THE OFFICE OF DEACONESS
Oftentimes in our Church girls wonder why they can not be ordained as deaconesses. It is hard to argue against their ability to learn and chant the hymnology of the Church (al-han) as well as the boys. In order to answer this question, as Orthodox Christians, we have to clarify the service (ministry) of the ordained deacon (male diaconate), as well as discuss the service (ministry) of the deaconess (female diaconate) and what happened to it. Additionally, we should understand the service of the laity.
We err when we associate learning the Church hymnology and singing them in Church to the deacon. Although this is one of his roles, it is certainly not the main role, nor is learning the Church’s hymnology solely limited to the deacons. In fact, the entire congregation, both males and females, should participate and respond during the Divine Liturgy or any liturgical service. Divine Liturgy means "common work of God done by the people of God". Man was created to be a doxological being, i.e. one who glorifies God. What better way to show this than during our common act of worship during the Divine Liturgy?! As the Church of Christ, our ecclesiastical life should confess the Kingdom of God on earth, which is manifested among other things in our liturgical worship. Therefore, we can not confess our faith by being passive spectators; we must confess our faith by being active participants. It is not only the deacon who should respond during the Liturgy, but we all must learn the hymns of the Church and respond .
Originally in the Church, during the Divine Liturgy, there was the celebrant priest(s), the altar deacon(s), and the congregation led in the hymns by the cantor (the mo’alem). Nowadays, the majority of the deacons are either chanters (psalters) or readers (augnostos). Neither of these ranks are ordained by the laying on of hands, but receive special prayers for blessing. The ranks of the chanter and reader are the first steps towards preparing the young men to fully understand the responsibilities of an ordained deacon, of which learning the Church’s hymnology is just one aspect. Since everyone should be chanting and participating in the Liturgy, then it really does not matter whether we are standing in the forefront wearing the deacon’s special garments of the robe and stole or whether we are standing inconspicuously unnoticed with the rest of the congregation. All the Church Fathers and Christ Himself teach us that we should never seek the first place nor the glory of being prominent. Our Christianity elevates the servant and submissive ones, not the one who wants to be prominent and distinguished. Therefore, as females we should not be bothered by the fact that we are not in the forefront; it is women who actually benefit from this arrangement since a truly Christian life must have humility and self-denial. Exercising authority is dangerous and difficult to do in a Christian way. Instead, let us learn from the Most Holy Virgin Mary to stand in humility before God and worship Him with awe and piety.
The Office of the Deaconess:
In the patristic era, there were three specific offices in the Church in which a woman could serve: deaconess, widow, and virgin. For all practical purposes, we will briefly mention the offices of widow and virgin and discuss the office of the deaconess (female diaconate) in more detail. The offices of widow and virgin were not ordained positions, but were entered by a personal vow. Their ministry consisted mostly of prayer, charitable work, and exemplification of virtuous Christian living. We still have the office of virgins, but in the form of the female monastics (nuns). Instead of living in groups in private homes, now they live in monasteries. As for the office of deaconess, they were consecrated by the bishop in a special ceremony. They were not ordained since the laying-on of hands was not involved. Their ministry included charitable work and in attending to the sick, poor, and all women and children, who needed help. They also prepared women for baptism, as well as assisted during their baptism.
In the New Testament, Phoebe, who was a disciple of St. Paul the Apostle, is considered the prototype of deaconesses. Famous deaconesses during the patristic era include St. Macrina, the older sister of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, Theosevia, and Olympia, the trusted assistant of St. John Chrysostom. These women were both pious and cultivated, capable of discussing theological problems. St. John Chrysostom describes the qualities of an ideal deaconess in the person of Olympia, whom he considers as the embodiment of an ideal deaconess, because she was full of reverence; she venerated and honored the bishops and priests. She welcomed the ascetics, and cared for the virgins and widows, as well as raised the orphans and cared for the elderly and weak women. Also, she attended to the poor with her material possessions, and catechized many unbelieving women. Additionally, she helped St. John Chrysostom and was his loyal aide to whom he wrote seventeen letters from his exile.
Service in the Holy Church:
Insights into the Church of the first several centuries can be helpful today since we must regain the thoughts of the Church Fathers. The diaconate, both for males and females, should be for the sake of loving service and not as a means of distinguishing oneself. The office of deaconess was restored in our Church by the Holy Synod, headed by H.H. Pope Shenouda III, and it is regulated by defined and specified bylaws. This was not intended as a political or theological statement for the equality of women, but because it was determined that there is a practical and definite need for it. We must remember that all of us as members of the Body of Christ, whether males or females, young or old, are called to be intimately united to our Lord Jesus Christ. This is possible only if we purify our hearts and offer to our Lord our thoughts, feelings, and acts to sanctify them. Again, this is possible only if we live the inner life of the Holy Church by being active participants. Each one of us has the potential, by God’s grace, to reach the highest goal, which is communion with Christ in this life and in the life to come in the Heavenly Jerusalem.