Monday, February 14, 2005

Greek Orthodox Church Re-Institutes Deaconesses

Liberal Catholics Quivering With Anticipation!

It may be "old news" to some, but the story seems not to have received much attention save on a few of the "progressive" Catholic blogs. The Orthodox Church of Greece approved the re-institution of the office of Deaconess, in an announcement published last October. The story appeared in a recent issue of America Magazine, but isn't accessible online. I learned of it through The Anchoress, who excerpted the following on her blog:
'Grant Her Your Spirit'

By Phyllis Zagano

The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece voted in Athens on Oct. 8, 2004, to restore the female diaconate. All the members of the Holy Synod-125 metropolitans and bishops and Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the church of Greece-had considered the topic. The decision does not directly affect the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is an eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople...

As I mentioned above, in liberal Catholic circles some are almost wetting themselves with anticipation, as they see this as a sign that the Catholic Church eventually will have to relent in it's teaching regarding the reservation of Holy Orders to men.

It's not, and it won't.

Firstly, the Orthodox know perfectly well, as do historically well-informed Catholics, that in the early church deaconesses were never understood as participating in the sacrament of Holy Orders. The institution of a deaconess included a blessing and prayers, but no imposition of hands, nor taking of the traditional vows of the ordained. The ministry of the deaconess was restricted to assisting with the baptism of women and works of charity. Deaconesses did not preach the Word nor assist at the Divine Liturgy: indeed, they were not permitted to enter the sanctuary. It was an important ministry in the early church, and deaconesses were certainly held in high esteem, but there were no illusions that a deaconess was the female equivalent of a deacon. I'd be very surpised if the Orthodox were embracing any such illusions today, as they generally take literal fidelity to the patristic Tradition much more seriously than most Catholics.

Part of the confusion has to do with the weakness of the English language. For the same word, "ordain", is used to describe what happens to a deaconness as to describe what happens to a priest or deacon. But the root meaning of the Latin word ordinare, from which our word "ordain" derives, means "to set in order, to arrange or appoint." Thus, strictly speaking, the term "ordain" refers to the act of appointing or choosing the one to be given an office, not to the sacramental (or non-sacramental) action. To say that a deaconness was ever "ordained" sacramentally is both theologically and linguistically imprecise.

So, theologically speaking, the re-institution of the office of deaconess by the Orthodox Church in Greece will not "put pressure on Rome" (as one blogger hoped) to do anything. And from an ecumenical standpoint, this will have no affect on Catholic acceptance of the validity of Orthodox Orders, because deaconesses won't be held to participate in Holy Orders.

Finally, in practical terms, this won't put much pressure on Rome to do anything, even to re-institute our own, properly-understood office of deaconess. Why? Because this was a decision enacted by just one national synod. Had the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople done this, Rome might take more notice. Rome sees Constantinople as more of a peer, and, both historically and theologically, as representing the Churches of the East.

So this news, while perhaps providing fodder to the ill-informed fantasies of some on the Catholic left, does not mean that the Orthodox are now "ahead" of the Catholic Church on the issue of women's ordination. Indeed, it doesn't signify very much of anything. That might be the answer to the question "why hasn't Rome taken more notice of this?"