To, no doubt, the unalloyed pleasure of those who like to criticise or praise him, Pope Francis has opined on the question of Female Deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. That is another bone for him and his church to gnaw away at. Naturally, given some of those who welcome the idea, those who don’t see it as the thin end of the wedge for female ordination. It is a shame if the hermeneutic of suspicion casts a cloud over the question of deaconesses, as there is plenty of evidence for their existence in the early Church.
We know from some of the critics of the Church that it attracted a lot of women into it – the early heretic Celsus, criticised it for attracting only “the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.” It should not surprise us that women were powerfully drawn to a faith which disallowed the exposure of female infants on the hillside to die, and which forbade abortion. As we see from Acts and Paul’s letters, women often hosted house churches and were active in the church – in this the early Church reflected Jesus’ own practice. Those who keep telling us that his earthly ministry was conditioned by the contemporary culture (with the sub-text that ours should be too) forget how counter-cultural this was.
It was the women who stayed with Jesus in numbers even at the foot of the Cross; it was to a woman that he first appeared at the Resurrection; and we know that women continued to be active in the very early missions. The list includes Priscilla, Chloe, Lydia, Apphia, Nympha, the mother of John Mark, and possibly (depending on how one reads it) the “elect lady” of John’s second epistle. As for what they did, Celment of Alexandria gives us this insight, telling us that disciples were accompanied on their missionary journeys by women who were not marriage partners, but colleagues:
that they might be their fellow ministers in dealing with housewives. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused. We also know the directions about women deacons which are given by the noble Paul in his letter to Timothy.
Was this the role played by Junia and others mentioned by Paul in Romans 16? She is described as being of ‘note among the Apostles’. Chrysostom wrote: “Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should even be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle.” Later attempts to claim this person was a man called ‘Junias’ encounter a slight problem – such a name is unknown in Roman times. Phoebe is called a ‘prostasis’ or ‘overseer’ – the Greek word is διάκονον – from which our modern ‘deacon’ comes. Origen, referring to 1 Timothy 3:11 commented:
This text teaches with the authority of the Apostle that even women are instituted deacons in the Church. This is the function which was exercised in the church of Cenchreae by Phoebe, who was the object of high praise and recommendation by Paul . . . And thus this text teaches at the same time two things: that there are, as we have already said, women deacons in the Church, and that women, who by their good works deserve to be praised by the Apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate.
We know that they could visit believing women in pagan households where a male deacon would be unacceptable, as well as visiting the sick, bathing those recovering from illness, and ministering to the needy. Women Deacons also assisted in the baptism of women, anointing them with oil and giving them instruction in purity and holiness – in an era when baptism was usually by full immersion, it would hardly have been decent for women to have been accompanied into the water by a male. Canon 15 of Chalcedon made it clear that no woman under the age of 40 could be deacon, and that the role had to be given up on marriage.
So, steering away from the thorny issue of female ordination, there is good evidence that women functioned as deacons in the early Church (and further reading can be found here. I fear, of course, that this will all be ignored and some will focus solely in the issue of women priests – it would be a shame, not least because the evidence there from history is far less clear. But I suppose there will always be those who prefer the later tradition of their own church to the testimony of the early Church. Any how, that’s my historical excursus.