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The diaconate has been a little understood ministry, in fact, often a misunderstood ministry.  Although it is one of three ordained orders, most lay people have little or no contact with a deacon, no idea of the history of the diaconate or what it entails today.  We hope to clarify some of the questions about deacons below.

Isn’t being a deacon just a stepping-stone to the priesthood?

No, a deacon doesn’t have to become a priest.  In fact, deacons comprise a complete and distinct order of ordained ministry within the three expressions of ordained priesthood: the diaconate (i.e. deacons), the presbyterate (i.e. priests) and the episcopacy (i.e. bishops).  While deacons may, and now often do, pass through to other orders (i.e. to the presbyterate and episcopacy), most deacons originally served Christ within the life of the Church as deacons the rest of their lives.

Do not accept mistaken, common stereotypes of the deacon as  “an apprentice priest,” a “liturgical decoration (or functionary)” or even worse yet, “a super-acolyte!” Over the years, misconceptions have developed regarding appreciation of the diaconate, partly because it has been used in the past as a “stepping-stone to the priesthood” in an imbalanced manner.  It is hoped the resources made available through this Web site describe a more healthy and correct vision of the diaconate as a “full” or “complete and distinct order” within the ordained ministry of the Orthodox Church.  This is the ministry through the activity of the Holy Spirit that brings forth in a special way, the ministry of “Christ, the one who serves.”

What would a deacon do in my parish today?

In keeping with the diaconate’s tradition of the past, deacons may serve in many capacities as circumstances, needs and talents allow:  assisting their bishop, assisting with liturgical worship, music and church order, teaching, preaching, pastoral care, philanthropy, theological education, spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, administration, monastic life, hospital, nursing home, and hospice chaplaincies, prison ministry, facilitating ministries to shut-ins, orphans, the poor and/or destitute (including  being available to bring Holy Communion, Holy Unction and other blessings of the Church to these just mentioned groups of people), etc.

Do not expect the deacons’ ministry to be exactly the same from one pastoral context to the next, even within the same diocese.  Deacons traditionally and in a special way are ambassadors of their bishop.  Through the course of history, deacons in particular, have served in many, many ways.  Today as always, it is the bishop who delineates the limits and responsibilities assigned to their deacons based upon specific pastoral needs and opportunities, spiritual strengths, pastoral abilities and theological training required of the deacon serving under his authority, in fact, as an emissary, on his behalf.  As with every other domain of Christian ministry, deacons are called to serve only within their assigned responsibilities and within the limits of the specific charism of their ordination, as well as their personal formation, training and abilities, nothing more nothing less. While any Christian, lay or ordained, of course, may be called to any one or more of these above-mentioned ministries, persons who are called to serve as deacons within these and other ministries, do so as servants who are called to bring forth “Christ, the one who serves.”

Why don’t we have many deacons serving in our parishes?

The diaconate has not been serving at its full potential for centuries, so many people neither know deacons nor the invaluable service they can give the community. This has been the situation for so long that, until recently, a man did not normally aspire to be a deacon, only a priest or bishop.  The “Golden Age” for male deacons was before the First Ecumenical Council in 325, and for women the fourth through seventh centuries.

The end of the Golden Age for male deacons began with a canon written at the First Ecumenical Council in 325.  The text of Canon 18 illustrates the growing tension among deacons, priests and bishops: “. . . let deacons remain within their proper place,” a symptom of growing clericalism in the church.  John Chryssavgis in Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia explains that this canon “. . .marks both the historical climax of diaconal development and the commencement of a decline in the diaconal order.”[fn]John Chryssavgis, Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia:  The Diaconate Yesterday and Today (Brookline, Massachusetts:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2009), 59.[/fn]  Other local and ecumenical councils promulgated rules and regulations regarding deacons throughout the centuries.  The reasons for the decline of women deacons include the rise of infant baptism (in the early church women deacons assisted with the educating and baptizing of adult women) and other issues addressed under “Frequently Asked Questions—Were women deacons banned in the Orthodox Church?”

Gradually the scope of the ministry of the diaconate narrowed, with more emphasis on the liturgical role for men at the expense of more diverse responsibilities, perhaps a consequence of incorrect assumptions related to the deacon’s ministry in worship as being more “cultic” and a “superfluous decoration.”  Despite these developments, many deacons throughout the centuries gave invaluable service to the church and community in many areas, including:  education, pastoral care and counseling, chaplaincy ministries, writing, assisting the poor, founding monastic communities, spiritual guidance, preaching, administration, philanthropy, ecumenical witness, missions. and social service.  They can do the same today, and the proliferation of diaconal training programs at various Orthodox theological schools is encouraging. (See “Becoming a Deacon” on this Web site.)  Our priests and communities need their help, and their call is special. While any Christian, lay or ordained, of course, may be called to any one or more of these above-mentioned ministries, persons who are called to serve as deacons within these and other ministries, do so as servants to bring forth “Christ, the one who serves.”

What do I call a deacon?

It is correct to refer to him as “Father” or when introduced as “the Reverend Father Deacon” (so as to avoid confusion to which order of ministry he is ordained). The appellation “Father” in the Orthodox tradition acknowledges with respect the spiritual responsibilities of the person addressed.

Do not call a deacon “deacon” as the normal manner of address (even if this is the usual custom in western Christian circles today), as the deacon is called to share in inter-personally intimate, loving, pastoral care corresponding in relationship to their spiritual responsibilities on behalf of the faithful.  We are aware of the ancient custom of calling non-ordained schema monks as “Father” as a way of acknowledging this kind of respect for them. While referring to the deacon as “Deacon [name]” is not incorrect, this is not unlike referring to the ordained presbyter as “priest [name]” or the hierarch as “bishop [name].”  None of these appellations are incorrect; nevertheless using these expressions as the normal ways of addressing these ordained ministers of the church, tends to be too casual and familiar (hence, disrespectful). 

Similarly, honoring the living history of the church and bearing in mind the witness and intercession of the many female saints who were also deacons, whenever God calls deaconesses to be ordained to serve within the life of Orthodox communities, in like manner, they would be addressed as: “Mother” or perhaps more formally introduced as “Reverend Mother Deacon.” 

There are Orthodox Web sites that review precise protocol for formal and informal address of the church’s lay and ordained ministers and members.  We encourage the reader to refer to these   

How are the deacon’s vestments different from a priest’s?

The most distinctive vestments of the deacon are the orarion (a narrow stole) and the epimanik(i) (detachable cuffs for the wrists).

According to John Chryssavgis in Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia, the orarion is “often embroidered and covered either with the word Agios (the Holy One) or with crosses.  It is fixed on the left shoulder and rests there, passing under the right arm and hanging down in the front as well as the back.  The deacon lifts the orarion to the height of the face as he calls the congregation to prayer, leading the faithful through the intonation of various petitions.  Immediately before Holy Communion, the deacon changes the position of the stole, crossing it in the front and back as a symbol of the seraphim covering their face in the presence of the Holy One. [Thus the oriarion is sometimes referred to as the wings of angels.] The functional reason for this particular change during the Eucharist is the preparation of the deacon in a practical manner to divide and distribute the Body and Blood of Christ. . . . The epimanik(i) are . . . worn over and cover the normal clerical dress.  The cuffs further facilitate the movement of the hands during the Divine Liturgy; indeed, they are only worn in the Divine Liturgy and on Holy Friday, when the deacons handle the Body of Christ.  Each of the cuffs bears an embroidered cross.”[fn]Ibid., 125-6.[/fn]  The orarion and the epimanik(i) are worn over the stikharion, the long garment worn by all the orders which symbolizes the grace of baptism conferred upon all baptized Christians, except the deacon’s has shorter sleeves than that of the bishop and priest.

Isn’t a deacon’s wife called a deaconess?  Is there another kind?

Yes, a deacon’s wife is called a deaconess, but in the past there were women who were ordained to the diaconate through the Sacrament of Holy Ordination.

Since the practice of ordaining women deacons in the Orthodox church largely fell into disuse many years ago, “deaconess” in the public mind is a title of respect given to the wife of the deacon.  Whenever God calls deaconesses to be ordained to serve within the life of Orthodox communities, they would be addressed as: “Mother” or perhaps more formally introduced as “Reverend Mother Deacon.” The appellation “Mother” in the Orthodox tradition acknowledges with respect the spiritual responsibilities of the person addressed.

Were women deacons banned in the Orthodox Church?  If they were ordained in the past, what happened? 

No, the order of women deacons was not eliminated by a canon or a council.  For various reasons, it gradually fell into disuse, but it has not completely disappeared.

Scholars can only speculate about why it declined.  Kyriaki FitzGerald in Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church speculates that the decline happened for various reasons:  1) As infant baptisms increased, women were not needed to assist with the baptism of adult women.  2) There may have been reaction against early Christian-like heretical Gnostic sects that agitated for the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopacy. 3) The rise of Islam and its even stricter separation of males and females may have influenced society, especially after the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Muslim Ottomans in the fifteenth century.  4)  After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, many Orthodox scholars fled to the West  and were influenced by the Western Church that had relegated the male diaconate to an inferior ministry with only a liturgical role and temporary stage before ordination to the priesthood.  Most likely with a fear of ordaining women as presbyters and bishops in mind, some local councils in the West condemned ordination of women deacons altogether.   5) Orthodox canonists in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries reinforced canons of the third and fourth centuries that forbid women from entering the altar because they are unclean physically and spiritually during menstruation.  However, the twelfth and fourteenth century canonists acknowledge that women were ordained as deacons at the altar, but stood firm on their prohibition.[fn]Kyriaki FitzGerald, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church:  Called to Holiness and Ministry (Brookline, Massachusetts:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Revised 1999), 134-147.[/fn]  These, and all other canons, have not been systematically examined since the twelfth century.  (For a complete history of the purity issue see “Frequently Asked Questions—“Would women deacons be permitted behind the iconostasion?”]

By the late Byzantine era ordination of women deacons in the Eastern Church was rare, and the ministry of the female deacon virtually ended; while the ministry of male deacons continued, but in a limited way.  However the ordination rites for both ministries remain in the rubrics books, describing the sacred potential, timeless calling of this blessed ministry of service to God and the community.

If women are ordained  deacons, won’t they try to become priests?

There is no historical, authoritative evidence of women ordained as priests in Orthodox Tradition.  The charisms of the presbyter (priest) and hierarch (bishop)  are intimately inter-related with each other and the diaconate because they concern service to the People of God.  However, discussion of these “complete and distinct” charisms of the episcopacy and priesthood are outside the limits of attention of this Web site.

Were women ordained or appointed deacons?

The most authoritative consultation of our time, the 1988 Inter-Orthodox Theological Consultation convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople under His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I assembled in Rhodes, Greece, concluded:  “The deaconess was ordained within the sanctuary during the Divine Liturgy with two prayers, she received the orarion (the deacon’s stole) and received Holy Communion at the Altar.  The revival of this ancient order should be envisaged on the basis of the ancient prototypes testified to in many sources . . . and with the prayers found in the Apostolic Constitutions and the ancient Byzantine liturgical books.”[fn]”The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women,” (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1990), 17-18.[/fn]

As explained by Kyriaki FitzGerald in Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination or appointment was controversial among some Orthodox theologians, including two leading professors from the University of Athens, Evangelos Theodorou and John Karmiris.  Professor Theodorou pioneered scholarly research proving ordination in two publications in Greek only: Heroines of Christian Love  (Athens, 1949) and The “Ordination” or the “Appointment” of Deaconess (Athens, 1954).  His proof is an in-depth analysis of the prayers and rubrics of the Byzantine Service for the Ordination of the Woman Deacon written in the early Middle Ages and other primary sources from the first millennium of Christianity.  On the other side, Professor Karmiris argued that Canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea in 325 stated that the Paulinists deaconesses were not deaconesses because “. . . they have no imposition of hands (i.e. no ordination), [and] are to be numbered wholly among the laity.”[fn]John Karmiris, The Place and Ministry of Women in the Orthodox Church, (Athens, 1978), 47-49.[/fn]

The Paulinists were followers of Paul of Samosata, a third-century bishop who was considered to have heretical views on the Holy Trinity.  It is noteworthy that the Paulinist bishops, presbyters and male deacons were not considered ordained either, and the canon dealt with how they could be reinstated.  Proponents of ordination argue that this canon relates exclusively to the Paulinists and did not apply to others within the church in good standing.[fn]FitzGerald, 111-121.[/fn]

Would women deacons assist in the Divine Liturgy the same as a male deacons?

Since little is known historically about the liturgical role of women, it is difficult to know if it will be the same.  The scope and manner of service that the female deacon will offer within the life of the worshipping community will be determined by the overseeing hierarch who will discern the specific spiritual, pastoral and practical needs of the community at large.  

Hopefully the hierarch will make this determination mindful that there is only one diaconate in the life of the church and that male and female deacons would share fully in the same love of the Source of Divine Grace who ordains them to this ministry.

Would women deacons be permitted behind the iconostasion?

Yes, women deacons would be ordained behind the iconostasion at the Holy Altar during the Sacrament of Holy Ordination just as they had been in earlier centuries. There is confusion today regarding appropriate practice of women approaching the altar stemming from the canons dealing with impurity. This is addressed in the summary below to provide a clear understanding of the canons, look at some inconsistencies, and bring up the possibility of a more scientifically based application of the canons. 

According to Rev. Dr. Patrick Viscuso, respected theologian and canonist, women have not been permitted behind the iconostasion because they are considered polluted and defiled during the time of their menstruation, both physically and spiritually.  Since, it is impossible to know when this is occurring, canons were adopted that no woman should go into the altar area, as holy space and holy objects should not be contaminated by anything that has been defiled.  In his article, “Menstruation:  A Problem in Late Byzantine Canon Law” in Byzantine Studies/Etudes Byzantines, Father Viscuso explains that the church recognizes two types of defilement that “disqualif[y] a subject from participating in rituals, handling sacred objects or entering sacral areas. . . . The first results from impurity caused by committing a sin brought about by assent to an evil desire . . . a sin of intention that defiles the mind. . . . The second type . . . results from contact with a person or object that is considered polluted and impure by nature, often regarded as such on the basis of Old Testament legislation.” [fn]Patrick Viscuso,  “Menstruation:  A Problem in Late Byzantine Canon Law,” Byzantine Studies/Etudes Byzantines New Series, Vol. 4 (1999): 117, 119.[/fn]

The Old Testament legislation that considers menstruating women impure refers to Leviticus 15.19-24 (LXX):  “And if a woman has an issue and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days:  and whosoever touches her shall be unclean until the even.” 

Christians continued this thinking as reflected in the following canons and commentaries presented in chronological order.  The first canon dealing with impurity is the Canonical Letter 2 written by St. Dionysios of Alexandria in 260, and definitively confirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681:

Concerning menstruous women, whether they ought to enter the temple of God while in such a state, I think it superfluous even to put the question. For, I opine, not even they themselves, being faithful and pious, would dare when in this state either to approach the Holy Table or to touch the body and blood of Christ. For not even the woman with a twelve years’ issue [Matthew 9:20] would come into actual contact with Him, but only with the edge of His garment, to be cured. There is no objection to one’s praying no matter how he may be or to one’s remembering the Lord at any time and in any state whatever, and petitioning to receive help; but if one is not wholly clean both in soul and in body, he shall be prevented from coming up to the Holies of Holies.[fn]

St. Dionysios cited this New Testament story to strengthen the Old Testament argument about the impurity of women during menses.  Perhaps it was not medically understood at the time that a continuous issue of blood for twelve years could not be menstrual, since the latter starts and stops each month.

A hundred years later in the fourth century, Canon 44 of the Council of Laodicea (363-364) stated:  “Women are forbidden to enter the altar.” The same council also passed  Canon 69 that “No layman (i.e. layperson) except the emperor shall go up to the altar.”   Both canons are prohibitory to the general public with the aim of regulating pious and good order for the conduct of sacred worship of the community.  Canon 69, which is still on the books, is not totally observed today.  This inconsistency contributes to the confusion today regarding appropriate practice of women and men approaching the altar.  

Then St. Timothy of Alexandria, also of the fourth century, extended the restriction further in his answers to questions (Canons 6 and 7 confirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council) when he replied that women should neither be baptized nor take communion during menses. 

 In the twelfth century Byzantine theologians, Theodore Balsamon and John Zonaras, reinforced the existing canons through commentaries.  Zonaras in his commentary on Canonical Letter 2 of St. Dionysios of Alexandria said:  “The Hebrew women when the monthly flow befell them while sitting in a separated place, were touched by no man until seven days passed.”[fn]Ibid., 120, from G. A. Rhalles and M. Potles, Sintagma ton theion kai `ieron kanonon, 6 vols. (Athens:   G. Chartophylax, 1852-1859), 4:8-9.[/fn] “As Zonaras and Balsamon state ‘while they will not be prohibited during such a time from praying and making mention of the Lord, they must not enter God’s temple and partake of the holy elements.’”[fn]Ibid., 120 from Rhalles and Potles 4:8-9[/fn]

Balsamon directly applied the canons to women deacons:  “Long ago orders of deaconesses were recognized by the canons, and these also had a rank in the altar.  But the monthly distress excluded this service from the divine and holy altar. . . .[They] attended church services and maintained order in the women’s part of the church . . . “[fn]Ibid.,  123, from Rhalles and Potles, 4:477.[/fn]

Fourteenth-century Byzantine canonist Matthew Blastares added, “Others say that it was permissible for [women deacons] to even enter the holy altar and to share the things of male deacons equally with them.  However, women deacons were later forbidden by the Fathers both to enter the altar and to practice the things of their ministry on account of the involuntary monthly flow.  That the holy altar was formerly accessible even to women is to be inferred from many other authorities and especially the funeral oration which the great Gregory the Theologian had made upon his sister.”[fn]Ibid., 124 from  Alphabetical Collection, G. 11, from Rhalles and Potles, 6: 171-172.[/fn] Blastares notes this inconsistency, and that it is not uncommon for canons to be inconsistently applied or out of date.  For example, Council in Trullo (692) Canon 64 prohibits laymen from teaching publicly, and Canon 69 prohibits laymen from entering the altar except for the emperor.  These canons still exist but are not followed.  Likewise women deacons were ordained at the altar while canons prohibiting women from entering existed.   Even today some churches allow women behind the altar to clean, and some priests take infant girls into the altar area during the forty-day blessing.  The inconsistencies are confusing.   

Blastares also explained why menstrual blood was impure.  “Blastares’s association of impurity with the menstrual flow is linked to his concept of blood and human birth.  Man is said to provide the seed and woman the blood, which is next made into ‘formless flesh and then is fully shaped and formed into limbs and parts.’ (Alphabetical Collection, G. 28. Basil 2, Rhalles and Potles, 6:200).   When the seed is not provided, the blood in the womb becomes superfluous and corrupt.  The monthly flow is a means by which women ‘purify themselves’ through the excretion of superfluity.  The same type of purification is said to occur in the discharge of blood after birth. (Alphabetical Collection, A. 16. Law, Rhalles and Potles, 6:106).”[fn]Patrick Viscuso, Sexuality, Marriage and Celibacy in Byzantine Law (Brookline, Mass.:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2008), 21.[/fn]   The question arises whether this twelfth-century belief comports with medical thinking today. In addition, does this polluted involuntary issue meet the standard set by St. Athansios the Great (d. 373) in his canonical letter to Ammoun.  In Blastares’ commentary on this letter he notes:    “Man, who is subject to natural excretion is the work of [God’s] hands . . . the liquids out of the nostrils and mouth . . . the sweat of the entire body . . . “[fn]Patrick Viscuso, “Menstruation:  A Problem in Late Byzantine Canon Law,” 118,  from  Alphabetical Collections, K. 28,  Rhalles and Potles, 6: 338.[/fn]   

In the fifteenth century Ioasaph of Ephesos in his twenty-seventh response in his pastoral manual extended the restrictions even further by saying that a menstruating woman should not be allowed to participate in any sacraments such as marriage, holy unction or baptizing a baby because she is not allowed in the church during that time.[fn]Ibid., 122.[/fn]

The above canonical summary is provided for an understanding of the range of the church’s thinking on the issue of purity, to look at some inconsistencies, and to bring up the possibility of change.   According to Father Viscuso, canons are rules that change and evolve through time.  They are measuring rods that often reflect specific circumstances and practices of the day.  The last time the canons were systematically examined was during the Byzantine era of Balsamon, Zonaras and Blastares in the twelfth century.   Is it time for another examination?  Have scientific and social developments been significant enough to warrant canonical review, which can be done by patriarchs, synods, councils and commentators?  According to Father Viscuso, “the view on menstruation and women are related to Byzantine science with its mistaken notions concerning anatomy, birth, and medicine. . . . Although inapplicable for our culture and civilization, the purity regulations often illustrate respect and reverence for the sacred mysteries encountered in the Church.  Nevertheless, the position of women within the Church cannot be based on canonical thought and legislation derived from mistaken ideas regarding the “monthly distress” and its contaminating qualities.”[fn]Patrick Viscuso, Orthodox Canon Law, Second Edition, A Casebook for Study (Brookline, Massachusetts:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 154.[/fn]  

In 1996 in Damascus, Syria, sixty-five Orthodox women who were chosen by their respective patriarchates to participate in an inter-national conference entitled:  “Discerning the ‘Signs of the Times’:  Women in the Life of the Orthodox Church”.  The women displayed uneasiness by the confusion still being promoted in some circles concerning purity and asked that these issues be addressed, but a serious, systematic review has yet to take place.    

Although this matter is still unresolved, it must be kept in mind that many women today who have been raised in this tradition find it difficult to disregard this menstruation custom and are uncomfortable doing so.  With love we honor each woman’s feelings on this issue.