Tag Archives: ordination of women

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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A subdeacon’s sex-change

Carolyn Osiek, and Kevin Madigan, Ordained women in the early church: a documentary history (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 70, note an inscription dedicated to “Alexandra, subdeacon.” They comment: “The office of subdeacon is known for men, but is otherwise unknown for women.” This intrigued me sufficiently to check the reference, which is given as BE (1963): 152. Sure enough the name of the subdeacon is given there as “Alexandra”. However, a full reference is given to Georgi Mihailov, “Epigraphica”, Bulletin de l’Institut archéologique bulgare 25 (1962), 205-209, here at 208-209. There Mihailov reads ὑποδιακάνον Ἀλέξαν[δ]ρος. Jeanne and Louis Robert in BE appear to have subjected him to gender re-assignment!

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Women at the last supper: the witness of the church orders


The fresco of Cerula restored

I have just read the chapter “The Life of the Virgin and Its Antecedents” in Ally Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden leadership (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). If I have done the hyperlink correctly, this should take you to the e-book on google play.

The chapter is largely concerned with the question of whether a (late) Life of the virgin extant in Georgian held that female disciples were present at the last supper. I cannot comment on this part of the chapter; not for the first time I admit to being Georgian-challenged. However, the author, at the end of the chapter, seeks traces of this tradition in the church order literature.

First she points to DA 2.26.4-8:

…but the bishop is high-priest and Levite. He it is who ministers the word to you and is your mediator, yourteacher, and, after God, is your father who has regenerated you through the water. He is your chief, he is your master, he your powerful king. He is to be honoured by you in the place of God, since the bishop sits among you as a type of God. The deacon, however, is present as a type of Christ, and is therefore to be loved by you. And the deaconess is to be honoured by you as a type of the Holy Spirit. The presbyters are also to be reckoned by you as a type of the apostles, and the widows and orphans are to be considered among you as a type of the altar.

This the author describes as a “kernel that survived the final redactor (which) preserves a stunning example of its original gender parity—a liturgical pair, a male deacon and a female deacon.”

I would love for this to be true, but fear that the point of the passage is to exalt the bishop, to keep presbyters in their place, and to introduce the image, perhaps borrowed from Polycarp, of the widow as an altar. Insofar as liturgical arrangements are concerned, we may note that the deaconess has probably supplanted the place of the widows as found in Testamentum Domini, and is probably the work of the uniting redactor.

I do, however, agree broadly (as she agrees with me (!) and with Allie Ernst) that the passage in Apostolic church order 24-28 regarding the propriety of women celebrating the sacraments with reference to Mary’s presence at the last supper does relate to the possibility that a version of this account had broadened the numbers present beyond the twelve to incorporate the presence of female disciples. Kateusz writes:

“This scribe’s focus on repeatedly undermining Mary’s authority suggests that the scribe considered Mary herself a threat. The text itself belies a raging ideological conflict over the role of women officiants. One faction was using Mary to justify women officiants, and the other faction, represented by this scribe, was going to great lengths to try to undermine Mary’s authority. This scribe, thus, was not only aware of a preexisting tradition that said women had been present at the last supper, and that Jesus had authorized them as ministers there—he also knew that the communities who followed this tradition considered Mary herself the model for these women clergy.”

I am not sure that I could go quite this far in reconstructing the situation behind the passage with such detail, but do not retract my earlier (2006) statements that the situation is broadly along these lines and that “The whole point of the discussion is to subordinate women’s participation in the celebration of the eucharist.” My suspicion, moreover, is that the “other faction” is outwith the community of the redactor. I do accept the possibility, however, that there was some literary text to which the redactor of Apostolic church order is making reference. Possibly, an observation which is less than friendly to Kateusz’s case, this is the source of the agraphon found here that the weak will be saved through the strong.

Kateusz is part of the Wijngaards Theological Institute. I am aware that this is not the first time that I have criticized the use of church order material by members of this Institute. I must re-iterate that I have no axe to grind here, and consider it inappropriate as an Anglican to intervene in a discussion in another part of the catholic church. My concern is solely that enthusiasm for a change within the Roman church (or any other Christian community come to that) should not blunt our historical acumen.

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Euodia and Syntyche

Now published online is “Euodia, Syntyche and the Role of Syzygos: Phil 4:2–3” ZNW 109 (2018), 222–234.

Abstract: In Phil 4:2–3 Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to unite with each other. He also addresses ‘true yokefellow’, and asks him to assist the two women. This paper disputes the almost universally held assumption that Paul was asking him to mediate a conflict between the two women. Rather, Paul is here calling the church leaders, Euodia and Syntyche, to have the mind of Christ and to foster unity among the Philippian churches, and the other church members to support them. The term ‘true yokefellow’ is a piece of ‘idealized praise’ and is Paul’s way of diplomatically correcting one or more church members.

I do not post the German abstract as I realize that somebody somewhere interfered with my version by turning “Gemeinde” at each point to a singular, whereas I had plurals, reflecting the plural nature of Philippian congregations even in a single Ortskirche.

This article is chiefly the work of Richard Fellows, though I have managed to get my name on it as co-author, mainly by exercising my editorial skills.

By way of an aside, to lighten up a rather quotidian post, we may note that this in part continues my argument in Original bishops that Euodia and Syntyche were patrons, episkopoi, of Philippian Christian associations. Those interested in ancient precedents for the ordination of women (among whom I am not numbered) may do better exploring the roles of these ancient female patrons than by examining the rather dubious and difficult evidence of the church orders regarding female deacons.

Thanks also to Richard Fellows, note the article is open access, and can be read from the link above.



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Deaconesses in Testamentum Domini

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.”

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Presbyters in 3rd Corinthians and names in Philippians: insights from Richard Fellows

A communication from Richard Fellows drew my attention to his article on Acts, which is of rather more interest than the title might lead one to think. It can be read here.

In particular, Fellows points out that 3rd Corinthians, in the Acta Pauli, contains a letter sent by Stephanas and his co-presbyters (Daphnus, Eubulus, Theophilus, and Xenos). Fellows points out that the names suggest that these presbyters were hosts/benefactors of the church, and that this tends to support my case in Original bishops.

I agree that this letter to Paul from Corinth bears out my hypothesis at several levels, as this is communication by a gathering of presbyters on behalf of churches within an urban setting, as well as bearing names indicating benefaction. I suppose the failure to note 3 Corinthians must go down as an error of omission, and I am grateful for the correction.

There is more of interest here. Fellows’ overall hypothesis is that, just like Paul himself, many of the co-workers had two names, a phenomenon with which we are particularly familiar in the West Indies. Thus Stephanas, he suggests, is what he terms a “leadership name “ (though I would prefer “associational name”). I will admit that it had always struck me that Stephanas was a name which sort of belonged in associational honorific, and so to see this as a nom de guerre, as it were, is very illuminating.

There is, indeed, more. I argued at several points in the book that the episkopoi and diakonoi are mentioned in Phil. 1:1 because they were the agents of the gifts sent to Paul by the Philippians. And that two of these are mentioned by name, namely Euodia and Syntyche. My discussion of female leadership is brief, but admits that these are likely to have been among the episkopoi, and that female associational leadership is manifest in the first generation but largely in the first generation only. Since then I have read E. Hemelrijk, “Patronesses and ‘mothers’ of Roman collegia” Classical Antiquity 27 (2008), 115-162, which causes me to puzzle further about the disappearance of female ministry within the church in the earliest period. Is it, in some way, related to federation and the eventual development of monepiscopate?

Fellows suggests that Euodia is also a leadership name. Indeed he suggests, convincingly to me, that Paul’s description of the gift as an ὀσμή εὐωδίας at 4:18, is a play on Euodia’s name, linking her in particular to the gift and offering.

In response to a question he states that he has “found little evidence that associations gave leadership names… The phenomenon, however, did have parallels in the ancient world. New names were often given to kings, emperors, and philosophers, as well as to converts to Judaism. Interesting examples among the philosophers are Porphyry and Amelius-Amerius.”

Fellows has opened up a very interesting avenue of discussion. Do check out his link, and indeed his blog, where the link may be found.

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Please help: Papal Commission on Women in the Diaconate

My own opinion on this matter is unimportant. What is important is that the Commission be allowed to function unimpeded by the profit motive when it meets in Rome from 25th-27th November.

I have received a request for a pdf of The original bishops from a member of the Commission who wishes to have an electronic copy in Rome, the book being too big to transport. I do not have such a copy so I asked Baker to assist. They have refused.

I have never had a high opinion of publishers.

If anyone has an e-book version I would be grateful to receive it so that I can pass it on to this individual.

My address can be found in the profile, or you can message me through academia.edu

You can also remind the director of marketing at Baker, Jeremy Wells, of the vitue of generosity, especially within the household of faith. His address I am happy to publish for the consumption of as many robots as can find it:jwells@bakerpublishinggroup.com



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Church orders at the British patristic conference

The British patristic conference in Birmingham in September yields one paper of direct relevance to the study of the ancient church orders.

The abstract is as follows:

Pauliina Pylvänäinen

A Common Purpose for Paul and the Female Deacons?

The author writes in 1 Tim 1:12 that Christ has appointed Apostle Paul εἰς διακονίαν. The same enunciation has been used in four other verses in the Greek NT. About three hundred years after that, the Apostolic Constitutions, one of the most influential ancient church orders, was compiled. Among its various ecclesiastical instructions the author commands the special group of women in his midst: He gives several instructions and presents an ordination prayer for them. In the prayer the author uses an enunciation, which rings a bell. He writes that the female deacon has to be appointed – εἰς διακονίαν.

The noun διακονία has commonly been translated as “service”. However, the traditional understanding about the early Christian use of the verb διακονέω has lately been challenged. Especially John N. Collins and Anni Hentschel have re-interpreted its ancient usage. According to them, service is not the main meaning for διακονία. If anything, the term refers to the areas of agency and attendance. It connotes intermediary functions. Collins’ and Hentschel’s results form the background for my research.

In the presentation I will have a glance at the usage of εἰς διακονίαν in its contexts both in 1 Tim 1:12 and AC VIII, 20, 2. I will find out, to what kind of purposes Paul and the female deacons really are appointed. Are the enunciations parallel? Do they have the equivalence both of form and content?

This, and the other abstracts, may be viewed at

My quick answer to the concluding question is “probably not.”

For the convenience of readers the relevant prayer reads as follows:

O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who replenished 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 tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple, ordained women to be keepers of Your holy gates—do Thou now also look down upon this Your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Your Holy Spirit, and cleanse her from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, (2 Corinthians 7:1) that she may worthily discharge the work which is committed to her to Your glory, and the praise of Your Christ, with whom glory and adoration be to You and the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.

This is the ANF translation. The phrase εἰς διακονίαν is rendered “to the office of a deaconess.”

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An appeal, partly based on the Didascalia apostolorum, for the ordination (again?) of women as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church

I note with interest the letter of the Wijngaards Theological Institute to the Bishop of Rome appealing for the ordination of women as deacons in the Roman Church. http://www.wijngaardsinstitute.com/documented-appeal-reinstatement-ordained-women-deacons/

As an Anglican it would be entirely inappropriate publicly to comment on what is an internal matter for the Roman church, and as a schismatic presbyter I am hardly in a position to offer any advice to the most senior bishop in the west. However, as an historian, I may note that the Didascalia apostolorum is employed in the evidentiary base offered as a dossier in support of the appeal. Indeed, the translation employed is mine. In this light I may point out my belief that the reason for the institution in the circles of the Didascalia is less what the Didascalist says that it is (namely that “there are houses where you can not send a deacon to the women because of the pagans but you can send a deaconess”) but that this institution brought powerful women under episcopal control.

I don’t know whether Bishop Bergoglio is an enthusiast for the ancient church orders (I don’t recall seeing the Vatican appearing on the stats for the blog) but should he be one of my readers he may care to note DA 3.5.4-3.6.2, and point out to the Wiijngardians that the witness of the church orders is never so straightforward:

For neither a widow nor a layman should speak with regard to punishment, and the rest, and the Kingdom of the name of Christ, and the divine plan, for when they speak without knowledge of doctrine they blaspheme the word. For our Lord compared the word of his message to mustard; mustard is bitter and sharp for those who employ it if it is not prepared with skill. For this reason our Lord said in the Gospel to widows and to all the laity: ‘Do not cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample on them and turn against you and tear you up. When the gentiles hear the word of God, but not spoken with clarity, as it should be, to build up for everlasting life, and particularly when a woman speaks of the incarnation and suffering of Christ, they shall sneer and scoff, rather than glorifying the word of the old woman, and she shall be subject to a harsh judgement for her sin. For the Lord says: ‘When words are many, sin is not absent.’ Thus it is neither fitting nor necessary that a woman should teach, in particular about the name of the Lord and the redemption of his passion. For you women, and especially widows, are not appointed to teach but solely to pray and beseech the Lord God.


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