence near the gates of the church (1.19). Interestingly it is considered possible that they may be among latecomers to church (1.36). Finally we should note that the only liturgical duty attributed to them is to carry communion to women who are sick (2.20), by contrast to their role in baptism in the Didascalia, which in the Testamentum is the task of the widows (Testamentum Domini 2.8, in an addition to the Hippolytean original).
However, although the deaconesses appear occasionally and intermittently it does not appear that they are intrusions from another source, like the reader in Didascalia apostolorum 2.28.5 or the subdeacon in 2.34.3. Rather a coherent pattern emerges in which deaconesses are clearly junior in the hierarchy, and are ranked behind widows, who are the leading female ascetics in this community.
Rather speculatively, and in line with the evidence provided by Sr Teresa of Cappadocian deaconesses having charge of groups of virgins, I suggest the possibility that these deaconesses are the younger female ascetics, or those in charge of them. Hence they are trained by the widows, and rank behind them, on the basis of age, whilst having a recognized place in the ascetic hierarchy. Somehow one doubts that Macrina fits this mould, giving further support to my suspicion of those who compiled the Church of England’s calendar.
Update (Dec. 2018): I am revisiting this subject for a conference paper and now seriously doubt much of what I have written above (though my doubts regarding Makrina’s diaconate and suspicion of the Church of England’s historial acumen continue.) I am leaving the post intact as a monument to error!
Update (April 2019): The final draft of the conference paper is now online at academia.edu. The abstract reads:
Deaconesses make occasional appearances in Testamentum Domini, though women’s ministry in this document is primarily that of widows. The appearance of deaconesses is thus enigmatic. This paper argues that this order is appearing in the circles of the redactor (to be placed in fourth century Asia), though is not yet prominent or widespread. This explains their occasional appearance; in time the order would supplant that of widows, but this has not happened in the circle of this “church order.”
Great book coming out from Gorgias
I don’t mean the Gnomai!
A few years ago I came across a dissertation online providing a critical Georgian text (among other things) of the Hippolytean In Cant. I had long suspected that this commentary reflected mystagogy in the Hippolytean community, and was pleased to find that the author agreed with me.
I contacted Yancy Smith, the author, who now follows this blog, and suggested to him that the work should be published. There have been a few delays but he now tells me that the work will be coming out with Gorgias soon. It is to be called The mystery of anointing. It will probably cost an arm and a leg, but I will ask Santa nicely and promise to be a good boy. It will certainly be worth paying money for, I promise you.
The church-order connection lies in the light that the commentary casts on the multiple anointings in the baptismal rite of Traditio apostolica (on the assumption that this document, likewise, derives from the Hippolytean community.) But even if you are not convinced on this point (there are a few doubters, still!) there is a lot more in it than that. For a start, a usable modern translation for those of us who are Georgian-challenged!
Congratulations and thanks to the author, and to Gorgias for publishing. Respect all round!
Filed under Apostolic Tradition
Tagged as Anointing, Apostolic Tradition, Commentary on the Song of songs, Gorgias, Hippolytus, Mystagogy, Traditio apostolica, Yancy Smith