Women deacons in the church

Pauliina Pylvänäinen defended a doctoral dissertation in 2017 on female deacons in the early Church (University of Eastern Finland). Her forthcoming book, Agents in Liturgy, Charity and Communication, is part of the Studia Traditionis Theologiae series, published Brepols (Belgium).

Just before Easter it was announced that Pope Francis had set up a new commission to study the diaconate for women, in response to women demanding to be given greater roles in the 21st century.

Currently only married men can be ordained as permanent deacons, whereas women cannot. From the viewpoint of recent studies, the present disposition has proven to be challenging. But according to ancient sources, both men and women served as deacons in the early Christian Church.

Altogether 10 members of the new papal study commission will continue with the work that was started officially back in 2016. The members of the preceding commission failed to reach a consensus and the group ended its work in May 2019.

According to the pope, the members worked together and found agreement up to a certain point. Each one of them, however, had their own vision, which did not accord with that of the others. For the new commission this probably means an eventful trip. It is difficult to foretell what lies ahead.

The preceding commission focused primarily on the role of women deacons in the early church. The main interest of the new commission is yet not on record, but the role of women in ancient times cannot be ignored. When the preceding commission was established, the significance of the ancient document called The Apostolic Constitutions (Constitutiones Apostolorum), was emphasized.

This 4thcentury text is worthy of careful consideration, since it is the all-embracing document among the so-called ‘ancient Church orders’. Moreover, it can be regarded as the key written source that preserves the memory of early Christian deaconesses.

The compiler of the Apostolic Constitutions has given several regulations that concern women deacons. He instructs that if a woman wants to become a deaconess, she has to be unmarried. Living a chaste life is a prerequisite that enables her to carry out certain tasks that are assigned to women deacons.

The document also contains a so-called ordination prayer for a woman deacon. It is the oldest extant prayer of its type. Although it is not clear how the prayer was used, it indicates that the women in question are specifically chosen and appreciated in their community.

What did the first women deacons do? Generally, the early Christian deaconesses are thought to have worked for the poor and sick members of the community. They are hence perceived as charitable servants.

Accordingly, the Apostolic Constitutions instructs the deaconesses to carry out certain charitable tasks. They are sent to visit the homes of women. These visits include, for instance, almsgiving, and they are made for the sake of the needy members of the community.

The deaconesses are also instructed to heal women. Their healing work seems not to be regarded as a piece of cake, because it seems to have physical, mental and even spiritual dimensions.

In addition, the female deacons are instructed to travel. Probably together with their male counterparts, the deaconesses had to reach the other communities of the Christian region. Both healing and travelling seem to have charitable purposes.

The role of the deaconess, however, is even more multifaceted. According to the Apostolic Constitutions, these women are not just charitable servants, but instructed to carry out divergent tasks.

Some of their duties are linked with liturgical life. They are charged to guard the doors that are reserved for women in the church building. It is their task to find places for women inside the church.

The deaconesses also guard the doors of women when the Eucharist begins to make sure that only those who are able to participate in the meal remain inside the building. Other women have to go out.

During the Eucharist, accompany those women who approach the bishop and the male deacons near the altar.

And when a woman is being baptized, a female deacon is present. She assists the bishop during the rite by anointing the body of the woman catechumen and receives the newly baptized woman, when she emerges from the pool after the baptism.

In addition to the charitable and liturgical tasks, the Apostolic Constitutions regards female deacons as messengers. That means, they play a role in the congregation’s communication. Like their male counterparts, they carry letters from one congregation to another.

This task, besides their overall function in the document, matches well with the reinterpretation of the concept of deacon, which has been done by biblical scholars in recent decades.

The tasks of women deacons in the Apostolic Constitutions can be dived into these into three categories: liturgical, charitable and communicative. Thus they clearly parallel that which was done by male deacons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s