Women & Ministry in the Church’s New Creation

Women & Ministry in the Church’s New Creation


Brother Charles

“So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Recently Pope Francis decided to form a committee to study the role of women deacons in the ancient church as part of a reconsideration of the question of ordaining women to the permanent diaconate (1). Today’s blog is offered as a brief primer in that ancient history and a proposal of two lines of inquiry that might come from the Pope’s committee.

Theodora Mosaic
Rome, Chapel of Saint Zeno in the Church of Santa Prassede. The image on the left is titled “Bishop Theodora.” It represents the mother of Pope Paschal I (817-824). Her image has been added to a group consisting of Mary, flanked by sisters, Saints Prassede and Pudentiana

The existence of women deacons is historically non-controversial. Deacon Phoebe of the Church at Cenchrae is named in Romans 16:1-4; 1 Timothy 2-3 gives the qualifications for a woman deacon. Extra-biblical witnesses include the Didascalia Apostolorum, the Constitutiones Apostolorum, and the canons of the Council of Chalcedon. Deaconesses were included under the rubric of clerics; were ordained by the imposition of hands; and were described as symbols of the Holy Spirit: “the deacon stands in the place of Christ; and do you love him. And the deaconess shall be honoured by you in the place of the Holy Spirit; and the presbyters shall be to you in the likeness of the Apostles; and the orphans and widows shall be reckoned by you in the likeness of the altar” (Didascalia, trans. R. Hugh Connolly, chapter 9). What is less clear is the role of women deacons. Pope Francis reported that he had learned that deaconesses helped preserve decorum in tending to women during baptism immersion and when ministering to women who had fallen ill. This is certainly the evidence of the earliest centuries. As time went on, one finds prohibitions of women serving as ministers and their eventual disappearance from the ranks of Holy Orders. (2)

In 1972, Blessed Paul VI abolished minor orders (subdeacon, acolyte, et al.) and reclassified their duties as lay ministries. Would the re-introduction of women deacons recreate a new minor order, separate from the Eucharistic liturgical ministry, or would it, by reason of the simplification of Holy Orders, open a theological pathway for women to become priests?

The theology of ordination developed over time. The record shows the narrowing of the application of the word “ordination” to the sacramental ministries. This narrowing, or refinement of the definition, was tied to the heightened theology of the Eucharist, which had the effect of separating the major orders (closest to the altar) from the minor orders. “Consecration” rather than “ordination” of nuns and other religious, then, came to distinguish lay ministry from Holy Orders. (3) The modern argument for the prohibition of women priests put forward by the Vatican is that the priest stands “in persona Christi” (“in the person of Christ”) and therefore needs to be a man. Are the faithful beginning to see something new in ministry, women ordained to lead the community as an image of Christ for them? Doing so would not lead to turning back the development of the high theology of clerical ministry, but rather expanding the meaning of personhood in a way that transcends gender. This is the beginning of a theological argument that has been taken up in ecumenical circles. For a reconsideration of women under the expression, in persona Christi, see Sarah Coakley, “’In Persona Christi’: Gender, Priesthood and the Nuptial Metaphor.” (4)

Pope Francis’ decision to re-open the question of the ordination of women to the diaconate has ramifications that seem to go beyond his own oft-stated traditional views of the separate gifts of men and women. It will be interesting to see where it leads.

(1) http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2016/may/documents/papa-francesco_20160512_uisg.html

(2) For more of the history, see the document from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles (2002), and Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (2007).

(3) See Macy on this point.

(4) The essay may be found in Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift, 82 (2006), at http://journals.lub.lu.se/index.php/STK/article/view/6544/5634

photo credits: Nick Thompson, available on flickr.com

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