Phyllis Zagano, Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches – Part 2

Part 1 was posted last week.

“The Deaconess in the Byzantine Tradition”

By Cipriano Vagaggini

Translated by Carmela Leonforte-Plimack with Phyllis Zagano

I have been asked to express my opinion about the possibility that the church, if it judges it appropriate, would be able to confer on women the sacrament of order in the diaconal grade. I have been requested [1] in particular to bear in mind the position A.G. Martimort has taken on this issue in his work Les diaconesses; essai historique (Rome: Ed. liturgiche, 1982). It is said that this work leads many to maintain that the church cannot admit women to the diaconal order. To try to clarify the above-mentioned issue, I will consider only the ordination of deaconesses in the Byzantine tradition, as I did in my 1974 article, “L’ordinazione delle diaconesse nella tradizione bizantina,” Orientalia christiana periodica (vol. 40, 1974, pp.145–87). In that article I maintained, and I still maintain today, that the competent authority of the church, if it judges it appropriate, can admit women to the sacrament of order in the diaconate. The essential principles of my position are the following.

1) We know well the rite of the Byzantine tradition for the ordination of deaconesses. The oldest codex we have for this rite is the eighth-century Barberini Codex Gr. 336, known as the Barberini Euchologies. Then, with some slight variations in the rubrics, the same rite appears in a series of codices until the fourteenth century. As far as our issue is concerned, what has to be particularly noticed in this rite, apart from other details, is above all the fact that the ordination of deaconesses occurs and can occur only within the sanctuary (the bemavima, behind the iconostasis), at the foot of the altar. According to the Byzantine rite, ordination within the sanctuary only occurs (and today this is still the case) for the ordination of the bishop, the presbyter, the deacon, and the deaconess. Ordination to any other order, such as subdeacon, acolyte, etc., has always taken place, and even now takes place, outside the sanctuary—today, usually at the threshold of the entrance door to the sanctuary, but still outside of it.

2) Has this liturgical fact a precise significance? For a long time historians have not asked themselves this question. Instead, all things considered, the answer is given in the clearest manner by Theodore of Mopsuestia (born in Antioch c. 350 and died in Mopsuestia, Cilicia, in 428). He says, with regard to 1 Tim 3:8-15:

It is worth adding that we should not be surprised if (Paul) mentions neither subdeacons nor lectors. In fact, these are outside of the grades in the ministry of the Church: created later because of the needs that had to be attended to by others (ministers) for the good of the great number of believers. Therefore, the law does not allow them to receive the cheirotonia (= imposition of the hands) in front of the altar because they do not minister the mystery; but lectors perform the readings and the subdeacons, inside [the sanctuary], take care of what is needed for the service by the deacons, as well as attending to the lights in the church. This is because only presbyters and deacons perform the ministry of the mystery—the former fulfilling their priestly office, the latter administering the sacred things. (See Theodori ep. mopsuest. in ep. B. Pauli comm., Cambridge 1880, vol. 2, pp. 132–34, and my article p. 182)

The text demonstrates that Theodore bears witness to the theological conviction that within the whole of “sacred orders” there exists a fundamental distinction between the group comprising bishop, presbyter, and deacon on the one hand and the group comprising lector and subdeacon on the other hand; and this distinction has its ritual expression in the ordinations, in the fact that the first group is ordained at the foot of the altar within the sanctuary-vima and the second not. The distinction, according to Theodore, has its origin in the fact that [those in] the first group (bishop, presbyter, deacon) are of apostolic origin and the others are not. Theodore does not speak about deaconesses in this context, but he knows them well and deems them of apostolic origin, as also did at that same time John Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrrhus (see my article, p. 183, footnote 2). The same is supposed in the Byzantine rite for the ordination of deaconesses, where the deaconess Phoebe, of whom St. Paul speaks in Rom 16:1-2, is mentioned.

According to this view we should say the following: first, in the perspective of the Byzantine church, as handed down in its rituals (euchologi) from the eighth century onwards, the ordination of deaconesses is considered, together with the presbyterate and the diaconate for men, what today we call a real sacrament (of diaconal order) and not a sacramental, much less a sort of blessing of a more or less ascetic type. It is pure fantasy to insinuate that it is only a sort of blessing for the purpose of an ascetic life. Second, by virtue of this sacrament, the order which deaconesses receive is what today we would call a major order, the last one of the group formed by the order of bishops, the order of presbyters, and that of deacons. To say that in the Byzantine rite of that time the feminine diaconate is something thoroughly different from the diaconate of men (Martimort, p. 155) is ambiguous and misleading. What is this thoroughly different thing? In reality, of course, without saying that in the Byzantine tradition the diaconate of women was simply the same as the diaconate of men (here Martimort restates the obvious), we must say that in that tradition the diaconal order included two grades, one male and one female, with a very different range as far as their liturgical functions were concerned, but both of a strictly sacramental nature and as major orders.

3) At this point the question arises regarding the specific functions to which women who received the aforementioned feminine diaconal sacrament were entitled and ordained to. It is ambiguous and misleading to say that: “As long as the Byzantine tradition was kept alive it did not assign any liturgical duty to deaconesses” (Martimort, p. 250). Instead, in this area it is necessary to make two affirmations.

The first is that in Byzantium they were convinced that diaconal ordination per se allowed women to perform precise duties, even of a liturgical nature. In this sense the evidence of the civil canonical legislation in the Novella of Justinian 6, 6 (535) is explicit. In this Novella the deaconesses’ duties are described in sum as follows: “To serve during sacred baptisms and be present in the other secret things that are customarily performed by them in the sacred mysteries.” In this affirmation is included at least the liturgical task of anointing women’s bodies during the conferring of baptism (which took place by immersion). This duty was well known throughout the previous Eastern tradition, as is shown,for example, by the Didascalia 3, 12 (third century), by the Apostolic Constitutions 3, 16, 2-4 and 8, 28, 6 (fourth century), by St. Epiphanius (PG 42, 744–45: circa 375), and by Severus of Antioch (Letter 62, circa 519–38).

The second affirmation is the observation that, notwithstanding the above-mentioned general and theoretical conviction, one notices on the practical level a tendency by which the liturgical functions of deaconesses in the Byzantine rite were effectively performed by men deacons or presbyters. In fact, this situation did not preclude the possibility for the deaconesses to perform the liturgical duties mentioned in the Novella of Justinian 6, 6, but rather rendered that possibility purely theoretical. And this carried with it the major disadvantage that the office of deaconesses, in itself truly a sacrament, tended to become purely theoretical and honorary.

4) At this point one might argue that in today’s church the idea of reestablishing the ordination of deaconesses, following the path we have traced so far, is false because these deaconesses would in practice have no function, especially no liturgical function, in the life of the church today, as there is no longer baptism by immersion. The answer is that the situation has largely changed in the life of the present church, and as far as the extent of the tasks, even the liturgical tasks, of women the situation is also outdated. It is known, in fact, that today there are many cases, especially in Third-World countries, but not only there, where there are women who by indult in practice perform all the tasks, even of a liturgical nature, that a parish priest can perform, except to say Mass and to confess. And, let us not forget that Benedict XIV, when he approved in forma specifica (i.e., as a pontifical law) the Lebanese Maronite synod of 1736, allowed deaconesses of that rite (who at the time were usually abbesses of monasteries) among other things to give “extreme unction” to their nuns (see Mansi 38, col. 163–64). If that is the case, one senses the legitimacy and urgency for competent authorities to admit women to the sacrament of order of the diaconate and to grant them all the functions, even the liturgical functions, that, in the present historic moment of the church, are considered necessary for the greater benefit of believers, not excluding—as I personally maintain—if it is judged pastorally appropriate, equality between the liturgical functions of men deacons and women deacons.

d. Cipriano Vagaggini

19 October 1987


Buy the Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches to read Zagano’s translation of Vagaggini’s article from Orientalia Christiana Periodica.


[1] A historical-liturgical contribution offered upon request to the synod fathers. —Il Regno editor





3 responses to “Phyllis Zagano, Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches – Part 2”

  1. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    It is clear to me that the leaders of the church are free to welcome women to ordination to the diaconate. Sure, they’ll need to sort out what particular duties they will carry out, but continuing to exclude women from this order seems clearly to be more misogynistic than anything else.

    1. Dana Nussberger Avatar
      Dana Nussberger

      I agree with Father Jack. From a purely scholarly and Catholic perspective we can say with confidence that deaconesses receive the major order of Deacon Elise per the standards of their time and not to a minor order as previous Catholic scholars had assumed. Montford’s reasoning about deaconesses is the perfect example of the circular reasoning fallacy. In contrast the fact that Phoebe is mentioned as a Deacon of the church in Romans 16 combined with the mention of women within the description of deacons in first Timothy 3 proves that at a minimum women were considered equivalent to the office of Deacon in apostolic times. And since we know that minor orders did not exist at all in the early church combined with sacred tradition of the liturgy it serves as a compelling argument that deaconesses can be and are ordained deacons.

  2. Joseph J. Koechler Avatar
    Joseph J. Koechler

    I agree with you, Fr. Feehily, that we should welcome women into the diaconate. I am not sure it is outrightly misogynistic as much as aiming to avoid the “slippery slope” to priestly ordination (but maybe that is ultimately misogynistic). As to duties they could carry out, how about preaching and baptising to start.

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